The romantic notion of a powerful underground movement taking hold of a nation and effecting change of international proportions is the hypothesis of journalist David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power.
Aikman points out that the China Christian Council “claims to have some 15 million baptized believers on its church rolls throughout China.” However, “these figures are not considered credible even by China’s own Public Security Bureau.” The Bureau itself “has indicated privately that there are at least 25 million Christians in China,” Aikman writes.
The Council, known as the CCC, was “formed in the early 1980s to provide China’s Christian church hierarchy a small measure of distance from the government organization established by the Communist Party in the 1950’s to take control of Chinese Protestantism,” according to the author.
Aikman disclosed that “one pastor privately estimated that Protestant Christians account for 1/10 of the population…but, the reality is simply that no one knows for sure.” Aikman continues, “All we do know is that Christianity has grown at a staggering speed since 1979, when China began to relax the fierce restrictions on religious activity that had been imposed in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.”
“From the grassroots of the peasantry to high within China’s establishment, the country (is) being seeded with believing Christians,” is what Aikman has found in his frequent travels and study. “In numerical terms they are still a small minority, perhaps 7 to 8 percent of the country’s population of 1.2 billion.” However, the author observes that “they are being noticed,” and are becoming increasingly more vocal and prominent.
Religious devotion grows even in secretive academic institutions and is gradually more recognized in prominent Chinese scholarship, Aikman claims. In an intimate stay at one such establishment, the author detailed the daily schedules and piety that characterizes underground Christian learning:
“Emmanuel Seminary is home for six months at a time, sometimes longer, to thirty-one young men and thirty-seven young women, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-six, sent there by more than eighty house church congregations in the area and by Protestant Christian communities in ten other Chinese provinces,” writes Aikman.
The seminary’s president explained that “six daily hours of study for the first three months covered Christian theology basics such as salvation, the church, and the Holy Spirit… Other courses on church history, the history of world mission, and other topics would be taught by the resident staffers…”
Aikman explains that “Emmanuel… was unique only in its verdant isolation from the rest of China. Hundreds of other seminaries dot rural urban communities throughout the country….” “In Hong Kong alone, about 240 full-time men and women students scattered throughout the city were receiving seminary training,” wrote the author. “Some of them were preparing to leave China to be missionaries to the Muslim world,” he noted.
A speaker from the esteemed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing said in a scheduled lecture for tourists:
“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world (…) but in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
“It is significant that Christianity is emerging in China at a time when there is a massive ideological vacuum left in society by the nationwide collapse of belief in Marxism-Leninism,” wrote the author, to elaborate on the philosophical context for this transformation.
He continued, “It is hard to find anyone in China today who truly believes in the theoretical truth of China’s official political ideology… Marxism was tried in the extreme form during Mao’s nearly two decades of utopian economic and social tinkering (1958-1976) and it was found to be irremediably destructive.”
Aikman covered an interesting statistic about the current makeup of Chinese believers. “Eighty percent of China’s Protestant Christian house church members are women. The figure is approximately the same in the churches affiliated with the China Christian Council…” While this stands, the author notes that the “80 percent female composition of China’s Christian community as a whole is not reflected at the leadership level of house churches.”
The author was able to extract statements from members and leaders of this growing Chinese movement; which speaks to the increasing boldness and confidence of its following. Some of Aikman’s appendices included:
• A United Appeal of the Various Branches of the Chinese House Church
• Chinese House Church Leaders’ Confession of Faith and Declaration of their Attitude toward the Government
• Confession of Faith of House Churches in China
Mary Kapp is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run jointly by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.