A strong coffee always perks me up on a smoggy day, especially when I can drink it somewhere clandestine — like an ‘illegal’ church. Seek, and you shall find — but when it comes to Christianity in China, you’re likely to get a bit lost. Without being told where it was, I could have spent a lifetime walking past the anonymous, seemingly empty office block, never knowing that inside it was abuzz with religious activity. A discreet sign in the lobby is the only indication that a Sunday service is in progress. In other parts of the world, a church announces itself to the faithful with a cross on a steeple. The absence of this is one reason you can’t find Chinese churches — though the Zion Protestant Church is one of the most prominent, albeit unregistered, churches in Beijing.
Zion may not resemble a traditional church on the outside, but it’s not exactly ‘underground’ either — along with coffee, you can buy little bears wearing ‘Jesus loves me’ T-shirts in its bustling café. By 10 a.m. the central hall is packed out for the second Chinese service of the day (there are also services held in Korean and English). A few hundred people were singing along to hymns played by a live band on a stage. Some had their arms in the air and part of me hoped it would turn into Sister Act. But the congregation remained very earnest, much like the clean-cut young women who approach me on the streets after dark and ask if I want to learn about Jesus. The words ‘I am willing to preach the Gospel’ flash up on multiple plasma screens across the room.
There are officially recognised churches in China, in which both the building and its pastor have been state-sanctioned, the latter trained in schools where teaching is aligned with Communist party ideology. Mainstream Christianity in China is, in fact, a not-so-holy trinity formed of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the Protestant Three-Self Church and China Christian Council, which is set up by the state. The Pope doesn’t get a look-in — at least not where the Communist party rules supreme. China ceased diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951. But China is a rising power on the world stage, with a fast growing number of Catholics, so the Vatican is still keen to embrace the faithful in Beijing — it is expected to formally recognise four China-ordained Catholic bishops in negotiations this month.
Many Chinese converts do not want their faith to be controlled by the government — and so they join covert congregations like the one at Zion, which was founded in 2009. ‘For every one of the official churches, there’s at least another unregistered church,’ explains Ian Johnson, author of a new book on China’s religious revival, Lost Souls of China. ‘Many of those who attend “house” churches started by going to official churches and then branched out.’ The number of Christians is now estimated at around 60 to 70 million — much higher than official reports suggest.
In Beijing, Christianity is permitted to thrive, as long as it does so quietly, but elsewhere in China there has been a crackdown. Last summer, in Zhejiang province — a region with a rich history of missionary activity — crosses were removed from the exteriors of more than 1,000 churches.
For the most part, the Zhejiang campaign was more about reducing the profile of Christianity than about strangling the religion itself. Any organisation in China which is not backed by the government and becomes popular is viewed as a threat, particularly when it is seen as foreign and requiring Sinicisation. Christianity is expanding faster than China’s traditional religions, Buddhism and Taoism, which helps explain why the state is keen to rein it in. In April, President Xi Jinping emphasised that religious groups must operate within China’s socialist system ‘and abide by Chinese laws and regulations’. Many have interpreted these remarks, together with an updated draft of the Regulations on Religious Affairs, as a sign that the government is going to further restrict religious freedom.
But damping the fervour may not be easy. In his sermon at Zion, Pastor Ezra Jin implored worshippers to pass on the word of the gospel, and not be disheartened by political restrictions. Christian evangelism has always been a core part of Christian activity. Protestants make up the majority of Christians in China, where missionaries have long had a strong presence. Today, as well as being tapped on the shoulder after dark, I talk to friends regarding Christianity, and lo and behold, they try to persuade me to attend a service with them. It doesn’t strike them that I’m simply asking out of journalistic curiosity.
As these friends demonstrate, Christianity is growing fast within cities among the young and well-educated Chinese. ‘People don’t see a contradiction between modernity and Christianity,’ Ian Johnson says. ‘Particularly for many who are already westernised, or have studied abroad, Christianity may be more acceptable than Buddhism or Taoism.’
The young also seem well able to reconcile their Christian faith and China’s growing consumerism: I spot the designer handbag one young woman is carrying as she passes me by in the hallway of Zion. The congregation is far from meek and lowly.
China’s rapid transition from communism to capitalism may explain exactly why some young people here are so hungry for spirituality. At lunch with a women I met at Zion, who is in her early thirties, she claims that ours is a generation that has to seek out its own values. ‘For our parents’ generation, communism provided a strong society with a selfless purpose. When that collapsed, the focus shifted to the self,’ she says. ‘For those who grew up in an era where the only social value has been money, it’s left a spiritual blank.’
For Ms Guo, an episode of depression was what initially led her to seek out faith as a student. She felt that Buddhism and Taoism had failed her. ‘They were focused on suppressing one’s nature and changing behaviour without allowing for human flaws,’ she explains. ‘Christianity recognises we are all guilty and gives us the opportunity to change from the root.’ Both women agree that the personal aspect that Christianity offers — a relationship with God and a sense of community — is something in which the more traditional Chinese religions fall short.
For the time being, a cloak of invisibility seems to hang over Christians in China. The message from above seems to be: practise as you will but don’t flaunt it. But as one veteran preacher told me: ‘Rest assured, pass on the word we shall … because that’s what the Bible tells us to do.’