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The Rise of Christianity in China

Last night, I was invited to attend a lecture by Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times on “The Rise of Christianity in China.” Sporting a catholic (pun intended) array of seemingly endless awards and honors, Mr. Anderlini’s introduction, delivered so elegantly by Mrs. Elisabeth Koch, treasurer of the Beijing International Society, was impressive to say the least. Though admittedly uninterested at first mention of a lecture on Christianity (I seemed to recall 13 years of Catholic education as being sufficient), I thought if nothing else, it would be a good excuse to get out on a nice 25ppm night (clear-ish skies, full moon, 5 or 6 stars). Before heading over to the remarkably opulent, surprisingly cozy Embassy of the Czech Republic, we stopped off at the Chaoyang Starbucks (arrived in the area 90 minutes early + the windchill was 15 degrees) and talked over college plans, Spring Festival adventures, methods of learning Chinese, etc.

Finally entered the Czech Embassy. Up until the event began, we were met by a group of two Irish men, one a missionary, one a businessman, a Frenchman who had lived in Beijing since 1996 but somehow managed to not pick up any Chinese, and an English fellow on a two-year semi-legal work contract with Mercedes Benz. We also met with Elisabeth and Albert, for whom we’re babysitting this Saturday, and a couple of 北大 students from Edinburgh.

Mr. Anderlini was born in Kuwait but grew up in New Zealand. He delivered his speech in English of course and grew more comfortable with the audience of about 50 as the lecture went on.

Only once I realized that I was listening more interestedly and intently than practically any lecture I had sat before (about 10 minutes in) did I start taking notes, so I don’t have the full picture of his lecture, but rather some sparse facts and random topics that caught my ear. First mentioned by Anderlini, after he explained the initial advent of Christianity to China via Robert Morrison and before him, Matteo Ricci, were the modern adaptations of Christianity in China. Among the most radical of these adaptations was “The Church of Almighty God” also known as “Eastern Lightning”, the “Church of the Gospel’s Kingdom”, or “a terrorist organization.” (Visit their YouTube page) This sect, similar to the Mayans, predicted coming of a great rapture that of course failed to materialize in late 2012. However, unlike the Mayans, Eastern Lightning, a “millennial Chinese Christian sect” fundamentally and combatively opposed to the “Great Red Dragon” (Chinese government), has been widely called out by human rights organizations and even Chinese authority (a, shall we say, “less reputable” human rights organization) as an institution centered around the use of brainwashing, kidnapping, torture and even murder (as in the case of the Zhaoyang McDonalds murder last year in which members of Eastern Lightning beat a woman to death, as they suspected her of being a demon, and were eventually imprisoned and some executed by the state) to “recruit” new converts… at which point I immediately began looking more favorably upon the sometimes-irksome doorbell-ringing tactics of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

An Eastern Lightning slogan reads, "只有全能神才能拯救人类,“ "Only an Omnipotent God Can Save Mankind."
An Eastern Lightning slogan reads, “只有全能神才能拯救人类,“ “Only an Omnipotent God Can Save Mankind.”

Next, Anderlini moved on to the origins of Chinese-interpreted Christianity, talking about the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (太平天国), a rebel state in the mid 1800s led by four-time imperial-exam failure and conveniently self-proclaimed “younger brother of Jesus,” Hong Xiuquan. After establishing his heavenly kingdom in Nanjing, Hong Xiuquan’s institution developed its own currency, wild, demonic adaptation of Christianity, and strict separation of genders and forbiddance of gender interactions (perhaps to increase the supply of women in the demanding market of concubine hoarding — most members of clerical nobility kept hundreds of personal concubines. Strikingly, yet not surprisingly hypocritical). However, following the bloodiest civil war in history, between the “Kingdom” and the State, in which between 20 and 30 million perished, Hong Xiuquan’s Kingdom was defeated and disestablished. Bearing similar beginnings to the modern sect Eastern Lightning, in which it is believed that an old woman “born to an ordinary family in the northern part of China” (currently living in Henan) is the second Jesus Christ, the Taiping Rebellion and Heavenly Kingdom set a precedent for pushing the envelope of government tolerance in China that would later grow to be a much more prevalent issue.

Currently, there are more Chinese Christians than Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members (100 million vs. 87 million). China, a proclaimed “secular” nation, is soon to be the most Christian nation in the world, as well as the most ideologically ironic. With Protestantism growing faster than Buddhism, the government is inevitably beginning to feel threatened. The modern party, in opposition to the non-party-affiliated religious germinations happening with increasing rapidity all across the country, has begun recycling old, anti-Nationalist, Communist propaganda with the aim of “filling societal vacuums of morality created by the instability of religious uprisings.” This propaganda, beyond contradictory, highlights the communist rule of an autocratic elite accumulating wealth while aiming to fill a national void of traditional values. It includes depictions of Wang Jinxi (also known in 1960s China as “Iron Man”), a “national labor model,” and Lei Feng, a “selfless follower of Mao” and posthumous icon for model citizenship and party support.

But why is Protestantism so popular in China? According to Anderlini, China’s relationship with religion is one of supply and demand. Like any adaptation of Western culture into Chinese society, Protestantism appeals to the market of Chinese looking to feel more international, more globally connected. Unlike Catholicism, which is based more on clerical authority, in Protestantism, anyone anywhere can start a church. As Anderlini put it, pointing to audience members at random, “You, you, you and me. There’s a Church.” Although these differences between the denominations are important, the Chinese have come up with even more imaginative reasoning for siding with Protestantism over Catholicism, such as “sobriety and celibacy just aren’t ‘Chinese.’”

Since Chinese Protestants can literally found churches from anyone’s basement, the government widely regards non-state-recognized groups of the denomination as terrorist cells. No official religious establishment or place of worship in China is without a multitude of cameras, typically facing not only the entrance (to monitor the types of people in the congregation), but also the pulpit, recording and relaying a live-stream straight to the local police station for translation and review. Beginning in Zhejiang in 1950, a government pilot program designed to rein in religion in China drove Christianity underground. Last April, again in Zhejiang, the Chinese government continued its 50s campaign to curtail the propagation of traditional Christianity and pilot their new pseudo-Christian sect in Wenzhou, considered the “Jerusalem of the East.” While the local government ascribes the demolition of Wenzhou’s most famous Protestant Cathedral to the violation of building codes and laws, the latent aim of the campaign is scheming: to cite the local and provincial reactions to the religious trial-run before launching it on a national level.

As quoted in Mr. Anderlini’s lecture, a Chinese proponent of religious freedom of expression and underground religious activist explained, “China has become wealthier but lacks sustenance of the soul. We have food to eat and clothes to wear but we want dignity… cultural and spiritual nourishment.” (Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological needs are fundamental to human survival, but once these criteria are met, humans crave “self-transcendence”).

Inserting a few anecdotes throughout the lecture, Mr. Anderlini cited his favorite example of convoluted religious modernization: the chain-smoking, film-script-writing, fortune-telling, “morally devoid,” construction tycoon Buddhist master who runs his wife’s most frequented place of worship. Upon first meeting the Buddhist, Mr. Anderlini recalls having his mind “read” and being given strict financial advise to immediately begin mass-purchasing start-up “bullshit” stocks. The overseer of an operation that erected the largest Sleeping Buddha in Southern China, the master invited Mr. Anderlini and his wife to attend the site’s formal inauguration, hosting a crowd which, as we were informed, was teeming with government spies. The ceremony kicked off with a traditional ode to the sovereignty of the CCP. Wait what? Does it seem strange for a Buddhist (mostly independent, bordering separatist in some cases) monument to be interrelated with the ruling power? Not exactly. As we learned from Mr. Anderlini’s exquisite explanation describing the underlying interconnection of Chinese “church and state,” religious (Buddhist specifically) practice is not only publicly bowing to the man, but has been a support for the establishment for the last 700 years, particularly in cases of fighting the influence of Western cultural and religious influx. Through the vehicle of government-run, “controllable” Buddhism, the Communist Party’s response to the unprecedented rise of Christianity in China is simple: do what we tell you; practice Confucianism, Daoism, ‘obedient Buddhism,’ or even Christianity (Chinese Christianity, that is… another semblance of the State Administration for Religious Affairs); but by god you will obey.

Amity Foundation, a government-approved NGO and unrivaled charity giant, is a volunteer organization founded in 1985 by Christians and fronts one of the largest bible production factories in the world, located in Nanjing. Mass-producing millions of Bibles per year, Amity works in complete concert with national and local governments, using donations to fund nation-wide relief projects for the poor or environmentally-affected. In the U.S., as the religious situation in China is severely misinterpreted, many are still under the false impression that, similar to the case in North Korea, the Bible is still banned from China, and take it upon themselves to smuggle Bibles (almost certainly made in Nanjing, then exported to foreign countries where they were picked up by these champions of Western ignorance) back into “heathen” China. From Hong Xiuquan to Eastern Lightning, the Chinese government has long known that it cannot curb the spring of these restive religious factions taking root in China’s rural boondocks. After all, it’s nearly impossible to control the beliefs of an entire people (unless of course you’re Falungong; then they just “torture the dogma out of you”). While proselytizing is officially illegal in China, Amity’s missionaries “don’t come with bread and bible in hand,” but rather with good works and demonstration of religious values through positive action. Religious proclamation may be illegal, but this only means that missionaries and volunteers cannot explain their faith outright; if asked by locals, Amity volunteers may avow their religious identities.

While president Xi Jinping has formally citied the “organization of Christianity as undermining the Communist Party in the fall of Soviet Union,” the government knows it will never be able to exercise total supremacy over China’s 100,000,000 Christians. However, inability to monopolize has never stopped the imperial giant from navigating alternate, more surreptitious routes to benefit from its opponents. What the party really wants is both simple and brilliant: a Chinese, communist theology; force Christianity to do the bidding of the state.

What does the Chinese government really fear about Christianity? Is it the multicolored robes? The incense? The ashes on the forehead? What it truly fears are the types of people converting to Christianity. The government abhors any organization that doesn’t answer directly to the state. In the 1980s following China’s lifting of the ban on religion, eighty percent of converts to Christianity were old, poor, rural, and female. However, new converts to the faith are exactly the people the ruling faction needs to stay in power: young, politically inclined, and able to be manipulated. Each convert to Christianity is but another lost convert to the national agenda.

Now portraying the early Chinese Christians as anti-feudalist predecessors of the Communists, commending the efforts of Hong Xiuquan’s revolution in Nanjing’s Taiping Rebellion museum, the government is aiming to take religion out of the equation and shed the history of religious uprising in China in a completely new light to the common people. Mentioning religion (the foundation of Hong’s Kingdom) but once in its entire exhibit, the Taiping Rebellion museum stands an emblem to a government’s near-infinite capacity for historical and contextual manipulation.

The comparative versatility of Protestantism, as noted earlier in the report, allows for a myriad of heterodox interpretations of Christian doctrine. These range from radical reconstruction of the Stations of the Cross (in which some churches adopt a traditional Chinese precept of pragmatism and explain the rolling away of Jesus’ tombstone as the effect of an earthquake, or Mary Magdalene’s vision of the risen Jesus as a “menstrual hallucination”) to pictures of Communist God and Jesus surrounded by Chinese cherubs. From portraits of Macanese Mary and Jesus to Last Supper depictions of Jesus and Xinjiang-looking Judas breaking bread around a lazy Susan with chopsticks. Really.

施洗约翰在约旦河给耶稣施洗
施洗约翰在约旦河给耶稣施洗。 John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan.

While it is improbable that China will suppress its religious epidemic, Beijing aims to slow the rate of conversion to traditional Christianity and convert more to the government-organized sect through the incarceration of the openly religious and the demolition of prominent sites. In some cases, however, this tactic has an opposite effect. Some more radical groups actually welcome persecution by the state, viewing it as strengthening, inciting, and even martyr-like.

My thoughts on some parts of the lecture? Mr. Anderlini mentioned the Chinese government’s unveiling their own adaptation of Christianity and even touched in part on Chinese missionaries being sent out to countries in Africa. While it’s certainly always had the win of global influence in mind, China has never been the type to roll out military or “hard” power expansionist tactics in order to grow their international sway. This new government-based idea of employing Christianity and deploying missionaries seems like a fantastic opportunity to enact “soft power,” embedding new ideologies in the infrastructure of structurally vulnerable or religiously developing countries.

In conclusion, Anderlini spoke of the McKinsey Reports, a plan proposed to the Chinese government regarding the long-term stability of the CCP. The plan suggested the legalization of drugs, prostitution, and institutional religion as ways to “keep the general public in the dark, happy, and distracted” while the government acts. The reports prompted officials to begin thinking about the political socialization and development of a new generation of Chinese. They realized that people without religion begin acting more politically and involve themselves more in social activism. Anderlini concluded his lecture, “But as far as China (nominally atheist) ever declaring Christianity an official religion? Never. Religion in China will forever be tied to too much imperial and historical baggage.”

Read Jamil Anderlini’s full article in the Financial Times