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Charity Begins in China

The good works done by Christians after the 2008 earthquake have led Beijing to ease up on private philanthropy

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By JILLIAN KAY MELCHIOR
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The day after Long Cai Bin was baptized, an earthquake destroyed his hometown. But it might have opened his country to his faith.

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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.

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