BEIJING, JAN. 1 -- Hundreds of Chinese young people, including elite university students, crowded into Beijing churches this Christmas season with an eagerness not seen since students demonstrated in the streets a year ago.
The students' attendance at Christian churches seems to reflect a desire to escape the dullness of life here and a growing curiosity about the culture and traditions of the West. In some cases, it also appears to show an upsurge in genuine religious feeling.
Whatever the motivations for this new interest, the Chinese Communist Party has one more reason to worry.
"People don't want to join the Communist Party," said a scholar who joined the party many years ago. "They want to go to church."
Another academic related the churchgoing to a continuing "crisis of confidence" in the Communist Party and its ideology and to the party's decision to suppress student demonstrations in early 1987.
"They were so disappointed by the party that they've been searching for something else," the scholar said. "They've tried dancing, card playing and premarital sex. Now they go to church."
Yet most seem attracted to the services out of curiosity.
"I asked my daughter why she went to church, and she said she found it interesting -- she said it was just for fun," said another Chinese intellectual who has never attended church.
A student at Beijing University said that his generation never had a chance to believe in anything except what the party preached. He said he was envious of people who believe in something, particularly those who believe in the concept of life after death.
Another student said, "We feel Christianity is more closely tied to human nature than orthodox Marxism. Students are trying to find something that is more connected with their daily life."
The increase in the number of young people attending church this Christmas was evident in other Chinese cities as well.
The South China Morning Post newspaper reported that in Guangzhou, formerly Canton, in the south of China, the crowd entering the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral for a midnight mass was so large that priests tried to control admission.
"If you are not Catholic you should not come in," one church assistant was quoted as saying.
He refused admission to a young man who could not provide his Christian name.
Other church officials tried issuing tickets to keep out curious spectators.
The party is now much more tolerant of religion than it was during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when churches were destroyed and believers were driven underground.
The Communist Party has banned proselytizing by Christians in China.
It is widely known, however, that a number of foreign teachers come to China hoping to spread their faith.
Christians still constitute a small minority of the population, but church officials and others say the number is growing.
As one university dean who is a party member commented, "It is a child of the open policy," referring to the government's tolerance of different beliefs.
Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing estimated that China now has 3.3 million practicing Catholics in the state-approved Catholic Church, which has no ties to the Vatican, according to a recent New China News Agency report.
Fu said 30,000 people join the church each year.
Bishop K.H. Ting, principal of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, said recently that China has 3 million to 4 million Protestants.
For some city youths, going to church is part of an exploration of things western. One practice that has become popular for city people of all ages is buying and exchanging Christmas cards.
According to the official New China News Agency, it is not uncommon for a Chinese in Beijing to spend $2 to $4 on Christmas cards, a large expenditure by Chinese standards.
The manager of a foreign language bookstore said the store had sold more than 400,000 cards.
"I've never gotten so many Christmas cards as I've gotten in China," said a Jewish foreign teacher who lives here.
"I like Christmas cards with the Virgin Mary and little angels on them," said Zhao Huanhong, a high school girl who is a nonbeliever. "They give me a holy feeling."
Students' growing interest in Christianity comes despite last winter's Communist Party campaign against western democratic influences and western-style consumerism.
This campaign against "bourgeois liberalism," launched after students began calling for democracy and freedom in street demonstrations, appears to have failed, based on interviews with several students in Beijing.
While they have muted their views on the need for democracy, the students have not changed their minds nor have they abandoned their desire to acquire consumer goods.
It sometimes takes the form of a "money is everything" attitude.
In some ways, therefore, the Communist Party may be grateful that the churches are teaching a form of morality. Indeed, for some years now, Communist scholars have said Christians can make a constructive contribution to Chinese society.
The officially approved Chinese Catholic Church broke with the Vatican 30 years ago and refuses to defer to Rome. But church sources outside China said that a large number of Catholics in China quietly recognize the authority of the pope and worship in secret.
This November reports circulated that Pope John Paul II might visit China following Filipino Cardinal Jaime Sin's visit to Beijing and behind-the-scenes negotiations. The Vatican subsequently denied any plans for a papal trip.
But at this point, the young people of China are still not likely to fervently welcome the pope. As one student put it, "Most students don't understand Christmas or Christianity. They are more interested in the holiday atmosphere of Christmas."