“China is in sort of a strange twilight zone” when it comes to Christianity, said David Aikman during a luncheon conversation with “his closest friends” on Thursday at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, D.C. Aikman, formerly a veteran foreign correspondent for Time magazine and a former Senior Fellow at the EPPC, has just returned from a 3-month fact-finding investigative tour of China. “The fact that churches are not approved doesn’t mean that the Chinese authorities don’t know about the underground Christian congregations.” Aikman described the situation as “definitely not freedom,” but “certainly tolerance” as long as things don’t turn political and threaten authorities. Regarding the practice of Christianity, he concluded that the authorities operate under a policy of “we will pretend not to notice if you pretend not to do it.” Aikman was asked about the horror stories. He replied that local authorities still persecute and local police can be abusive, but at the leadership level the consensus is that they don’t want to crush Christianity because it is a good thing. In fact, Aikman reported that in his three-months of crisscrossing China to discover the status of Christianity in China and how Christianity is changing China, he discovered that the children of China’s leaders are increasingly converting to Christianity and that is one factor that is bringing the nation’s rulers to a new level of interest and tolerance toward believers. “They have to deal with it,” concluded Aikman. Plus, some of the ministry groups “provide invaluable charity work and play an important role in changing the society.”
Aikman’s stories and insights created an entirely new perception of Christianity in China. He reported that the level of commitment of the believers and the strength of Evangelical Christianity in China is “unlike anything [he’s] seen before.” Aikman found more openness than he expected with far more people unafraid to say that they are believers. At a Peking hotel, the lobby pianist played hymns along with her classical pieces. Several taxi drivers displayed pictures of Jesus inside their cabs. One explained that he was a fourth generation Christian. This openness is brand new, having come about just in the past five years. Previously, believers were most often found in the countryside; now in one upscale, university area, Aikman reported, over 20,000 students are studying religion and most are Evangelical Protestants. Over a dozen universities have instituted studies in Christianity. Bible studies are popular among the highest-level cultural leaders and artists, like theatre producers. As a result, Aikman observed a “profound impact” of Christianity in China.
One of the most amazing things that Aikman reported is that at a formal dinner party a Chinese leader was asked what he would decree for his country if he could only make one ruling. His reply is astounding: “It would be that China adopt Christianity as its main religion.” Aikman believes that this sentiment is based in the understanding that of all the worldviews, Christianity is most tolerant of scientific investigation and trade — both things that are important to China’s future. Some Chinese intellectuals declare that the West’s dynamism and growth is directly connected to Christianity and they want to know more about the source of that power.
His previous contacts, travels and studies gave Aikman a great advantage in terms of access to important and interesting people. “Doors opened everywhere,” he said. He was the first Westerner at some of the places and the first Westerner that some of the people met. He found the “underground” Christian movement varied and pervasive — from a music conservatory behind a locked and chained compound where top Chinese musicians became students and studied worship music, composition and choral music to a top secret seminary hidden in a bamboo paradise where prominent Christians study theology and evangelism. In one province, Aikman found astute business owners who have been very effective in integrating their faith into their business enterprises — as long as they don’t train evangelists. China even has its own “Bible Belt” — an area where revival in the late 70’s planted seeds that continue to produce Christian growth. Aikman estimates that there are at least 80 million Protestants in China and more than 12 million Catholics.
Some of the nastiest opposition comes from a cult that has quasi-Christian ideas and is personality-based and driven. This cult has kidnapped and viciously beaten leaders of Christian groups and is a serious threat to Christianity in China.
All is not well, however. It is not possible to oppose policy; nor is political dissent allowed. It is simply that policy is not always enforced and authorities will simply ignore some things. For instance, one elderly pastor baptizes his converts publicly and the authorities do not stop him. There is much more tolerance for foreigners, such as the English Language in China group that brings in hundreds of teachers every year. The authorities know that they are Christian, but since they obey the rules about evangelism in class, the authorities accept them. And, it is not uncommon today for couples to be able to bribe officials or pay the fine (about $2,000) for having more than one child. There are fewer Christians in prison because there are more loopholes and it is possible to buy out of many situations. The labor camps are, increasingly, only for the hard-core criminals and the sentences are limited to three years. Christians now are generally arrested for “disturbing the peace.”
These chinks in the regime are the “big story” that Aikman reports from his travels and analysis. He is convinced that China’s authoritarianism is breaking down and that civil liberties are opening up. Christianity, he believes, is “playing a big role in all of this.” Down the road, he sees a more reasonable attitude toward Taiwan — as a direct result of the Christian influences that are becoming more and more obvious and because more and more of the “gatekeepers” in China are becoming believers.