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China's Next Great Leap

From the September 30, 2002 Dallas Morning News: China may be on its way to becoming a Christian nation.

12:00 AM, Oct 1, 2002 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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DAVID AIKMAN is back from three months in China, having taken more than 800 pages of notes, and he reports a religious awakening that could have enormous political implications.

For 23 years the senior foreign correspondent for Time, Aikman has reported all the big international stories of our time. He is an accomplished journalist, the author of a 1998 book containing compelling biographies of Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul, among others. He is also the unusual journalist, interested as he is in the role of religion in a given country.

Aikman went to China to discern the state of Christianity there and its impact upon that Communist, and officially atheist, nation. Aikman now will write a book that will not lack for remarkable stories.

At a recent luncheon held by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., Aikman related his bold conclusion: In a few decades China will be a Christian nation.

Aikman cites numbers: In 1949, when the People's Republic of China was established, not quite 4 million of 450 million Chinese were Christians. Today, the population is 1.3 billion; Christians are an estimated 80 million, most of them Protestants. At those rates of growth, he says, in a few decades 40 percent of the population will be Christian.

Aikman observes that there need not be a majority Christian population for Christian principles to affect China. Thirty percent or so, he says, would suffice. That is so, he explains, because Christianity has spread well beyond rural China to the biggest cities, it is a seriously held faith, and it is increasingly the faith of young people with evident prospects for societal influence, sons and daughters of prominent establishment figures including government officials.

Aikman is persuaded on those points because of what he saw firsthand. Based in Hong Kong, he traveled on a visa that allowed him multiple entries. Working with contacts old and new, he says he reached "places I didn't know existed." Nor, he says, does the government.

He describes his visit to a large, gated compound in Beijing, the capital. Known to its neighbors as a school where English is taught, it is in fact a Christian music conservatory. Aikman met 50 students from 19 provinces, all of them worship leaders in "house churches."

House churches are ones not registered with the state. But most are known to authorities. They tend to be tolerated, says Aikman, so long as they don't develop their own cadre of evangelists, people who would spread their faith. The Beijing conservatory would obviously interest the authorities. "Amazingly," says Aikman, they haven't discovered it.

Aikman reports other "undiscovered" teaching institutions, including an urban seminary offering biblical studies, church history and theology. One school, located on the side of a bamboo-forested mountain, exists thanks to the beneficence of nearby villagers who pay the bills.

Such institutions contemplate evangelism within China but also abroad. Aikman reports the belief of many Chinese Christians that they have been called to spread their faith to Muslims. There is talk of sending as many as 100,000 missionaries to the Middle East.

Public indications of Christian faith are now more evident in China, says Aikman, who reports large red crosses on buildings in one city. In another city, at a hotel, he heard the tunes of "Amazing Grace" and "I Am the Bread of Life" being played by the hotel's pianist. He greeted her, and learned she was a recent Catholic convert.

Aikman doesn't deny religious persecution, the subject of numerous reports by human-rights observers. And he is aware that Christianity has yet to assert itself publicly against a political system that it cannot fail to oppose, inasmuch as that system denies what Christianity teaches: the inviolable dignity of each human person.

Still, Aikman expects that in due season that assertion will occur. And when it does, China will no longer deny religious freedom, he says, but embrace it and be well on the way to "regime change," from a totalitarian to a liberal society.

Chinese Communist Party leaders do understand the democratizing force of Christianity, having witnessed the role of Christian churches in the downfall of communism in Poland. Consequently, there has been talk in party circles of "strangling the baby while it is still in the manger." Aikman's report suggests that Christianity in China, being well past its infancy, may not be so easy to strangle. To the contrary, it may well be maturing in such a fashion as to bring about truly historic change.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.