Richard Madsen, a scholar of Chinese Christianity at the University of California at San Diego, recently told National Public Radio that Chinese Christians "have in mind what happened in Eastern Europe [in the 1980s] . . . where the rise of and energizing of a variety of religious groups did, in fact, help to weaken the socialist states."
In part because they believe that Christianity can transform Chinese politics, American, South Korean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong evangelical groups have made China a top priority for proselytizing. Tens of millions of Bibles have been delivered into China in the past decade, and many foreign missionaries have sneaked into the country, often posing as English teachers or businesspeople.
Faith as a new foundation? In the year 2000, Hu Saiwang returned home early to celebrate Christmas in the little church he and his fellow Christians built in Zhong Village as an alternate to the "patriotic," state-run church. He found a pile of rubble instead.
(Philip P. Pan -- The Washington Post)
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Still, it is unlikely that Chinese house churches will play the role of Catholicism did Poland during the 1980s, when it provided believers, laid-off workers and other groups with a unifying, liberal political structure. Unlike many priests in Eastern Europe, some Chinese house church leaders are highly conservative, focused on nothing other than evangelism and taking little interest in politics. Usually they are willing to challenge the state only when pressed to the wall, such as when Beijing tried to ban Sunday school education in several provinces.
What's more, because Christianity was so harshly repressed in China, and because many Chinese seem to be looking for millenarian, miracle-producing faiths, many popular house church movements have developed into authoritarian fiefdoms themselves, with adherents following one charismatic leader, who often has little religious training. These underground leaders are hardly vehicles for liberal reform.
In some of these heretical movements, which mix elements of Christianity with folk religion, leaders announce that they are Jesus reincarnated or that they have direct links to the Lord. As the New York Times recently reported, one house church, Three Grades of Servants, is organized around its leader, Xu Shuangfu, who claims to speak with God. Three Grades now claims to have several million followers; Xu reportedly has ordered the killing of his religious enemies.
Three Grades's sworn enemy, another house church known as Eastern Lightning that claims a similar following, is just as intense. Eastern Lightning also believes that Jesus has returned to Earth, and has taken the form of a Chinese peasantwoman. Like Three Grades, Eastern Lightning tries to force other Christians to join its group, allegedly kidnapping other house church leaders and trying to brainwash them until they join Lightning.
Some house churches, such as the longer-established and more urban-oriented Little Flock, which has thrived in eastern China, are more liberal, holding youth group meetings for Bible discussion and other intellectual activities.
But in rural and poor areas, it is the more apocalyptic groups like Eastern Lightning that appear to be growing fastest. And as China becomes more open while simultaneously more economically stratified, groups like Lightning, which cater to the uneducated masses, are only going to grow in power. If Aikman proves correct, and China one day has hundreds of millions of Christians, groups like Eastern Lightning could have tens of millions of disciples. By then, these extreme groups could foment change -- but not the kind of change liberal reformers envision.
Joshua Kurlantzick is foreign editor of The New Republic.