by Tony Lambert
The brutal suppression of the peaceful democracy movement in Beijing plunged China’s intellectuals and educated young people into profound gloom and pessimism overnight. For the time being political activism seems hopeless, even suicidal in the face of an intransigent regime.
The brutal suppression of the peaceful democracy movement in Beijing plunged China’s intellectuals and educated young people into profound gloom and pessimism overnight. For the time being political activism seems hopeless, even suicidal in the face of an intransigent regime. Some still hope for gradual evolution within the Party towards genuine political reform. Others are more pessimistic. In this atmosphere many have turned with disgust from dialectical materialism, and are seeking a religious solution. Christianity is the leading option. Asian, African and Muslim states largely stayed silent after the Beijing massacre, and it was the western democracies (perceived, rightly or wrongly, as “Christian”) which spoke out against the repression.
The authorities have increased surveillance, military training and political indoctrination for university students, who are also upset by the unreasonable system of job allocation by the State after graduation, which now again stresses political ideology rather than competence. In Qinghua University there were three suicides in the space of one month. Morale is therefore at a low ebb among students, and many are looking for spiritual solutions. In 1989-90 there has been a major turning to Christianity by students and young people. This was visibly evident at churches I visited in Beijing, Kunming and Fuzhou. In Beijing large numbers of students were attending the Haidian church near Beijing University. In the largest church in Fuzhou there is a weekly young people’s meeting attended by some 300 eager students, and in Kunming the main Protestant church had a large number of students and young people following the hour-long sermon in their Bibles, when I visited in October 1990. There were certainly more students and young people in evidence than on my previous visits. In Fuzhou a member of the main Huaxiang church reported that 8000 students had come to church since 4 June, enquiring about the Christian faith.
Reports from Chinese students in Beijing spoke of whole dormitories converting to Christ (a dormitory usually housing eight students) following the massacre. A western China scholar with long-standing experience of the situation among Chinese intellectuals estimated that interest in the Christian church involved “not merely hundreds but thousands of students from all over China. . . This phenomenon is totally spontaneous and accelerating fast, and its strength may lie in the fact that it is utterly Chinese. The influence of foreign Christian teachers on campus appears to be quite marginal.” Significant outbreaks of student conversions were reported from Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Ningbo, Wenzhou, Fuzhou and Xiamen. In some of these cities an estimated 10 per cent of the student body had turned to Christianity. House-church leaders in Beijing reported that they were overwhelmed by the number of student converts. One cogent reason given by a professor at Beijing University was that the manifest brutality of the massacre shattered traditional Chinese belief in the innate goodness of man, and set students thinking about the Christian doctrine of sin and atonement. One student turned to Christianity because “it seemed the only realistic religion… It told us we had evil tendencies, but that this evil could be conquered.”
There has been plenty of corroborating evidence from the secular media. A Hong Kong newspaper reported at Christmas 1989 that “there has been a revival of religious interest in China, and more students are going to church at Christmas time than ever before.” In January 1990 the pro-Communist newspaper Wenhuibao reported from Shanghai that the number of young people turning to Christianity was “increasing daily” and that one of the largest churches had set up a special weekly youth meeting to accommodate them. It estimated that between 1987 and 1989 15,000 young people had joined the TSPM churches in Shanghai, accounting for 25 per cent of the city’s Christians. Moreover the number regularly attending worship, but who had not been baptised, was evengreater. The average age of these young people was twenty-five, many of them workers and university students and graduates. A young Party member stated that after the 4 June massacre he “no longer believed in anything.” Later he no longer considered himself a Party member, and joined a church. The same report stated that in 1990 students at Beijing University, the cradle of the democracy movement, set up a series of seminars to discuss the Bible and the influence of Christianity on western culture. One of the students who attended said: “Many of my friends are very curious about western culture, but some of them are searching for something else to fill their spiritual void.”
In April 1990 a source in Beijing revealed detailed statistics concerning the alarming drop in applicants for CCP (Chinese Communist Party) membership, compared to the vast increase in people joining the churches. The figures showed that whereas new membership of the CCP in Beijing had decreased by 45 per cent in 1987-9 compared to 1984-6, over the same period numbers joining TSPM (Three Self Patriotic Movement) churches had risen by 170 per cent. In Tianjin the figures, respectively, were -80 per cent (CCP) and +150 per cent (Christians). In Chengdu new Party members had decreased by 14 per cent, while new church members had increased by a staggering 500 per cent. The same source revealed that, according to internal estimates by the Nationalities and Religious Affairs Commission, there were more than 10 million (Protestant) Christians in China—double the official estimate quoted by the TSPM. Of these, 40 per cent were intellectuals and students. Whatever the accuracy of some of the details of this report, it confirms the rapid growth of the church, especially among students and intellectuals.
The government is concerned about this growth. New regulations issued by the State Education Commission at the end of 1990 banned all public lectures and speeches on campus that “spread superstition or deal with religious activities” as part of a series of wider measures to suppress political activism. In September that year, Workers’ Daily reported that a survey conducted among students in Zhejiang Province among 6400 students revealed that 871 believed in God, and 627 were regular church-goers (or nearly 10 per cent of the student body). The newspaper warned that the number of believers was increasing and that “belief in religion posed a danger to students’ physical and psychological health.” It called on the authorities in strident leftist tones to “heighten their vigilance, strengthen political education, and take effective measures to develop patriotic and Communist thinking among these young people.” In October 1990, while visiting Kunming, I was told by a Christian leader working in the ‘open’ church that Christian students and teachers were now being threatened with poor job assignments or dismissal from their teaching posts because of their faith. Hard-liners controlling the CCP again view Christianity as a dangerous rival.
Excerpt from Tony Lambert’s book, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1991). Reprinted with permission.