Sunday, May 06, 2012

Even Chi-Comms are drawn to Christianity, as the West is throwing it away

Niall Ferguson, British Historian, argues that the days of Western predominance are numbered because the China and the Rest of the world have started downloading the six applications the West once monopolized - competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. Meanwhile the West has literally lost faith in itself, and in Christianity, its greatest legacy which gave birth to these many advantages.

(From Niall Ferguson, Civilization, The West and the Rest, Penguin Press, New York, 2011, pp.284-288).

Luggage Factory, Wenzhou.
The city of Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, C\hina, is the quintessential manufacturing town. With a population of 8 million people and growing, it has the reputation of being the most entrepreneurial city in China - a place where the free market rules and the role of the state is minimal. The landscape of textile mills and heaps of coal would have been instantly recognizable to a Victorian; it is an Asian Manchester. The work ethic animates everyone from the wealthiest entrepreneur to the lowliest factory hand. Wenzhou people not only work longer hours than Americans; they also save a far larger proportion of their income. Between 2001 and 2007, at a time when American savings collapsed, the Chinese savings rate rose above 40 per cent of gross national income. On average, Chinese households save more than a fifth of the money they make; corporations save even more in the form of retained earnings.

Wenzhou General Protestant Church
Wezhou General
Protestant Church.
The truly fascinating thing, however, is that people in Wenzhou have imported more than just the work ethic from the West. They have imported Protestantism too. For the seeds the British missionaries planted here 150 years ago have belatedly sprouted in the most extraordinary fashion. Whereas before the Cultural Revolution there were 480 churches in the city, today there are 1,339 churches- and those are only the ones approved by the government. The church George Stott built a hundred years ago is now packed every Sunday. Another, established by the Inland Mission in 1877 but closed during the Cultural Revolution and only reopened in 1982, now has a congregation of 1,200. There are new churches, too, often with bright red neon crosses on their roofs. Small wonder they call Wenzhou the Chinese Jerusalem. Already in 2002 around 14 per cent of Wenzhou's population were Christians; the proportion today is surely higher. And this is the city that Mao proclaimed 'religion free' back in 1958. As recently as 1997, officials here launched a campaign to 'remove the crosses'. Now they seem to have given up. In the countryside around Wenzhou, villages openly compete to see whose church has the highest spire.

Christianity in China today is far from being the opium of the masses. Among Wenzhou's most devout believers are the so-called Boss Christians, entrepreneurs like Hanping Zhang, chairman of Aihao (the Chinese character for which can mean 'love', 'goodness' or 'hobby'), one of the three biggest pen-manufacturers in the world. A devout Christian, Zhang is the living embodiment of the link between the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant ethic, precisely as Max Weber understood it. Once a farmer, he started a plastics business in 1979 and eight years later opened his first pen factory. Today he employs around 5,000 workers who produce up to 500 million pens a year. In his eyes, Christianity is thriving in China because it offers an ethical framework to people struggling to cope with a startlingly fast social transition from communism to capitalism. Trust is in short supply in today's China, he told me. Government officials are often corrupt. Business counterparties cheat. Workers steal from their employers. Young women marry and then vanish with hard-earned dowries. Baby food is knowingly produced with toxic ingredients, school buildings constructed with defective materials. But Zhang feels he can trust his fellow Christians, because he knows they are both hard working and honest. Just as in Protestant Europe and America in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, religious communities double as both credit networks and supply chains of creditworthy, trustworthy fellow believers.

In the past, the Chinese authorities were deeply suspicious of Christianity, and not just because they recalled the chaos caused by the Taiping Rebellion. Seminary students played an important part in the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement; indeed, two of the most wanted student leaders back in the summer of 1989 subsequently became Christian clergymen. In the wake of that crisis there was yet another crackdown on unofficial churches. Ironically, the utopianism of Maoism created an appetite that today, with a Party leadership that is more technocratic than messianic, only Christianity seems able to satisfy.... It is not hard to see why the Party prefers to reheat Confucianism, with its emphasis on respect for the older generation and the traditional equilibrium of a 'harmonious society'. Nor is it surprising that persecution of Christians was stepped up during the 2008 Olympics, a time of maximum exposure of the nation's capital to foreign influences.

Pastor Jin Mingri.
Even under Mao, however, an official Protestantism was tolerated in the form of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement based on the principles of self-governance, self-support and self-propagation - in other words no foreign influences. Today, St Paul's in Nanjing is typical of official Three-Self churches; here, the Reverend Kan Renping's congregation has grown from a few hundred when he took over in 1994 to some 5,000 regular worshippers. It is so popular that newcomers have to watch the proceedings on dosed-circuit television in four nearby satellite chapels. Since the issue of Party Document Number 19 in 1982 there has also been intermittent official tolerance of the 'house churches' movement, congregations that meet more or less secretly in people's homes and often embrace American forms of worship. In Beijing itself, worshippers flock to the Reverend Jin Mingri's Zion Church, an unofficial church with 350 members, nearly all drawn from the entrepreneurial or professional class and nearly all under the age of forty.

Gao Hong.
Christianity has become chic in China. The former Olympic soccer goalkeeper Gao Hong is a Christian. So are the television actress Lu Liping and the pop singer Zheng Jun. Chinese academics like Tang Yi openly speculate that 'the Christian faith may eventually conquer China and Christianize Chinese culture' - though he thinks it more likely either that 'Christianity may eventually be absorbed by Chinese culture, following the example of Buddhism ... and become a sinless religion of the Chinese genre' or that 'Christianity [will] retain its basic Western characteristics and settle down to be a sub-cultural minority religion.'

After much hesitation, at least some of China's communist leaders now appear to recognize Christianity as one of the West's greatest sources of strength. According to one scholar from the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences:

We were asked to look into what accounted for the ... pre-eminence of the West all over the world ... At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this.
Zhuo Xinping, director of the
Institute of World Religions.
Another academic, Zhuo Xinping, has identified the 'Christian understanding of transcendence' as having played 'a very decisive role in people's acceptance of pluralism in society and politics in the contemporary West':

Only by accepting this understanding of transcendence as our criterion can we understand the real meaning of such concepts as freedom, human rights, tolerance, equality, justice, democracy, the rule of law, universality, and environmental protection.
Yuan Zhiming, a Christian film-maker, agrees: 'The most important thing, the core of Western civilization ... is Christianity.' According to Professor Zhao Xiao, himself a convert, Christianity offers China a new 'common moral foundation' capable of reducing corruption, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, promoting philanthropy and even preventing pollution. 'Economic viability requires a serious moral ethos,' in the words of another scholar, 'more than just hedonistic consumerism and dishonest strategy.'

President Jiang Zemin.
It is even said that, shortly before Jiang Zemin stepped down as China's president and Communist Party leader, he told a gathering of high-ranking Party officials that, if he could issue one decree that he knew would be obeyed everywhere, it would be to 'make Christianity the official religion of China'. In 2007 his successor Hu Jintao held an unprecedented Politburo 'study session' on religion, at which he told China's twenty-five most powerful leaders that 'the knowledge and strength of religious people must be mustered to build a prosperous society'. The XIVth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party was presented with a report specifying three requirements for sustainable economic growth: property rights as a foundation, the law as a safeguard and morality as a support.