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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 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.

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