Cadres and Evangelists

Posted: December 20, 2012 in Politics, Religion
Tags: , , ,

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.

  1. kongming86 says:

    When I was in China, studying at Chongqing University, I slowly came to realize the important role that religious groups are carving for themselves inside Chinese educational institutions. A Chinese friend even tried to convert me (I consider myself an atheist, so to speak).
    I don’t think there is a coherent political agenda behind those groups. Still, it is undeniable that most of these groups are deeply rooted in America. That arouses some suspicion, but I’m surprised that inner CCP discourse is still as paranoic and ideological as it was fifty years ago. This cold war drama isn’t healthy business, at all.

    I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Far easter cultures and christianity. South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, China… religion has been a powerful force inside these foreign cultures, always shifting between integration and violent rebuttal.

    Movies are expecially useful in understanding how these cultures imagine and represent religion. As a movie critic (and sinologist), I noticed how Japanese movies criticize Christian influence in their society. As odd as it might sound, Chinese and Japanese cinema share a common ground in this regard, although they move from different cultural and ideological concerns.

    Visual culture-wise, religion is represented in the form of cultural virus infecting the purity of the social body (as a slight off-topic, we may open a discussion on the covert racism in China, but maybe that’s not the right place to do so).
    Priests are often depicted as “foreign agents” of some kind, who care little for Chinese people, preferring to deal with godly matters or foreign powers’interests.

    In this regard, i find Feng Xiaogang’s “1942” very interesting: it’s a very Chinese movie, but it’also a showcase for Chinese cinema in the West (it premiered in Rome last november). Its negative depiction of priests and religion – as compared with Chinese people’s strength and will to survive – reminds of Zhang Yimou’s “Flowers of War”.

    What to make out of all this? I don’t know. Perhaps all this is just a symptom of how West and East keep misunderstanding each other. Obsession with national identity tends to exoticize, isolate, negate. Too many things are conceived in terms of opposition and reciprocal suspicion, and complex matters – like the complexity of religion and faith, or man’s aspiration to understand the world and have a meaningful existence – are reduced to the dumbness of East vs. West jingoism.

  2. […] Religious groups were also described as a U.S.-backed threat in an essay which provoked fierce criticism after appearing in the overseas edition of People’s Daily in July. But discussing the leaked document on his Sinostand blog, The Economic Observer’s Eric Fish suggested that the authorities have mistaken the goals of missionary activity in China. […]

  3. Luke says:

    In regards to your previous article, “Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom”, I’m actually going to teach at that university you mentioned, NHKU! I’ve already lived in Nanchang for one year and one or two teachers have mentioned the evangelists there. I guess I’ll find out firsthand! Or at least secondhand from my students.

  4. jby says:

    I just don’t understand why people like to try to influence Asians or whichever foreign land they are in. I read news articles and watch interviews here in North America, and at times, what I hear from their mouth, the interviewers or the news, are “How can we influence them … ? How much influence do we have on ….” .
    It ain’t right !

    The evangelists… it isn’t polite to push them away, and we listen to them, just for being polite. But it seems they either brush off the subtle message or they just embolden themselves to push the border even more. That just angers everyone and when we firmly rejects, we get all sorts of negative comments. Or probably we should do the same too. Start trying to carve up a plan on how to influence others. Aren’t only conflicts can emerge ?
    Why can’t they adopt our way of doing things ? Do what you think is right. If other people sees it good / applicable, they can copy and apply our beliefs or practices to their own.

  5. Jeremy says:

    I think China is totally right to be wary of these missionaries. They are dangerous and subversive. They’re religious fundamentalists who have already screwed up America and more seriously damaged several African nations with their brand of insanity. Send them packing.

  6. dave says:

    People who volunteer as teachers in China are taking jobs away from people who need them. It’s not only the missionairies, it’s also the peace corps. I was teaching at a teacher’s college in Chongqing that employed 2 women from the American peace corps. This school was not poor in any way, in fact they built a huge 32 story hotel on the gounds of their old campus and has since built another campus outside the city. Of course the schools are going to turn a blind eye to the missionairies, they offer free employment and sometimes donations etc. But the peace corps really has to look into where they are going and don’t be a money saving tool for a rich school and take jobs away from people who need them

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  10. Five-mao brigand says:

    The CCP has been a secretive and conspiratorial organization from the beginning, and its protracted and bloody struggle to overthrow the authoritarian Nationalist party-state regime and set up its own authoritarian party-state regime in its stead only reinforced that conspiratorial tendency. So it its not surprising to see foreign religious preaching in China misperceived to the point of unintentional caricature by atheistic party-state officials as mere political subversion. Furthermore, any sizable organization that is beyond the communist party’s control has nearly always been suspect and subject to repression in all single-party Leninist regimes, not just China’s communist-run regime. This helps explain, if not excuse, the party-state’s heavy-handed suppression of the locally grown Falungong sect in the PRC.

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