Beijing, the New Antioch? That‘s a Very Risky Guess
by Gianni Criveller
There’s a book – or rather, an editorial manifestation – that threatens to generate political repercussions. Published in the United States in 2003 by Regnery Publishing, “Jesus in Beijing” has made a tremendous splash, is frequently cited by those who write about China, and has perhaps made the communist authorities, especially those in charge of education, ponder the role of Christianity in today’s China. The author, David Aikman, was the Beijing bureau chief for the prominent magazine “Time.” The subtitle sums up the book‘s daring thesis: “How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power.”
Aikman describes Christianity as a fast-spreading phenomenon […]. When, in 1949, the communist party took power in China, there were only four million Christians: three million Catholics, and one million Protestants. Now, according to Aikman, in spite of the demented efforts to uproot religion during Mao’s regime, Christians number more than 80 million: exponential growth, most of the Christians, 70 million, being Protestants.
According to Aikman’s projections, over the next thirty years a third of the Chinese population could become Christian, making China the largest Christian nation in the world. And in addition to this, again according to Aikman, the leaders of China might themselves become Christian.
The revolution will be such that China, after it has been changed by Christianity, will change Christianity in its turn.
At this point – in his scenario – China and the United States would become friends instead of enemies, giving rise to a powerful Christian alliance, one capable of opposing the menace of the radical Islamic world. He even says that the conversion of the Islamic world to Christianity, something impossible for Western Christians, will be accomplished by the Chinese Christians! Aikman does not fail to support his surprising viewpoints through the use of historical parallels, such as the role of Christianity in the fall of the Roman empire and its supplanting. The Chinese communities are compared to those of the first Christians. Miracles, wonders, and supernatural signs are frequent. The way of spreading the Gospel is similar to the one used during apostolic times. There are points of high evangelical concentration, the basis for missionary expansion. One of these places is the city of Wenzhou, in the province of Zhejiang, called the “Antioch of China,” from the name of the city of departure for the apostle Paul’s missions.
Aikman’s theories are based upon interviews with leaders of the Christian Churches, including those who lead the Protestants’ “domestic churches.” The author also refers to the thought of a group of Chinese scholars, called “cultural Christians” because they come from the academic world and show interest and even sympathy toward Christianity. Aikman, moreover, refers to the large group of “hidden missionaries,” who come from North American and North European evangelical confessions, and from the Asiatic countries. But how reliable are the statements of the people Aikman spoke with, some of whom maintained that they talk directly with God and experience marvels every day?
As for the credibility of the arguments, it’s enough to examine the case of the chapter dedicated to the Catholic Church. It is partly based upon an interview with a controversial priest in Beijing, who is very well known to all who are familiar with the situation of the Catholic Church in China. And yet this priest does not in any way speak with any authority – or even credibility – as a representative of Chinese Catholicism. The chapter dedicated to the Catholic Church is a deep disappointment for anyone who knows anything about Chinese Catholicism.
One episode that seems frankly unbelievable, if not downright ridiculous, is that in which Jiang Zemin – who was the strong man of China from 1989 until 2004 – is supposed to have revealed to a few close associates that he intended to make Christianity the official religion of China! Politicians should be judged by their actions and not by hypothetical secret phrases known only to a small intimate circle. In fact, Jiang Zemin continued to apply a policy of total control and manipulation by the communist party over all the religions. He missed an historic occasion, the good stability of the 1990’s, to undertake the political, civil, and religious reforms requested by the people, particularly in the ample popular manifestations bloodily suppressed in June of 1989. Jiang Zemin is directly responsible for the cruel persecution of the Falun Gong movement, which has caused thousands of deaths, imprisonments, tortures, and sufferings.
The book strains too much to move in a predetermined direction (announcing the future Christianity of China), with little concern for objectivity and scholarship. And it seems to owe too much of its inspiration to the missionary enthusiasm of evangelical Christianity. […]
The figures Aikman proposes should be taken with greater caution. The most enthusiastic evangelicals love to say that there are 100 million Christians in China: in reality, no attentive and objective observer could agree with this figure. If we wanted to be optimistic, we might count as many as 30 million Christians in China; a respectable figure, but still extraordinarily small in a China that numbers more than 1.3 billion inhabitants. Furthermore, I am afraid that the phenomenon of “Christian fever,” which ran throughout China especially during the 1980’s and ‘90’s, is in decline. Finally, it must be said that the number of Catholics in China has not shown any significant growth for the last five or six years.
Christianity will meet with more difficulties than advantages in the near future. The challenge of modernization, which translates into what we call secularization, constitutes a considerable difficulty. It will seriously impact the Catholics of China.
Some elements of this can be seen already: a drop in vocations, and a dramatic drop in the big cities; the abandonment of their ministry on the part of many priests; little participation from the youth in ecclesial life. With a few exceptions, the churches in China have almost been deserted by the young people, at least in the urban centers. Young Catholics who leave the countryside to find work in the city quite frequently abandon their religious practice. There is a real fear that it will be difficult for the generation that received and handed on the faith under persecution to transmit this faith to the generation of modernization, with its giddy scramble for money.
On the question of the “cultural Christians,” or the scholars sympathetic toward Christianity, Aikman’s hopes are excessive. The phenomenon certainly exists, and it is an interesting one. The most positive element is that, for the first time since Matteo Ricci’s day (16th century), Christianity is looked upon favorably by some intellectuals from the most important centers of the academic world. But from a numeric point of view, this phenomenon remains restricted to a small circle of intellectuals. The influence that they exert upon society is rather limited; it is true that their books can be found in the bookstores, but only a few thousand copies of these are printed. […]
It is thought that toward the end of the year 2004 the Beijing authorities alerted various universities about the danger of infiltration from “hidden missionaries” among the foreign students and teachers. Procedures were put in place for further control of the teaching and activities of the instructors themselves. This is, perhaps, a consequence of the alarm that Aikman’s book and other articles of the same ideological cast provoke among the authorities of the People’s Republic of China. Those, on the other hand, who with seriousness, perseverance, and faith in Providence follow and support the cause of Christianity in China have no need for such exalted visions.
(This article originally appeared in Mondo e Missione in June/July 2005, translated into English by www.chiesa.espressonline.it)