The day after Long Cai Bin was baptized, an earthquake destroyed his hometown. But it might have opened his country to his faith.

On May 12, 2008, Long was sitting outside his door in Beichuan, a city in China’s Sichuan Province, when his chair began to shake. The ground shook with it, and people started fleeing the surrounding buildings. When they saw Long, they were attracted by his calmness, and they clung to him, looking for guidance.

“My first thinking was to help people,” Long says. “And my second was to ask God for help.”

Long had become a Christian after being drawn to the love and friendship demonstrated by Beichuan’s Protestants. As the disaster struck, he had his first important chance to emulate them. Long led his terrified neighbors to safety, taking them to the nearby riverbank, where the land was flat and free of buildings. Holding each other, they waited until the earth stilled and quiet fell.

Beichuan was near the epicenter of the Sichuan earthquake. The city’s location proved as perilous as it was beautiful, planted in a deep valley atop the Dragon Gate seismic fault. When the earthquake hit, shoddy buildings flattened, crushing thousands of people. The 7.9-magnitude quake also triggered landslides and floods, creating a triple curse for the city’s inhabitants. About half of Beichuan’s population perished in the quake, which claimed as many as 90,000 lives.

Yet the Sichuan earthquake proved a decisive moment for China’s Christians. Catholics and Protestants alike volunteered bravely, searching for survivors despite aftershock fears. Nationwide, Chinese Christians donated millions of yuan to help those in need.

The Chinese public took notice. For all of communism’s promises, the Sichuan quake established that the Chinese government simply isn’t up to the job of responding to citizens in need. It’s not only victims of national disaster, either: From treating victims of AIDS to feeding the hungry to taking care of the country’s orphans, disabled, and elderly, it’s clear that Chinese Christian charities do a much better job than the government. And that reality is leading to a seismic change in modern Chinese society that has gone mostly unreported.

Christian churches in Sichuan saw a dramatic increase in conversions after the earthquake. But the conversion of the government might be more dramatic. Despite its long antipathy toward Christianity, the government appears to realize that the churches fill a glaring gap in Chinese society. Beijing has taken some promising steps this year to encourage Christians and other believers to continue expanding their philanthropic pursuits.

Rebecca Lee, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, wrote that natural disasters, and the Sichuan earthquake in particular, “have brought the shortcomings of the bureaucratic government starkly into focus, creating the opportunity, and indeed the necessity, for the charitable sector to thrive.”

Pastor Wei Kang, president of Sichuan’s Protestant Pastoral Union, agrees the disaster was a critical turning point. “After the earthquake, the church did so much good that the government saw and wanted to expand it,” he says.

Wei is the pastor of a government-sanctioned church in Chengdu with around 8,000 members. The pastoral union’s offices in the huge church became a center for Protestant charitable activity during the disaster. Donations poured in from Christians across China; the pastoral union distributed nearly $8 million. The church supplied victims with food and aided reconstruction efforts, spending almost $2 million to rebuild Tong Ji Zheng Ma Liu Village in Pengzhou City, about 30 miles from Chengdu. In especially hard-hit areas, the pastoral union established ongoing monthly support to families that lost everything.

“After the earthquake, many people came to the church because we did so much charity work,” Wei says. “Other people may have given just once, but we never stopped.”

Christians’ earthquake aid was truly an ecumenical effort. Catholics and Protestants, members of state-sanctioned, “house,” and “underground” churches—all gave, and gave generously.

That put the government in an awkward position. In Wenzhou—China’s most capitalistic city and one of its most Christian—the Catholic diocese collected 2.5 million yuan (about $395,000) and donated it to a government-run earthquake charity fund. Much of the money came from the city’s 80,000 underground Catholics, who have been subjected to periodic persecution.

The Wenzhou diocese requested that the money be used to rebuild schools in Sichuan, but the government was horrified at the prospect of a building bearing the name of Catholic donors. So the money instead bought computers and sports equipment—items rather more difficult to inscribe. Nevertheless, a government-issued plaque thanks the “Catholics of Wenzhou diocese,” the wording careful neither to dismiss nor to acknowledge explicitly the generosity of underground worshippers. That plaque hangs on the wall of a factory-turned-underground church, not far from a neon cross and a poster of Jesus.

Christians’ charity after the earthquake also favorably affected public opinion, though it’s difficult to measure the degree. One good indication is the number of conversions; pastors in the earthquake area have universally reported a sustained increase in the number of baptisms since the disaster. Fu Chen Chi Protestant Church in Mianyang, another city hard-hit in 2008, has seen annual baptisms nearly double in the four years after the disaster, Pastor Cao Yue Han reports.

“After the earthquake, more people became Christian, and also people had a deeper faith than before,” Cao explains. “They became Christian, not only [because they were afraid] after the earthquake but because they could see the charity and they could see the kindness of the Chinese Christians.”

While post-quake religious charitable activities received a lot of publicity, they were no anomaly. Though it garners little attention in the Chinese and foreign press, China’s Christians are extraordinarily generous. According to incomplete statistics released in September by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, registered religious Chinese, which it numbers at over 100 million, gave more than $475 million over the last five years. More than half came from China’s Protestants and Catholics. And that number does not include the charity of China’s unregistered believers, who account for the majority of Christians in the country.

The philanthropy of Chinese Christians is impressive in scope. They are quick to respond to natural disasters: When a 5.7-level earthquake struck Yunnan and Guizhou provinces on September 7, 2012, Christians were among the first to mobilize. The year before, when a high-speed train collision killed 40 and injured nearly 200, underground Catholics queued up quickly to give blood. But Christian outreach isn’t limited to catastrophe. Across the nation, Chinese believers operate nursing homes, orphanages, and social-service centers, caring for the poor, sick, unwanted, and abandoned.

Dozens of residents of a Northern Chinese village contracted HIV while selling their blood. Their communities cut them off, refusing even to eat with them. A nearby priest visits each month, giving them emotional support and money for food.

“These people didn’t believe that anyone cared,” the priest says, adding that “before, people wouldn’t get checked. Now, they get checked for HIV because they know [someone] will still care.”

Another Chinese Catholic group oversees an ongoing effort to help the impoverished and elderly. One old woman was orphaned as a child and left homeless after the government confiscated her shanty. Malnourished, she developed a crippling disease in her lower back and legs. Her only income was a government stipend of less than $50 a month. Finally, a distant relative took her in, but it’s the church that supplies food and money. They gave her a coat for the harsh winters, so precious to her that she refuses to wear it except when she has guests. She wept openly during a visit from aid workers, embracing them and thanking them. “She’s gone most of her life believing no one loves her,” one church worker says.

Chinese Christians reach a neglected sector of society, one the government itself has failed to help. “For the government, there are too many poor,” one church worker says. “The government is okay with social services related to religion, but [officials] don’t dare to help you register. The government does think [religious charity is] good for society, but may not [overtly] support it.”

Recognizing the need for philanthropic activity is one thing; embracing it is another. As it stands, China’s laws severely limit the number and scope of philanthropic organizations, and religious charities are especially controlled. There is no single law regulating philanthropic activity. Legally speaking, charities remain undefined. Philanthropic entities are registered as “social organizations,” “civil non-enterprise institutions,” or “foundations,” all governed under a sloppy patchwork of laws developed since China’s 1979 reforms.

Registration is extremely cumbersome, and charities are made or crushed by government fiat. Yu Fangqiang, a Chinese human rights lawyer, observed in a recent blog post for the nonprofit group Asia Catalyst that “in mainland China, it is extremely hard to start up a non-governmental organization (NGO) without a background in government.” Likewise, one religious worker in China recounts his surprise upon hearing about “gongos” in a meeting about Christian charitable activity. What are those, he wondered—only to learn that China has a number of paradoxical “government-organized non-governmental organizations.” George Orwell is laughing in his grave.

Registration is an especially effective barrier against religious charities. With few exceptions, such as the Amity Foundation and Jinde, China’s religious charities are registered solely at the local or provincial level, which limits the places where they can raise funds and carry out activities. And registered faith-based charities are forbidden from promoting religious messages while performing services. While it’s not illegal to give or help others, unregistered charities face many limits, the most significant being that they are not permitted to solicit donations at all.

In addition to onerous registration requirements that prevent charities from getting too big, there are legal provisions that deter small charitable organizations from being founded. Philanthropic organizations that want to fundraise must meet hefty initial capital requirements. They’re also required to spend most of the cash they raise in the same year, making it difficult to carry out long-term projects.

Further discouraging philanthropy, China offers minimal incentives for donors. Individuals can, in theory, get a tax deduction by donating to a registered charity. In practice, it’s difficult. Lee notes that in 2005, “it took two months and 10 administrative procedures for a senior official in the Ministry of Civil Affairs”—one of the primary bureaucracies dealing with Chinese charities—“to successfully claim a tax deduction for his RMB 500 donation.” That’s about $80. Companies can get a tax deduction of up to 12 percent, but only by donating to government-approved organizations that carry out “public welfare activities.” With so few incentives—and a mindset developed under decades of government paternalism—it’s no wonder that China’s Xinhua News reported in 2005 that 99 percent of corporations don’t give to any charities at all.

Another problem is that the existing legal framework has few accountability measures for charities. A series of high-profile scandals have undermined people’s willingness to give. The most famous incident involved a 20-year-old woman named Guo Meimei, who claimed to be a general manager at the Red Cross Society, and who flaunted her bling on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Chinese netizens were understandably suspicious about whether their charitable donations had paid for her Hermès handbags and orange Lamborghini.

Despite these barriers, enthusiasm for philanthropy is growing. A new study by China’s leading wealth researcher, the Hurun Report, found that the country’s richest citizens are increasingly interested in both religion and philanthropy. And religious workers across China report that even middle- to lower-class citizens donate money and volunteer at Christian charities.

Though the government mostly succeeded in masking it from the international community during the 2008 Olympics, China is still very much a developing country. The nation’s leaders like to boast how hundreds of millions of people have risen above the poverty line since 1978. Less known is that more than 1 in 10 nonurban Chinese—128 million people—subsist on a dollar or less a day.

Despite all the talk of a growing middle class, China struggles with socioeconomic stratification. In this respect, ironically, religious charity assists a socialist goal: It transcends and unites classes. As the rich give their money and their time, they come in contact with the impoverished, building bonds with people they would not otherwise encounter. The wealthy and influential thus develop an appreciation for the problems of the poor.

Religious charity also could mend social fissures created in the darkest days of communism. China’s Maoist years cultivated a paranoid lack of trust and an obsessive sense of privacy among the citizenry. Back then, sharing personal details was a political liability—even a mortal danger. To this day, many people refuse to put their names on their mailboxes: They don’t want their neighbors knowing who they are. This suspicion continues in the church, where priests are often reluctant to confess to other clergy who may know them.

Religious charities help heal these wounds, says a source close to the underground Catholic bishop in Wenzhou. They emphasize not only helping others but also loving them. “After the Cultural Revolution, people forgot how to love each other,” he says. “And at the same time, there is a niche, a blank place, that the government has never filled, the charity [sector].”

Despite that need, charities too closely linked to religion or politics have long met government opposition, reports the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, an organization that encourages global legal-reform efforts to support civil society and philanthropy. “Advocacy, religious, critical, and policy-oriented groups are often much more closely monitored by Party and state authorities,” ICNL reported in a paper published in August. “In some cases, organizations have been closed and civil society activists have been detained, tried, and imprisoned for their peaceful activities.” The government has often repressed religious practice using catchall excuses, penalizing believers for nebulous infractions such as “violating state security” or “disrupting public order.”

Then came the Sichuan earthquake. As the disaster struck, Chinese Christians rose to the occasion. Their actions persuasively argued for them the case that their Christian beliefs actually made them better citizens. Far from undermining their country and government, Christians supported China in crisis, embodying the principle of “social harmony” so prolifically espoused by the government. The government is responding—slowly but encouragingly.

Premier Wen Jiabao briefly discussed philanthropy in his March address to the National People’s Conference, a speech similar to the American president’s State of the Union. He talked about the need “to accelerate the development of social welfare and charitable [and] philanthropic pursuits” and promised to “push for innovations in administering the rule of law and social management and put in order (or rationalize) the relationship between government and civic and social organizations.” The National Human Rights Action Plan of China, which the government released in June, calls for “encouraging religious believers to carry out charity activities.”

Earlier, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the bureaucracy that oversees religion, and five other major government departments had issued a “Notice on Encouraging and Guiding Religious Groups to Perform Charitable Work.” In an editorial coinciding with the paper’s February release, the People’s Daily, the Communist party’s house organ, asserted that “the government will clarify related policies, further improve the management and coordination mechanism, and strengthen efforts to implement related policies, in order to make religious groups more willing to engage in long-term charitable activities.” Observers speculate that the new policies will remove some of the barriers to registration and fundraising for religious charities, instead treating them more like other, nonreligious philanthropic organizations. It will also likely allow more tax deductions for religious charities and their donors.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs submitted a draft charity law this summer to the State Council, China’s legislative body. Though this legislation is still being heavily reworked and amended, it could reform the convoluted oversight of philanthropic work, removing some of the biggest inhibitors. The ministry also released internal policies aimed at improving transparency and oversight of charitable foundations, presumably to restore trust in philanthropic organizations after the misuse scandals.

Finally, in September, China hosted its first-ever Week of Religious Charity. Though it focused on state-sanctioned houses of worship, neglecting the charitable activities of unregistered Christians, a government news release stated that China’s religious charities have “gradually transform[ed] from simply meeting the material needs of service targets to paying full attention to their psychological, spiritual, and social needs.”

The devil, of course, will be in the details. The Chinese government is expert in writing laws that appear to expand rights while creating critical loopholes that reinforce arbitrary official rule. There’s reason for skepticism. Texas-based ChinaAid, which monitors religious freedom, has reported a significant increase in persecution of believers in recent years. And the State Administration for Religious Affairs focuses on the state-sanctioned church, ignoring the majority of Chinese Christians, who worship outside the official religious bureaucracy.

Yet it’s that historical persecution that makes the Communists’ evolving policy on religious charities all the more significant. By encouraging religious charities, Beijing is doing something unprecedented: acknowledging the positive effect Christians have on Chinese society.

By unchaining independent philanthropy, China would strengthen its battered civil society. Citizens engaging in charitable activity would get practice in small-scale self-government. Both are essential to China’s larger political development.

Opening the door to religion is inherently liberalizing. The government can’t expand the charitable works of Christians without also expanding free speech, free assembly, and even property rights for believers. If liberty ever comes to China, Christian charity—along with a natural disaster—may prove to have been one of the most important catalysts.

Jillian Kay Melchior has traveled extensively in China, reporting on Christianity as a Robert Novak fellow with the Phillips Foundation.

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