China’s values vacuum

Dave Belden
8 March 2005

Why are so many Chinese turning to Christianity? A Chinese-Finnish academic collaboration reports 2 million new members baptised annually in China’s Protestant church:

“And as if the growth rate alone was not amazing, large numbers of the converts seem to come from the wrong group. Many of the baptised are young, affluent, well-educated and urban, just the kind of people who in Western countries are most likely to leave the church.”

In the United States, Korean immigrants used to say, “Chinese build restaurants, Koreans build churches.” Fifty years ago few Chinese Americans went to church. But now nearly a third do. In that time the number of Chinese churches in the US has grown from 66 to over 1,000.

That might be explicable in terms of America’s religiosity. But how to explain the comparable growth rates in China itself?

Estimates of the number of Christians in China vary wildly. There were supposedly fewer than 4 million when the Communists took power in 1949. The Chinese government says there are about 20 million today. But it only counts those belonging to the officially recognised churches and not the vibrant house church movement.

The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates about 90 million Christians in China. Philip Jenkins, the careful and scholarly author of The Next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity, suggests 50 million is more likely.

In his Jesus in Beijing: how Christianity is transforming China and changing the global balance of power, David Aikman, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine and himself an evangelical Christian, predicts 300 million more Christian converts over the next three decades.

Yang Huilin, director of a research institute focusing on Christian culture at the Renmin University of China, pours cold water on that idea:

“When you look at China’s neighbours, such as Japan or Thailand, the share of those professing Christianity is approximately five percent. I’d estimate the numbers to stabilise at approximately the same also in China.” Even 5% would mean over 60 million Christians.

Curiously, Yang didn’t mention that anomalous neighbour South Korea. In 1920 there were about 300,000 Christians in Korea. Now there are 10-12 million, about a quarter of the population. Most of the growth has been among Pentecostals. Even so there are twice as many Presbyterians in Korea as in the United States.

Could China follow South Korea rather than Japan or Thailand?

The growth of Falun Gong, from nothing in 1992 to a claimed 70 million in China today despite severe government persecution, suggests that many Chinese are searching for something: a moral system, a spiritual or meditation practice.

It’s because of a “value vacuum,” says Miikka Ruokanen, professor of dogmatics at the University of Helsinki and a guest professor in universities in Beijing and Shanghai,

“Official ideology is losing ground but, at the same time, traditional Taoism is felt to be distant and old-fashioned. Confucianism exerts an influence as an ethical system but it cannot satisfy the religious needs of the Chinese. So, there is a demand for new values and beliefs.” Universitas Helsingiensis reports: “Ruokanen emphasises the fact that despite its strong position and popularity among minorities, Islam does not interest the mainstream Chinese. Thus, Buddhism and Christianity emerge as winners.”

Secularism isn’t in the running for providing values and beliefs?

You could argue that this “values vacuum” is widespread. In the 20th century the left provided a coherent secular worldview for the elites of less-developed countries, whether pursued as Communism or varieties of non-aligned socialist state-planning.

Today market economics has won the basic economic argument, though leaving room for furious disagreement about how to socially regulate the market. But market economics does not come with an ethical or spiritual system attached. Instead, it offers a supermarket of beliefs. Above all, it speeds the pace of social change.

I bought my newspaper today in our local deli from Jodie, the owner’s daughter. She’s just back from a month in Asia. China surprised her: everyone in “American clothes” with the latest cellphones, so laden with charms and decorations she wonders how they can hear. Our rural neighborhood in upstate New York doesn’t have cellphone coverage yet. China’s changing a lot faster than we are.

Rapid social change can leave old ethical systems behind. Aikman reports many signs of China’s intellectual elite studying Christianity, which was once derided as a handmaiden of western imperialism. “One more Christian, one less Chinese,” some used to say. Many Christians seemed to see it that way themselves. A Chinese Christian writes,

“when my family, who were living in Mainland China, were converted to Christianity, the pastor and the “army” of Christians of the Church marched to our house to demand that all ancestral tablets, household altars and art, literature, and household items including furniture, beddings, bowls and chopsticks that bore the dragon image, were to be surrendered and then destroyed, smashed and burnt completely in front of the house.”

Since then a great deal of work has been done to dress Christianity in Chinese clothes. Attempts have been made to discover within Chinese cultural history ideas that resonate with Christianity, which is a rather different endeavor. Now Christianity can glow in the aura of American success and Chinese history. Could Aikman be right that by 2050 China will be run by a Christian elite?

Shopping for cellphones, Falun Gong, Christianity and what else? What are the 900 million non-Christian, non-Falun-Gong Chinese up to?

What can the Chinese learn from modern Europe about ethical systems and spiritual practices that counterbalance the materialism and dislocations of the capitalism Europe invented? Is European culture so compelling that others want to emulate it? I think of awareness of complexity as very European, commitment to social welfare and human rights tempered by a cynical business sense and a wariness of religious fanaticism. Doesn’t that all sound a tad like the Chinese too?

A spiritually pluralist, largely secular, consumerist China wouldn’t surprise me. A Christian China would.

This is a chance for Europe, if it can take it.

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