David Aikman is former senior correspondent and bureau chief in Eastern Europe and Beijing for Time Magazine. His latest book is Jesus in Beijing, which discusses the rise of Christianity in China and what a Christian China might mean for global Christianity and world politics. Aikman is chairman and founder of Gegrapha, a fellowship of Christian journalists, and he contributes regularly to the to the American Spectator and the Weekly Standard.
Talk about how things have changed so dramatically since you were a bureau chief.
When I was in China in the 1980's it was just beginning to open up. The decisions by Deng Xiaoping in 1978-79 began to open China right after their hibernation during the cultural revolution. But it has taken two decades for the changes to shake down through society. Now, you still have very tight restrictions on religion and you still have persecution there, of course. But it's possible to get around China, to go to places without asking permission from the Foreign Ministry, and that was not the case two decades ago.
What are some of the dynamics that have meant that right now is a time where there can be some tremendous growth and opportunities for growth of the Church in China?
I think probably the most dramatic growth may be over. I would say that occurred in the '80s and '90s. Throughout the 1980s and then in the early '90s. Christianity is still growing a lot. I think the point is that there is a spiritual vacuum in China that for quite a long time nobody has believed in Marxism-Leninism, and people want to know what's life all about?
What is the Three Self Church.
The Three Self Patriotic Movement is an umbrella organization for Protestant churches in China, which was set up in the 1950s to enable the Communist Party, through Protestant clergy, to control Protestant Christianity. And it has, in many ways, affected the theology for a long time. In a Three Self church, if you were a pastor, even if you were an evangelical, and many of them are, you were not allowed to preach on the book of Daniel, you weren't allowed to preach on Genesis, you weren't allowed to speak about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Three Self churches claim these are the churches that are open and visible and operating on a weekly basis on Sunday.
How do we go about getting a number for the number of Christians in China?
The Three Self Church claims about 15 to 20 million people. And that's probably a fairly accurate assessment of church membership or church-going throughout China. The Christians in the House Church, or what is sometimes called the Unregistered Christian Communities are reckoned to be about three times as large as the Three Self Christians. So let's suppose you've got 15 million Protestant Christians attached to the Three Self. It's estimated that there may be as many as 45 million who attend House churches. So you were at about 50 million, and then maybe add on another 12 for the Catholics. So we're talking 70 to 80 million people here.
It is amazing when you consider that in 1949 there were only 3 million Catholics and fewer than one million Protestants.
When you try to understand the House Church movement and why it's grown rapidly, you talk about persecution, and you talk about genuine miraculous work of the Spirit of God. You feel like you're reading the book of Acts when you read some of these stories.
Certainly persecution has played a role in the growth of the Church. Christianity has flourished. It's certainly been in many ways as healthy as under persecution because they trimmed a lot of the excesses of life that's come by when things were too easy. But it's also true that for some reason which only the sovereignty of God can explain, many Chinese come into a faith experience of the Christian gospel through some form of miraculous healing, either in their own lives or in the lives of people they know well. And it is very striking. You don't have to spend much time in China to realize that lots and lots of people—far more I would say than you would find normally in the United States—have had first-hand experience of what seemed like miraculous healing.
There's another aspect of the House Church that was fascinating. And that is the degree to which they are a combination of fairly supportive of the United States, and also their call to the Islamic world. They feel the call to be part of what God might do with Muslims.
They do tend to be pro-American, obviously, because they know that in America Christians are free and they get a lot of help from the United States churches, so they're very grateful for that. And also they take a view of America as having had on the whole, a very good influence all over the world. Which countries are first always to provide emergency aid after earthquakes and volcanoes? It's always the Americans. So they appreciate that.
In the case of the Muslims as a movement in the Chinese churches, particularly the House Churches, it's called Back to Jerusalem. And essentially this is a sort of nation-wide concept that the destiny of the Chinese church is to complete the great commission insofar as reaching the Muslim world.
One of the most strategic forward-looking aspects of the book is the way it talks about a "Christianized China."
Well, I make it clear in the book that there's lots of things that could go wrong in China. You could have a sort of alpha-nationalist reaction against all of the Western contacts just as you did during the Boxer Rebellion in the year 1900. But at the present rate of growth in China, it's possible that within 20 to 30 years, 20 to 30 percent of the Chinese will be Christian, which would take place about the same time China is emerging as a number two superpower in the world.
When you have 20 to 30 percent of any country that are Christian believers, and not just nominal Christians but quite serious committed Christians, you find them showing up throughout society in places of influence, including eventually politics. And if that happened, then China as a major power would have the same kind of view of itself and its global responsibility that say Great Britain had in the 19th century and the United States—although it certainly made a few mistakes—has honestly tried to pursue in the 20th century and now in the 21st century.
We've been talking about how Christianity could change China. How might China change the movement of Christianity in the world?
Well, there's an interesting book by a scholar of missions, Philip Jenkins, called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, in which he shows that there is a shift in the center of gravity of Christianity from north to south because there are more and more Christians in the southern hemisphere, in South American and in Africa, and increasingly large numbers in Asia. Now, if that's happening, and if China is going to be emerging as a country with perhaps the largest number of Christians anywhere in the world, you can be quite sure that China's Christian presence is going to play an influence in the development of global Christianity.
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Jesus in Beijing is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
National Review also interviewed David Aikman.
More on Aikman, including articles, is available on the Ethics and Public Policy Center web site.
Aikman also discussed Christianity in China for the Congressional Executive Committee on China.
Aikman also gave a speech about Christians in journalism.
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