Posts Tagged ‘christianity’

Yesterday I read about a recently leaked government directive from 2011 concisely titled “Suggestions for doing a good job of resisting foreign use of religion to infiltrate institutes of higher education and to prevent campus evangelism.”

Washington Post did a great piece on the directive and the context, but I’d recommend also reading the full document. Basically, the government is concerned about Christian missionaries evangelizing on Chinese college campuses.

“Foreign hostile forces have put even greater emphasis on using religion to infiltrate China to carry out their political plot to westernize and divide China,” the document says. “Under the guise of donating funds for education, academic exchanges, studying and teaching in China, extracurricular activities, training, student aid, etc., they ‘market’ their political ideas and values, roping students into becoming religious believers.”

In a nutshell, the second part of that statement is fairly accurate, and the first part is fairly scary. A few months ago I did a piece on foreign evangelists who use English teaching as a means to enter China and proselytize. While researching, I spoke with nearly three dozen people including missionaries, their co-workers and students. I’d also previously encountered these kinds of evangelists personally while teaching.

As the document suggests, there are indeed thousands of these people in China; many of whom conduct activities that would raise legal issues even in Western democracies. I heard stories of teachers requiring students to attend Bible studies in order to pass their class. Many used Christian teaching materials and held English classes based on Biblical themes. I even heard about a teacher requiring his students to put on a play about the seven deadly sins that featured Jesus lugging a crucifix.

But a few things jumped out at me from this document. The first was how the government still fundamentally misunderstands what motivates Christian missionaries. To some degree, this is understandable. Chinese officials tend to be pragmatic worldly people with little exposure to religion. The idea that someone would spend so much time and resources changing others’ beliefs for no tangible reason makes no sense. That these missionaries feel duty-bound to a supernatural deity and believe they’re literally saving their converts just doesn’t register. Clearly, there must be some devious political agenda beneath that pious surface.

There are indeed those like Bob Fu who have explicit regime-change goals, but they seem to be a small minority. Most seem to consciously avoid even mentioning politics. They may expend disproportionate effort on students with political ambitions, but this is more in hopes of getting religious policy relaxed, not overthrowing the entire system.

The second thing that jumped out was how the government still so fundamentally misunderstands youth that might be inclined to convert. The document gives prescriptions for dealing with them, saying:

“Adhere to using the theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics to arm students’ minds. Extensively launch activities for the study, teaching, publicizing and popularization of core socialist values. Strengthen propaganda for and education in Marxist views on religion, the Party’s principles and policies for education work, and the relevant laws and regulations of the state.”

If you’re a standard human, you probably barely made it through that paragraph without falling asleep. And that’s just a small taste of the years of Marxist and political education Chinese students are required to take. The thing is, many of the young Christian converts I spoke to specifically cited the emphasis on empty Marxist dogma as something that pushed them to explore religion. So using Marxism to combat evangelism is like using a Ben Stein lecture to convince a kid he should go to school instead of play video games.

But for all the document got wrong about motivations, it did seem to have a firm grasp on the methods missionaries tend to use and where universities go wrong.

It tells schools to offer intriguing activities for students and provide mental health services. It says advisors should hold “extensive heart-to-heart talks” with students, help “guide their emotions” and “dispel confusion.” By doing these things, they won’t be so inclined to “cozy up” to foreign missionaries (who tend to be much better at offering emotional and academic support than the schools).

It then goes on to suggest strategically planning recreational and academic events during religious holidays. Indeed, Christmas and Easter are high season for conversion. Christmas is a perfect opportunity to talk Jesus. And in one case I found, a foreign teacher invited students over to watch an “Easter movie” that turned out to be The Passion of Christ.

It warns of academic exchanges organized by Christian groups. Some of these are set up to get Chinese students overseas for conversion, then returned to spread the gospel at home. Meanwhile, foreign missionary students are the exchanges that come to Chinese schools.

After previously thinking central government leaders were simply clueless about these things, I was surprised to see how much they seem to be aware of. But one thing that struck me while researching this story was that, in spite of China’s inhospitable stance on religion, these things tend to be tolerated even more here than they would be in the West at the local level. And the document seems to tacitly acknowledge that.

It says, “If serious problems arise because responsibilities were not performed or work is not properly done, you shall seriously investigate and look into the matters and call to account the responsible members and relevant leaders.”

The whole document repeatedly admonishes administrators to get off their butts and actively fight off foreign missionaries. The language was very similar to the routine pleas for corrupt officials to get clean. This, I think, is because this issue, like corruption, has a rather large gulf between central government goals and local cadre interests. And it may actually involve corruption.

The way many of these missionary teachers work is through larger organizations or churches based overseas. Working with donations, they take salaries from the schools that are a fraction of what independent teachers would be paid. In addition, they’ll sometimes donate teaching materials, student scholarships and outright cash aid to schools. Two sources I spoke with reported that one organization they know of even sponsors trips to the US for high university and local education officials. The organization wouldn’t confirm or deny this.

Then miraculously, when students or other teachers complain about proselytism to lower administrators, there doesn’t tend to be much action. Whatever vague national threats these “infiltrators” present are subservient to more tangible local interests.

Going beyond just the issue of evangelism though, the document also basically proved something I’ve started to realize in recent months, but have had a hard time fully accepting. It’s that the idea of “the US-led Western countries” conspiring to use things like religion to “infiltrate” China so they can “westernize and divide it” isn’t just jingoistic propaganda used for political ends. This is something that A LOT of people in China’s government seem to actually believe.

This document was issued by the United Front Department (a branch of the powerful Central Committee) and given only to senior officials. They were then to communicate it orally to their subordinates in order to hedge against the document being leaked. In other words, this wasn’t propaganda intended for the masses. It was an internal Party memo. That the same jingoistic language you’d see in Global Times was used here shows that the Party actually believes its conspiratorial fear-mongering, and that’s kind of scary.

This week we’ve looked Christianity’s potential in China to provide morality, work ethic, and possibly an opiate to keep people working through exploitation. The Chinese government has noticed these things and many within the party seem keen to enjoy the benefits of Christianity. So they’re doing what they know how to do best: Throw money at it.

The government is approving, funding, or outright building churches across the country. Party leaders are more than happy to let you worship…as long as it’s at one of their churches. Lest any religious organization go off the grid and pull a Falun Gong or Taiping, no church is allowed to operate without approval and constant oversight. So as a matter of logistics, official churches tend to be few in number and large in size.

Several months ago I went into one of these churches in Anhui. Sure enough it was magnificent. It was six stories high, capable of holding thousands of worshippers and the interior resembled a European cathedral. But I was less impressed once the service started. The sermon was boring, people went through the motions, sang a bit and left. And I’d guess about 90% of the churchgoers were over 60 years old. It’s the kind of place I’d go just to fulfill a religious obligation.

A few weeks later in Beijing, I met a Chinese girl in her late 20’s in an elevator. After some small talk, she pulled out a card with directions to her church and invited me to check it out. I asked if I was welcome given that I’m an atheist, and even worse, a journalist. She laughed and replied, “Then you should definitely come.”

Her church was in fact a little studio apartment in Beijing’s Zhongguancun district – a stone’s throw from where several Shouwang Church Evangelicals were arrested last year. And like the Shouwang church, this one was technically illegal.

About 25 people showed up, almost all in their 20’s or 30’s. They sat in rows before a pulpit where the preacher, Brother Xing, pounded on the podium and yelled throughout his sermon. He was a firebrand that would never get approval to preside over an official church. But for the young adults accustomed to hearing docile scripted speeches from school and government officials, he was an inspiration. They swayed back and forth as they sang hymns while some occasionally started tearing up.

At the end several people stood up to give testimonies about how faith was helping them through their lives. As they all stuck around for socializing afterwards, it became obvious why most choose this over official churches – where spontaneity is barred and sermons must be pre-approved.

The party sees the value in developing religion, but like it does with film, art, education, and just about everything else, it thinks money is a substitute for freedom. In its insistence on maintaining complete oversight and control, it neuters the institution and ensures the full benefits aren’t reaped.

There are of course risks with religion’s spread other than threatening the party’s rule. With religious freedom, there’s always the potential for cults to emerge. But current circumstances hardly protect against that. In fact, by forcing these churches underground the government just gives cult leaders the perfect excuse to keep congregations in the shadows.

Then there’s good old fashioned dogma. I once met some Chinese Christians who’d done Bible study with American missionaries. They spewed bile about the sin of homosexuality and the need to take evolution education out of schools. It yanked me right back to the worst of what I thought I’d left behind in Kansas. With the success of any religion comes the chance that its influence will lead to social and scientific regression.

But the government has more pressing issues.  An increasing eat-or-be-eaten mentality in an overall system of corruption undermines the country’s ability to sustain itself though development. The political risks of religious liberalization pale next to the potential. I’ve noticed (and the experts I’ve spoken with have agreed) that Chinese Christians seem mostly disinterested in politics with the exception of one issue: Religious freedom. They just want to worship how they want without being bothered. Then they’ll have peace of mind.

 

Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

 

One of the biggest misconceptions about China is that it’s given up on socialism in all but name – that by embracing capitalism, the Communist Party has tossed aside Marx, only invoking his name as lip-service to the CCP’s revolutionary roots. In fact, socialism is still the goal. It’s simply the next step on Marx’s stages of development, which consists of:

  1. Primitive Communism
  2. Slave Society
  3. Feudalism
  4. Capitalism
  5. Socialism
  6. Communism

Marx devoted a lot of ink to the 4th stage, where he said capitalist oppressors exploit the underclass and use religion as an “opiate” to keep them content with their repression. Eventually when stage 5 arrives, equality will make religion obsolete.

In 1949, China was more-or-less at stage 3. Mao thought he could just make a “Great Leap” to stage 5 by enforcing the tenants of a socialist society with an authoritarian hand. This included wiping out religion. The next 30 years under this policy were unsuccessful to put it mildly.

Eventually though, Deng Xiaoping came to power and acknowledged that stage 4 is kind of important. So along with a capitalist economy, he accepted religion with the expectation that it would gradually die out on its own through the natural progression of Marxism.

Fast forward 33 years to now and China is living through the worst of the capitalist excesses Marx wrote about. Recent stories on Foxconn have illustrated that, in spite of some improvements in recent years, China’s workers still endure conditions deplorable by western standards. Last month, Elizabeth Economy also revealed statistics that show how the land grab epidemic and exploitation of farmers is getting worse. And last week, Bloomberg highlighted China’s mammoth wealth inequality and marriage of money and politics. Their report said that the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress have a combined $89.8 billion. This compares to $7.5 billion for all 660 top officials in the U.S. government.

When faced with such problems, there’s one thing people around the world tend to turn to: Prayer. To see an extreme example of the power of faith during times of exploitation, we can look back to American and European slavery.  By the time the American Civil War came, the slave population was almost entirely Christian. Masters encouraged this because it gave slaves hope for the next world. With the promise of heavenly reward for hard faithful work, inclinations to seek freedom in Earthly life were subdued.

In one form or another, exploitation continued through the industrial revolution as the lower class created capital that mostly went to the upper class. But then the West eventually reached “development.” Some governments have even stepped in and made healthcare and education universally obtainable, which has helped push down wealth inequality. Several western countries are now moving toward what some might consider socialism through these policies. And a funny thing is happening: Religion is shrinking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Scandinavia.

Those countries have pushed down wealth inequality to the lowest levels in the world, while per-capita wealth and happiness are among the highest. These countries also now happen to be the least religious.

Marxism is lacking in many areas, but it may not be as discredited as previously thought. Pitzer College sociology associate professor Phil Zuckerman has done research that compares religiosity and societal health. His findings show that countries with higher levels of organic atheism do indeed correlate with better indicators of a healthy society. I asked Zuckerman how this fits with Marx’s theory of religion and development.

“Research does support Marx,” he said, regarding religion. “At least to the extent that we know that societies that are ‘secure’ — people have enough to eat, somewhere to live, access to education, health care, and they live in free, open democracies (unlike China!) — such societies tend to be less religious. Conversely, societies that are poor, chaotic, wracked with warfare, instability, etc. — these societies tend to be more religious.”

Whether it’s Weber’s work ethic, Marx’s opiate, or a little of both, data suggests religion plays a role in developing societies and allowing the accumulation of capital. But then affluence, education and equality largely make the supernatural aspect obsolete. So when talking about morality or social effects, secular countries like China – where atheism has been forced from above – are a world apart from secular countries like Sweden. Sweden may be secular now, but it did develop under a religious moral framework.

Nobody can yet say whether the religious work ethicmoral framework or “opiate” are absolutely necessary for China to develop to the level of Western countries, or if Confucianism will be able to pick up the slack. But the developed club is so far overwhelmingly made up of countries that have gone through periods of majority religious populations.

The Chinese government isn’t blind to this. Many in the still-very-authoritarian Communist Party see the potential for religion and want to guide its development…on their terms. But, as Zuckerman pointed out, China’s capitalism is still missing one key ingredient from Marx’s scheme: Democracy. Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at how that’s affecting the potential of religion in China.

 

Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

The new Christians

Posted: March 6, 2012 in Religion
Tags: , , ,

For Chu Zhen, all it took to spark his interest in Christianity was the movie Forrest Gump. The 21-year-old Nanjing college student was struck by a scene where Gump recounted his trip to China on The Dick Cavett Show. Another guest, John Lennon, found it hard to “imagine” that the Chinese don’t practice religion. “We don’t understand why Americans are surprised that Chinese don’t have faith,” Chu said. “We think that that’s very normal.”

Chu started going to church and Bible studies around campus out of curiosity. Within a few weeks, he was a full-fledged Christian. But if Forrest Gump hadn’t nudged over that first domino for Chu, something else almost certainly would have.  He said that before he found peace of mind in his church community, he was a misfit and heading in a dangerous direction. “I used to be aggressive,” he said. “I did a lot of bad things…to my friends, parents, and people who care about me. At that time I just wanted to find a belief.”

When China’s markets were opened in 1978, the socialist economic system started to break down, and with it went the socialist moral framework. The idea of striving for Communism and putting the needs of the masses ahead of personnel interests started to fall by the wayside. Role models like Lei Feng that embodied this spirit gave way to the Steve Jobs’ of the world.

These days, young people like Chu Zhen often feel conflicted about where their responsibilities lie. On one hand they’re still taught to serve the motherland and be honest altruistic citizens, but on the other they see people becoming highly revered in society for getting rich – even if it’s through less than honest means. And as a young man Chu Zhen has the difficult task of attracting a wife and finding ways to fulfill his filial obligation to support his family. Doing what’s “right” isn’t a clear choice.

“In sociology we have a term called ‘anomie’ when many people in society feel kind of lost and don’t know what to do,” said Purdue Professor Fenggang Yang, author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule. “Many people felt lost in this market transition. But then they somehow ended up at a church and realized Christianity provides a clear set of values and moral standards, and that it’s good living a life where you know what you should do and shouldn’t do.”

Besides socialist ideology, Chinese have also traditionally looked to Confucius for guidance. But that too is often lacking in today’s China.  Confucianism consists of several hierarchical relationships. Fei Xiaotong, a Chinese sociologist and anthropologist, described relationships in China as the surface of a lake after a rock has been thrown in. The distance of each circle from the center represents social and emotional distance. Blood connections are closest, followed loosely by hometown people and then those with a similar social identity (rich, poor, urban, rural, white-collar, blue-collar, etc.). [1] The further someone is outside your circles, the more they’re seen as a tool to benefit those within; or simply disregarded.

Christianity, however, introduces a concept largely absent in today’s China: Loving strangers. Naomi, a 22-year-old student from Chonqing, was led to conversion through this route. She’s the youngest of three children in a family that didn’t always take the time to show their love. Her father has unspecified “problems” and her mother is constantly worrying about him. Her sister only completed middle-school before later getting married off and having a baby. “She just lives for her family,” Naomi said, as tears started rolling down her cheek. “And my brother isn’t good at communicating with others.”

When Naomi went to college she started spending time with some Christians from Singapore and Hong Kong who were on the same scholarship as her. “They were so kind,” she said. “They came to Nanjing to see me and have dinner with me. They really care for me.” She started going to church with them and remembers that it took exactly six visits before she declared herself Christian.

On an average day, an estimated 10,000 Chinese will follow in converting to Christianity. In a transitioning society with a unique hybrid of authoritarianism and capitalism, the reasons are many. And unlike the local religions of Buddhism and Taoism, Christianity has the benefit of being western and trendy.

In fact, several Chinese converts reported being told by European or American missionaries who converted them that the West owes its success to Christianity. And if China hopes to duplicate that success, it too must embrace the religion. This bold claim invites scoffs from the not-devoutly-Christian, but there may indeed be some truth to it.

Tomorrow we’ll look at how.

 

Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity


[1] Wielander, Gerda. (2011). Beyond Repression and Resistance – Christian Love and China’s Harmonious Society. The China Journal. 65 (1), 119-139

Today marks “Learn from Lei Feng Day” in China, where citizens are reminded to follow the lessons of the young soldier who selflessly served the motherland through good deeds to strangers in the early 1960’s. This year the holiday seems to be receiving special attention. A slew of Lei Feng publications have been commissioned, which China Daily proclaimed will boost altruism. And CCTV has been airing several pieces on modern Lei Fengs, like Chinese workers in Africa.

Yesterday, one of these segments caught my eye about a “foreign Lei Feng. ” An American in his 40’s named David is teaching in rural Gansu and has been living in poor areas around China for the better part of two decades. The segment said that after getting hired at one school, David asked to be paid 1,000 yuan less each month so that his salary was the same as the Chinese teachers.

I dug a bit deeper and found David has been the subject of other TV segments celebrating his Lei Feng-ness. He wears shoes with holes in them, only has a backpack’s worth of worldly possessions, and during an interview when he was asked how much he usually scores during basketball games (he’s quite tall), he replied, “I don’t score very much. I just like to pass to other people. Watching them score makes me happy.”

And if the parallels to Lei Feng still aren’t obvious enough, David also hangs a Chinese flag wherever he lives and the “interests” portion of his résumé says “serving the people.”

David’s image seems almost cartoonishly contrived, but still, there’s no faking living in one of China’s poorest areas for over a decade for basically nothing. David’s M.O. seemed a bit familiar, so I dug even deeper on Google and sure enough, I found what was absent (almost certainly on purpose) from the CCTV bit: David is a devout Christian. One former student even blogged about how he and several others had been led to Christianity by David.

This is where Lei Feng and David are a world apart. Lei Feng’s legend says that he did his good deeds for the good of the nation. He praised the efforts of Mao and the party and helped others so that China may ultimately achieve Communism. But expecting people to sacrifice so much for nothing in return is why “learning from Lei Feng” is ultimately just as doomed to irrelevance as Communism itself.

But as David’s converts prove, religion has much more potential to make a splash. While on the surface people like David seem just like Lei Feng, they actually get something big in return for their sacrifices. They get the promise of heavenly reward from a higher power who’s always watching. And unlike socialist ideology, their scripture won’t easily be discredited by political or economic shifts.

Tomorrow, we’ll look deeper at Christianity’s potential in China and why so many young people are converting.

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

For those who haven’t heard of the horrific incident in Foshan, here’s a link with a video that will absolutely ruin your day and faith in humanity. It shows a two-year old girl getting run over TWICE and ignored by 18 bystanders. She’s not expected to live.

It’s hard to say how much of the bystanders’ ambivalence was universal human psychology and how much can be attributed to distinctly Chinese characteristics, but it’s becoming harder to downplay the latter. This is just the latest in a string of despicable stories to come out of China in recent years.  Consider these, some of which are just one instance of recurring events:

This list, unfortunately, isn’t even close to being exhaustive. It would be very tenuous to connect these all directly to any single factor, as most regard fear of legal liability as the main culprit in the Foshan story, for example, while the one-child policy is oft-cited for the child-trafficking problem. And of course, these things happen in other countries too, but their sheer scale and consistency in China is hard to write off, as many Chinese themselves have noted. There could be one thing at least partially contributing to all of this:

Hell.

Or rather, a lack of it.

I’m a devout atheist and tend to think dogmatic religion plays a largely negative role in society, but I can’t count the number of times in China I’ve shaken my head and wished more people believed in hell.

In any collectivist society, shame among peers tends to have much more influence than internal guilt. So if it’s unlikely that they’ll be caught, punished and shamed, people have less incentive to refrain from despicable actions. There’s even a Chinese proverb alluding to the idea saying “Neng pian jiu pian” (If you’re able to cheat, just cheat). You can couple this with the moral void that’s been left in the wake of socialism’s demise and the tunnel vision focus on money that emerged in the 1990’s.

The idea of hell as a means to keep people honest might be pretty intuitive (if not a bit Machiavellian) but University of British Colombia psychologist Ara Norenzayan published a study entitled Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. He gave subjects a math test they could easily cheat on and those who believed in a vengeful god typically chose not to cheat. “Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counter-normative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring,” the study said.

Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and Harvard have also separately found a correlation between belief in hell and lower levels of corruption and higher economic growth.

According to the Boston Globe, “[Harvard researchers Barro and McCleary ] collected data from 59 countries where a majority of the population followed one of the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.[...] Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other.”

“The expectation that there is a cultural belief in hell or perpetual and eternal punishment for wrongdoing will act as a disincentive to wrongdoing,” Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, told USA Today.

The Chinese Communist Party has traditionally held a less than hospitable attitude toward religion and regarded the Marxist view that it’s “the opiate of the masses” as a bad thing. But there are signs they’re starting to see the (again, perhaps Machiavellian) advantages to the opiate concept. This seems especially true with Christianity, given its belief in hell and less potential for the political complications associated with Islam in China.

In Nanjing the government has built a 5,000 seat mega church and given other funding to help boost Christianity. In the manufacturing hub of Wenzhou, where it’s estimated as much as 20% of the population is Christian, the government is starting to seriously study the link between Christian enterprises and economic success. One Christian factory owner told BBC, “I’m not saying those people who aren’t Christians are all bad, but from the percentage of the workers who are Christians, they seem to be more responsible. Also when they do things wrong, they feel guilty – that’s the difference.”

During the Mao-era, throwing the doors open to religion would have been unthinkable. Communism was the religion and Mao its god. Any other faith would have been competition. But now, with the death of religious socialism, supernatural religion’s spread is inevitable and SOME in the now strictly utilitarian Party seem to be recognizing that that might be in their best interest.

For many of China’s tens of millions of religious followers, the repression of their faith itself is the biggest grievance with the Party. Standing aside or even assisting religion would likely pay the government far greater dividends than holding the Maoist religion-as-a-threat attitude. It seems it could also have very real economic and socially-stabilizing benefits.

In a 2006 interview with Reuters, Li Junru, deputy head of the Communist Party School  made a very telling statement. When asked why India can handle democracy while China needs an authoritarian government, he explained that India has religion to control the people.

One has to imagine the Communist Party sees the appeal of biblical verses like Hebrews 13:17, which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”