Last July, a leading Chinese writer, Liao Yiwu, was on the run in China, once again facing jail and torture for his “illegal” books, when he escaped by sneaking into Vietnam.
This week, the prominent dissident begins his first trip to the United States with the publication of his latest book in English. It gives an insider’s look at the surging interest in Christianity within the world’s most populous nation.
Mr. Liao is a “nonbeliever,” as he puts it, but he became mightily impressed with China’s estimated 70 million to 100 million Christians. (By comparison, the Communist Party has about 75 million members.) Their heroic tales of a reliance on the “life-sustaining” message of Jesus Christ “exhilarated me, lifting me out of my drunken depression,” he writes.
When they all go to worship on Sunday – either at a state-approved church or, more commonly, in private homes – China’s Christians tally more than all the churchgoers in Europe. But their influence as the largest formal religion in China (about 5 percent of the population) extends far beyond their numbers. Christian concepts, such as unconditional universal love, are now also seeping into Communist Party policy.
Published by HarperCollins, Liao’s book is called “God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China.” Its 18 interviews and essays are a journalistic chronicle of how Christians survived the repressive Mao era as well as a glimpse into why their numbers are rising so rapidly.
One clue: China suffers a spiritual crisis, caused by the collapse of communist ideology and a pell-mell race toward Western-style material prosperity. And China’s native religions, from Confucianism to Taoism, are not sufficient to meet the challenges facing Chinese youth.
“In our society today,” Liao writes, “people’s minds are entangled and chaotic.”
He sees essential qualities in Christians for building a new China – traits such as optimism, honesty, and a willingness to give – and forgive. His friend and fellow dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is in jail and won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, writes that this book “allows truth to shine in the darkness.”
All of Liao’s books tell tales of Chinese who live on the margins, the forgotten populations whose daily lives “help the world understand the true spirit of China, which will outlast the current totalitarian government.” His 2001 book, “The Corpse Walker,” is about the people he met in prison where he spent four dehumanizing years for publishing an epic poem, “Massacre,” about the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
Once a skeptic of religion, Liao met his first Christian in 1998. He then sought out more of them, mostly in the southwestern province of Yunnan – people like a doctor-turned-missionary (“Dr. Sun”) who took Liao to rural communities where illiterate villagers expressed a love of God “with eloquence.” He learned how Christianity there survived the Mao era because they met for services in mountain caves.
Liao is wary, however, of the new urban Christians.
“Many new converts are highly educated and well-off professionals or retirees,” Liao writes. “They have embraced Christianity the way they do Coca-Cola or a Volkswagen – believing that a foreign faith, like foreign-made products, has a better quality. Many younger urban Christians have been throwing themselves at the feet of Jesus because it is considered hip to wear a cross and sing a foreign-sounding hymn.”
He also worries, like many scholars, whether Christianity is merely a spiritual haven for the Chinese and will turn people into submissive subjects of the state.
Not to worry. The government itself is turning to Christianity for help to govern – and to keep the party in power, according to Gerda Wielander of the University of Westminster in London. In a recent article in The China Journal, she looks at how officials and many Chinese are adopting Western concepts of love, or a “loving heart,” as a motive for daily interactions in a society without much trust.
“Love is very much on the public agenda,” she states.
The party has called for “the development of the positive content of religious doctrines.” In 2009, for example, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told a group of students: “Everything depends on love. We hope that [you] children understand love, cherish love, learn and master love. You must turn love into practical action.”
Indeed, a new spirit of compassion was very much on display after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when volunteers flooded the region to help.
Chinese officials see Christianity as the source of Western success and scientific progress, Ms. Wielander finds, and want to adopt its values, even if for the wrong reason of staying in power and while trying to give it “Chinese characteristics.”
“The mutual adaptation of Christianity and the Party-state appears truly a two-way flow of communication,” she writes.
It will take many more writers like Liao Yiwu to chronicle this historic shift in a country that will likely come to dominate the 21st century.