Friday, July 08, 2005

China's Jesus underground

Review of: Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, David Aikman (2003).

I must confess that I picked up this book in an antagonistic spirit. Aikman is a conservative evangelical who’s just been hired to teach at Patrick Henry College (the new college designed to send home-schooled Christian men into government service—women are admitted to the school, but are not expected to pursue careers. Check out the school’s website, or see the recent New Yorker article on PHC). Since he styles himself a China expert, and boasts an impressive set of credentials (Ph.D. in History from the University of Washington, former Time reporter in Moscow and Beijing), I thought his take on Christianity in China might be worth checking out…even if his oeuvre contains such dubious entries as the recent George Bush is the Messiah or whatever it’s called (okay, it’s Man of Faith: the Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush).

Aikman’s thesis here is that Christianity is spreading like a brush fire in the People’s Republic today, especially in the form he considers the most promising: the underground house church. House churches he contrasts with the state-approved and state-controlled congregations affiliated with the Three Self Patriotic Association (the government’s Protestant outfit) and the Catholic Patriotic Association (the government’s Catholic outfit). He relies for his information on the members of the underground churches themselves, and participates uncritically in their boosterism. One suspects that Aikman overestimates how pervasive underground Christianity really is—not to mention how likely it is that Chinese Christians will change the way the People’s Republic interacts with the world (curbing its human rights abuses and bringing it in line with American foreign policy, as Aikman assumes Christianity will naturally do).

Aikman does provide evidence, though, of a thriving underground community of Christians in China. Or “communities,” more precisely, since a number of the Protestant factions are divided by irreconcilable differences of doctrine or practice, some contending that others are dangerous cults. Some of the groups (the Weepers, the Shouters) have wonderfully evocative nicknames reminiscent of early Protestant sects, names that underline the kind of catharsis the church members experience in their meetings. These folks are no strangers to speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, and the like.

Though Aikman focuses mostly on these charismatic Protestant sects, he also includes one chapter on the Catholics, and it reveals a great deal about the relationship between the government and religion. In recent years the Communist Party and the Vatican seem to have arrived at a kind of d├ętente. Certain issues still pique each side (the Vatican’s continuing recognition of Taipei as the legitimate government of China, for example), but the Vatican has not excommunicated the priests consecrated by the state Catholic association, and the Communist party, in turn, turns a blind eye when the state-approved clergy quietly pledge their allegiance to Rome. These days, the biggest problem that crops up for the Catholics is that occasionally rival power structures exist in the same place: one city might have an underground bishop consecrated in the bad old days of severe oppression in the 1960s and 1970s, and a Catholic Patriotic Association bishop consecrated with the government’s blessing. I wonder if the Party finds the underground Catholics less threatening than the Protestants because Catholics, even underground, respect some kind of human authority, albeit centered in Rome rather than Beijing. The underground Protestants, by contrast, must seem like faith-healing, epiphany-seeking loose cannons.

Some things in this account are unsurprising: for example, women far outnumber men in the underground Christian movement. Nor should anyone be surprised that the growth of these communities has been fueled in part by persecution (more than once, Aikman’s interviewees reference the early Christian theologian Tertullian’s aphorism that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”). Entrepreneurship also plays a role. In the southeastern port city of Wenzhou, held up as “China’s Jerusalem,” the high level of private enterprise combines synergistically with active and visible house churches; Aikman contends that within a few hundred feet of any major cathedral in Europe, you can find Wenzhou Christians selling something.

Which brings us to the unexpected bit: many of these Chinese Christians have missionary aspirations. Big time. They see themselves as the ideal candidates to bring Christianity “back” to the Muslims of the Middle East, to break into the “10/40 window” (the band of earth from 10 degrees above the equator to 40 degrees below it) that evangelical Christians worldwide see as their next big challenge. In a big meeting in Beijing a few years back, the Chinese Christians surprised the international evangelicals present by announcing their “back to Jerusalem” goal to have 100,000 Chinese missionaries active outside of China by the year 2007. You can understand the foreigners’ surprise: American missionaries, the largest constituency of global missionaries at the moment, number about 40,000 in any given year.

So here’s the obligatory deprecation of the book’s level of scholarship: its author does not demonstrate that he can read Chinese (he cites no Chinese-language documents), and it’s not clear how good his spoken Chinese is, either (like many journalists, he usually obscures the presence of his interpreter when he’s reporting conversations). The copyediting is sloppy: on p.155 someone takes a stand based “on principal,” for example. What’s more, for a China expert, Aikman makes a few baffling mistakes—e.g., “Peking is the name of China’s capital city before the Communists renamed it Beijing in 1949.” (er, not exactly: Peking is just an alternative Romanization of the same two characters that constitute the name Beijing. Before the Communists, the Nationalists called Beijing Beiping [Northern peace], not Peking).

One thing that bothered me throughout the book was the emphasis on evangelism as Christians’ greatest responsibility. There are a lot of stories here about distributing Bibles, baptizing people in bathtubs, and spreading the gospel generally, but what about feeding the hungry, tending the sick, clothing the naked and other biblical acts of giving? A country that is experiencing the kind of economic dislocation that China is, where some are getting very rich while others sink into abject poverty, where health care is increasingly inadequate and inaccessible to the rural population, seems to offer a great opportunity for Christian service. Have the underground Christians seized this opportunity, or bypassed it in their eagerness to convert others? I would have liked to hear more about what kinds of social service these communities perform.

These criticisms aside, though, the book is a useful insight into the active Christian communities in China, which are populated by more than a few incredibly brave and tenacious individuals.


Ambivalentmaybe said...

"A country... where some are getting very rich while others sink into abject poverty, where health care is increasingly inadequate and inaccessible... seems to offer a great opportunity for Christian service."

What country are we talking about again? Not to minimize the severity of the problems in China--where the experience of poverty can be much worse than in the US--but a striking similarity. A sign that the underground churches are already having an affect, bringing Chinese policies in line w/ those of the US?

Wulingren said...

Thirdpartydreamer, you have definitely created a fourth party with this one. Great review. The people at would probably be interested in this.

Wulingren said...

You made the front page of under Timely. Check it out. or here:

Bartholomew said...

I haven't read the book, but I did read an interview that Aikman gave to the National Review online last year. I was less than impressed.

thirdpartydreamer said...

Bartholomew: I read your commentary on the Aikman interview, and just FYI, the book also reflects the shortcomings you identify in the interview. D.A. makes extravagant claims (based on interviews with members of the house churches) about both the extent to which China has already Christianized and about what changes the growth of Xny will bring about in the Chinese government.

Take the implied connection between Christianity and democracy, for example: as evidence, Aikman points out that some prominent pro-democracy dissidents are also Christians. But all of the examples he gives of such people are of dissidents who converted to Christianity abroad, after being exiled or escaping arrest. Their activism predated their religious conversion, in other words, not vice versa.

Aikman's claims aside, the evidence in the book suggests that this brand (sorry about the pun) of Christianity is more closely linked with entrepreneurial ambition than with democratic activism.

randall said...

Aikman’s book provides an interesting view into Chinese Christianity but only a very limited view, as through a keyhole. As far as I know, there is (unfortunately) no better documentation on what is going on in China in English or Chinese so for all the weaknesses of his book, it is valuable. The best research I have seen shows that there are about 60 million adult Christians in China representing a broad spectrum of the population, from the middle aged women to the minority groups to entrepreneurs. Even Chinese intellectuals are being affected; there has been an increase in the number of scholarly articles being published in China over the last few years exploring Christianity and often linking Christianity with social and economic development.

Thirdpartydreamer’s comments on the conversion of pro-democracy dissidents after they left China are accurate. There is some evidence of democracy building in China by Christians, however, but on the grassroot, non-political level. For example, see the research produced by Chen Cunfu and Huang Tianhai of Zhejiang University in “The Emergence of a New Type of Christians in China Today” in the Review of Religious Research 2004, v. 46:2, pp. 183-200 (email me at if you want a PDF copy).

This excerpt comes from p. 196 on the election of church leadership in a church in Langgong, Zhejiang: “The 69 candidates for the committee were first elected by 129 representatives, each of whom represented 30 Christians from his or her neighborhood. A 37-member committee was then elected from these candidates. The committee voted to elect thirteen executive members and fifteen standing members, out of whom a chairperson, three vice-chairs, an accountant and a treasurer were then elected.
“There are quite a number of churches in Pingyang and Wenling that are organized and run like Zhu’en Church. Yongping Church…held a general election in 1994. The 319 baptized Christians of the church were divided into six groups to elect 90 representatives. Measures were then taken to ensure that 30% of the representatives were women, that 30% were youth, and that all of the different areas were represented. The election process involved several stages of voting, and was carried out with intervals of at least one week for adequate public consideration and criticism.”

All Protestant churches in China don’t function as democratically has these churches but their actions represent a generally unrecognized but effective way of educating Chinese on the workings and benefits of democracy, not only in holding elections but also in cultivating civil society.