Cover Story

Wildfire

With small "house" churches multiplying in cities and influential executives coming to faith, Christianity is growing so fast in China that Communist officials are having a hard time keeping up

Issue: "Wildfire," June 24, 2006

CHINA- Chinese CEOs preaching Christ to their employees and setting up Bible studies on company time. House churches, told by the police that they're getting too big for official comfort, splitting in half, then growing and splitting again. Bibles readily available in every city. Christian plaques sold openly in a local marketplace.

Americans are used to thinking of Chinese Christians as people imprisoned and beaten for their faith, and word-of-mouth says that is still true in some rural areas. In the cities, a more nuanced struggle has emerged, with harassment replacing outright persecution and leaders negotiating with secret police at the local Starbucks.

Trees stand in perfectly straight rows alongside modern Chinese expressways, but little is straightforward in the relations between a decadent Communist Party and a surging Christianity that contributes to a growing economy. What follows are snapshots of one small slice of Chinese life, based on visits early this month to several Chinese cities, and intensive discussions (usually employing translators) with two dozen influential Chinese Christian urban professionals.

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One group that works with such influencers provided introductions that allowed WORLD to enter this growing Christian network where caution is still essential. While interviewees regularly said that government officials were aware of their Christian work, quoting the Christians by name in a national U.S. magazine could cause the officials to lose face and feel a need to round up the usual suspects. This article, therefore, does not use real names and leaves out other specific detail, including the particular cities in which organizations are located.

Let's start with the nuanced situation of at least 30 Christians who are CEOs of major Chinese companies. One 40-ish executive, Mr. Han, explained in his conference room that he came from a poor, rural family: His father died when he was 12 and he often went hungry. The future CEO "studied very hard to change the situation of my family," scored high on tests, entered Beijing University, and went on to garner a grand salary.

Mr. Han was an atheist who thought that "only rural grandmas believe in God." By the end of 1999 he "had enough money for my whole life" but was depressed: "I tried to make myself happy by traveling overseas, feasting at restaurants. . . . Still I had emptiness and suffering within me. I thought, maybe I'm not happy because I'm working for other people. I'll become happy by starting my own business."

Mr. Han did that and made even more money, but his depression became deeper. He tried burning incense at a Buddhist temple and felt a little better, but misery quickly returned. For six months he paid a top Taoist sage to give him a schedule each month with favorable and unfavorable blocks of time, and tried to arrange his meetings accordingly-only to find that some at the good times went poorly, and some he was forced to have at bad times went well.

In 2002 a classmate who had studied in the United States suggested that Mr. Han visit a church. He and his wife did, and she immediately became a believer in Christ, but he "tried to keep awake in the pew and could not." By August 2003, he was "very depressed. I needed help, but no person could help me. Only when I was cornered and understood that man's end is dust did I become serious about reading the Bible. Then I realized that my preconceptions were wrong, that belief in God is not unscientific, that by myself I don't know where I'm from and where I'm going . . . that happiness comes only from observing God's teaching."

Mr. Han was baptized on Easter, 2004. Now he provides job opportunities for Christian migrants from the countryside to his large city. He has voluntary Bible studies Wednesday evening at all four of his factories and offices, and a company-wide Bible study from 12:30 to 1:30 on Fridays, with employees allowed to go home early that day in return for the lunchtime they give up. He says that many of his employees have become Christians.

Mr. Han's belief has changed his business practice in other ways as well: "As a company we pay our taxes strictly and honestly; we treat our employees with love and pay them in a timely fashion." Those practices are unusual in a China where the hot business books of the past three years have titles like The Wolf Spirit of Enterprises and Think Like Wolves. Mr. Han, however, gives local government officials Bibles: He says they accept them happily, with those who have visited Western countries often saying that they read the Bibles in hotel rooms and are glad to have their own.

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