More Chinese Turning to Religion.
c The Associated PressJanuary 16, 2000
BEIJING (AP) - Xu Yonghai has lost faith in communism and democracy - the
last 20 years of living in China saw to that. So, like countless other
Chinese staring into a spiritual void, Xu turned to religion.
"Life without faith is unbearable," the 39-year-old doctor said. "But after
I found God in 1989, my life totally changed. I felt like a new person."
Xu is part of a religious and spiritual upsurge in China that threatens to
surpass political dissent as a corrosive force on Communist Party authority.
From western China's deserts and Tibet's high plateaus to eastern China's
teeming cities, officials are beset by religious and spiritual challenges.
Some families are building shrines to their ancestors. Millenarian sects
have attracted thousands of rural converts. Millions of Christians attend
unsanctioned religious gatherings, rather than government-registered
churches, despite the risk of harassment, fines and detention.
The past few months in particular have produced dramatic indications that
the officially atheist communist government is losing ground.
In a major blow, the 14-year-old leader of one of Tibetan Buddhism's main
sects fled Chinese-controlled Tibet and risked life, limb and possible
arrest in an eight-day trek across the snowbound Himalayas to reach freedom
earlier this month in India. Communist leaders had painstakingly groomed the
lama, the 17th Karmapa, to help bolster their rule in Tibet.
Followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, meanwhile, have continued to
defy the government with daring if short-lived protests in Tiananmen Square,
despite a six-month crackdown that has seen thousands detained and
imprisoned. Among its millions of members, Falun Gong counts police
officers, soldiers, government officials and others vital to the party's
monopoly on power.
While copies of Mao Tse-tung's little red book of communist philosophy
gather dust in antique shops, some young Beijingers are reading the Dalai
Lama's autobiography and books on fortune telling and other traditional
Chinese beliefs.
For at least six months, since the government banned Falun Gong as a threat
to society and communist rule, state-run newspapers have railed against
"superstitious practices" and reminded party members they are meant to be
"Our country has more than 100 million believers of different faiths," Prime
Minister Zhu Rongji said Tuesday at a meeting on religion. "Our religious
work is concerned with uniting these 100 million around the party and
government, focusing their will and strength on the cause of socialist
But the violent excesses of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the crushing
of democracy movements and dissent since then have left many Chinese
disillusioned or uninterested in politics.
Communist ideals, meanwhile, have been overshadowed by rampant official
corruption and market reforms that have opened a gulf between rich and poor
and thrown millions of workers out of jobs they once thought would be theirs
for life.
"The economy is bad, so many people have been laid off," said Xu, the doctor
who became a Christian. "Life is tough, with housing problems, looking after
the aged, schooling, medical care. It's problem after problem pressing down
on ordinary people.
"But after people believe in God, after they accept the Gospel, they can
escape this unsettling situation, this pain. That's the main reason why
there have been more and more believers in the past few years," he said.
Both official and unsanctioned churches are growing, foreign experts say.
While still a small fraction of China's 1.2 billion people, Christians of
all denominations - both official and unsanctioned - could number 30million.
Churchgoers estimate that Beijing and surrounding villages now have more
than 1,000 Protestant "house" churches, where the faithful worship outside
of state supervision, often in people's homes. They say police raids and
harassment have become less frequent in the capital over the past two years,
partly because authorities can't keep a lid on the churches' expansion.
"The government has become less ambitious in terms of control because of the
sheer number of religious communities around the country," said Jean-Pierre
Cabestan, a Hong Kong-based China researcher.
While practitioners say Falun Gong is not a religion, Communist leaders were
stunned by the movement's ability to organize protests, including one by
more than 10,000 followers outside the government's Beijing headquarters
last April.
Lu Siqing, a Hong Kong-based rights activist, estimates that 5,000 followers
of Falun Gong have been sent without trial to labor camps. Four leaders were
sentenced on Dec. 26 to up to 18 years in prison, in part under anti-cult
laws tightened during the government crackdown.
Anti-cult laws also have been used to target sects that are either Christian
or that draw on Christian teachings, and more than 100 members of such
groups have been arrested, Lu said. The sects include some that preach
defiance of government policies, such as family-planning rules that restrict
many couples to having only one child, he said.AP-NY-01-16-00 1203EST