China: waiting for God

Mao is no longer an idol, but the government fears a replacement.

by Diana Fu

Treading through a crooked stone-paved Qing Dynasty street in a Chinese town, I stumble upon a small hut. Inside, tiny wooden benches lie in rows, awaiting ghosts. In the dim light, I barely make out a row of collapsed calligraphy in the front of the room: “hallelujah,” it read in Chinese. I was standing in a Qing Dynasty Christian church.

Two weeks later, I met a musician at a local Beijing bar who whispered to me that he taught choir at a state-governed church during the day. He was a new Christian.

Today, the number of Christians in China is climbing steadily. The Chinese government is increasingly nervous. Mao Zedong is no longer an idol, but the government fears a replacement. Their nightmare is a troop of new Christians marching on Tiananmen Square, erecting their own statue of liberty, like the students did in June 1989. Does this picture seem ridiculous? I think so.

The Communist Party, paranoid of any ripple of instability ever since the Tiananmen incident, needs to cool its heels. The spread of religion in China is only going to raise social stability, not destroy it.

Currently, the only churches in operation are those that stick closely to the party line. The preaching is censored, much like most other forms of communication in China. The current of true believers gathers in underground home churches. I attended an underground university fellowship and was overwhelmed by what I saw.

These youths are not like the other Chinese university students, who are either studying furiously to pass the TOEFL test in order to study in the United States or are jaded by the pathetic job prospects after graduation.

This group of students has a vision that extends beyond the narrow realm of personal achievement. They entertain a hope for a freer university environment, a more caring social network and personal sacrifice. One of these students gave up a full scholarship to study in the United States to do campus ministering secretively.

In an environment where the creme de la creme students are fleeing their homeland in search for more lucrative opportunities abroad, those educated youths who stay to contribute their talents to social welfare in China are in the minority.

The Chinese government would do well to let a wave of religious communities shoulder a part of the heavy burden of social welfare work. In fact, in the emerging non profit sector, there are already overlaps between religion and social work. For instance, a reverend sits on the board of directors of the Shanghai NPO (nonprofit organization) network. Its Harvard-educated founder first gained her footing with a Christian group in China.

The Chinese government will see a lot more social stability if it lets religious communities flourish. Ever since the collapse of Zedong as God, people are searching for a spiritual leader. From students, to migrant workers, to professionals, China is full of displaced peoples searching for a higher meaning to their existences. Cracking down on peaceful religious gatherings is not the way to go.

An immigration officer lectured us “foreign” students on how to get along without becoming a criminal in China. One can worship on his or her own, but cannot distribute any materials on campus. One cannot preach in a public area. One cannot minister to Chinese students. Mr. Officer was solemn-faced. “You are in China. Here, you follow the Chinese way.” To me, this was the formula for the Communist Party’s own demise.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at [email protected].