For the first time, American evangelist Billy Graham was invited by Communist Party leaders into the People’s Republic of China. Graham was hosted during his April visit by Prime Minister Li Peng, one of the five members on the Standing Committee of the party.
“We don’t have the same God, but that doesn’t matter,” Li said in his welcoming remarks for Graham, according to the New York Times News Service. “It doesn’t prevent us from having a good talk together.”
Graham did not reveal any details of his private discussion with Li to the press, urging that the questions be posed to the Chinese. Asked of his impression of Li, he said: “I was tremendously impressed with his warmth, his courtesy. He certainly knew a lot about religion.”
Graham also met with a group of students and teachers at Beijing University during his visit. “They were interested in philosophy and religion,” he said. “They asked why I believed in God.”
The fundamental purpose for his trip was to present “the Gospel of Christ,” and “to make a contribution to world peace.” This was Graham’s first trip to China. During his stay he preached four times to Chinese audiences.
Since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Christianity has been increasingly tolerated in the People’s Republic under the umbrella of officially approved churches. The government says there are four million Protestants and more than three million Catholics. The State Department offers an estimate of 10 to 20 million Christians.
There is also an underground church which is experiencing phenomenal growth – comprised of Christians who do not wish to take part in government-controlled churches. An unknown number of Chinese have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs, some of whom have been designated by Amnesty International, the human rights group, as prisoners of conscience.
Prior to his visit, Graham told reporters that he would only raise the issue of imprisoned Christians “indirectly” in his discussions with Chinese officials.
“I talked about human rights,” he explained. “There are some things I think I can accomplish in a private way.” He preferred not to criticize the government directly. He also said he was not discouraged by China’s government policy of atheism: “There is something innate in man,” he said. “Man is not born to atheism. He is born to believe. They’re not different deep down in their search for meaning. The message is always the same.”