China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2005/Jun

Jesus in Beijing: A Review

Written by David Aikman and published in 2003 in the United States by Regnery Publishing, Inc., Jesus in Beijing, has become a popular book about Christianity in China and has garnered near-unanimous praise from reviewers for the author’s insight into the China situation.

However, Father Gianni Criveller, PIME, of the Holy Spirit Study Centre – himself a China scholar and well-acquainted with the situation of Christianity in China – had a number of reservations. He expressed his views in an interview with Sister Betty Ann Maheu, MM.

Q: You have reservations about some of the contents of Jesus in Beijing. How would you characterize it and who is David Aikman?

A: David Aikman is a former senior foreign correspondent in Beijing and Bureau chief for Time magazine.

Basically, Aikman describes Christianity as a fast spreading phenomenon that already has considerable influence in Chinese society: in politics, economics, the arts, education and even in the Communist Party. The book has sounded the alarm among the authorities on the evolving role of Christianity in China today and especially in the field of education.

Q: You maintain that the theme of the book is worrisome to the authorities. Can you expound on this?

A: The book’s subtitle is a synthesis of its bold theme: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. When the Communist Party came to power (1949) there were only four million Christians in China: three million Catholics and one million Protestants. Today, according to Aikman, in spite of all the attempts to eradicate religion during Mao’s reign, Christians now number over 80 million. An exponential growth, with the great majority now being Protestant.

Q: Eighty million still constitutes a small percentage of China’s total population, why should it be a concern?

A: China is always leery and suspicious of any religious movement it cannot directly control.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: Aikman has gazed into his crystal ball and has reached the conclusion that within the next 30 years, more than one-third of the Chinese population could become Christian, making China the largest Christian nation ever! According to Aikman, it is even possible that China’s leaders will themselves become Christian. This revolution will be such that, after conversion, China will effect a change in Christianity itself. At that point, China and the United States, currently at odds with one another, will become great allies, forming a strong Christian alliance capable of meeting the threat of the radical Islamic world. Aikman even envisions the conversion of the Islamic world to Christianity! Chinese Christians will succeed where western Christians have consistently failed.

Q: That is indeed a very bold vision. On what does Aikman base these assumptions?

A: Aikman supports his vision by citing the role Christianity played in the fall of the Roman Empire and the eventual triumph of Christianity. He likens the Chinese communities to those of the first Christians. He bolsters his ideas by alluding to frequent miracles, prodigies and supernatural signs taking place in China today. Furthermore, the way of spreading the Gospel in China today is similar to that of apostolic times.

In my opinion, the comparison limps badly. We live in a totally different age in totally different circumstances. Aikman further declares that China already has people ready to begin missionary expansion.

Q: Aikman is a journalist of note. He must have some basis to substantiate his claims?

A: Aikman’s theories are based on interviews with leaders of the Christian Church -including those who guide the local Protestant Church – and with Chinese scholars described as “Culture Christians” who show interest in and even sympathy toward Christianity. In addition, he speaks of a large number of secret missionaries from evangelical groups that come from North America, northern Europe and Asian countries.

Q: Do Aikman’s theories and sources have any credibility?

A: It is hard to say just how reliable Aikman’s interlocutors really are. Some must certainly be respected for the quality of their faith and their witness. Others, however, exhibit behaviour and hold doctrines that can only be called bizarre.

Q: I notice that Aikman has a specific section dealing with the Catholic Church.

A: This section is based, in part, on an interview with a priest who is well known to all who are in any way familiar with the situation of the Catholic Church in China. The priest is expressing his personal opinion. He does not represent any authoritative Catholic voice. I found the chapter on the Catholic Church rather disappointing.

Q: You say some of the examples used to show Christianity’s influence in China today really stretch the imagination.

A: The episode in the book in which Jiang Zemin, China’s leader from 1989 to 2004, is a case in point. According to the author, Jiang reveals to a few intimate friends that, if he could, he would make Christianity China’s official religion. Politicians must be judged by their actions and not hypothetical secret whisperings to a few intimates. If this were indeed Jiang Zemin’s thinking, why did he continue to apply a policy of total control and party manipulation over all religions?

During the 1990s, remarkable period of stability, Jiang lost a historical opportunity to make civil and religious reforms demanded by the people, particularly in the popular demonstrations suppressed by the blood of June 1989. Jiang Zemin actually initiated the persecution of the Falun Gong (1999-2004), which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, incarcerations, and torture.

Q: Do you see other shortcomings in this book?

A: The book leans too much in one predetermined direction: announcing the future of Christianity in China, with little concern for objectivity or knowledge. The inspiration for the book seems to be the inordinate enthusiasm of the fundamentalist, evangelical movement that is not recognised by any of the mainstream Christian confessions.

The groups of Christian inspiration that Aikman cites constitute a small heterogeneous galaxy that often breeds outlandish forms (for example the Shouters and the Weepers) and where accounts of miraculous phenomena are common.

The message of this “Christian” galaxy requires little reflection. It is based on the acceptance, within a highly emotional context, that “Jesus is my Saviour.” The results are certainly immediate and gratifying, but often also short-lived.

Q: Can you explain the enthusiastic response the book has received, especially in the United States?

A: Yes, because in the United States Christian renewal (represented above all by the vast born again Christian movement which has also spread to China) takes on strong ideological connotations, with the support of the conservative, Christian policy of today’s American leadership.

However, it does not seem to me to be good strategy to bend reality to desires, no matter how enthusiastically hoped for.

Q: But Aikman substantiates his claims with some rather impressive statistics.

A: Aikman’s statistics must be viewed with great caution. The most enthusiastic evangelicals like to say there are 100 million Christians in China. However, no objective or careful observer is in accord with this number. An optimistic estimate is that Christians in China might number around 30 million. This is a respectable number, but still very, very small in a country with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants. I also want to add that I fear that the number of Catholics in China in the last five or six years has not increased significantly.

Furthermore, it is my opinion that Christianity will encounter more difficulties than advantages in the near future. The challenge of modernisation, which translates into secularisation, constitutes a formidable obstacle. I really fear that China’s Christians will be seriously affected by this challenge. I fear that there will be serious difficulty in handing on the faith from a generation that has conserved it under persecution, to a modern generation, “inebriated with the pursuit of money and consumer goods.”

Q: You do not seem overly optimistic about the future of Christianity in China. Do you not see real hope for Christianity at least in the scholars known as “Culture Christians”?

A: I believe that Aikman’s hopes with regards “Culture Christians” are excessive. This phenomenon, on which I have often written personally, certainly exists and is interesting. For me, the most positive element is that, for the first time since Matteo Ricci, some intellectuals from important parts of the academic world in China view Christianity favourably. However, I fear that the so-called “Christianity fever” that spread in China, especially in the 1980s and 1990s may be already on the wane. “Culture Christians” are numerically few and their influence in society is rather limited.

Q: Are there any new signs that the authorities are carefully watching the development of Christianity in China?

A: Toward the end of 2004, Beijing authorities alerted several universities to the danger of infiltration by underground missionaries among the students and foreign teachers. Regulations have been set up for greater control over the teachers and the activities of the instructors.

This could well be the result of the alarm that Aikman’s book and other writings with the same ideological bent have aroused among the authorities of the People’s Republic of China.