Evangelist Billy Graham, during his recent visit to the People’s Republic of China, had an unexpected private meeting with Prime Minister Li Peng to discuss Christianity and its potential role in China. Sources say the unusual Saturday afternoon meeting lasted 50 minutes.
The Chinese press reported parts of the discussion, which observers saw as a sign that Li wanted certain things to be acknowledged publicly, including a rare admission: “The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief. But in the past we didn’t practice it in full. We are trying to correct the past …” Li also said China needs “moral power” and “spiritual forces” if it is to prosper and be strong.
Graham was quoted as urging Li to study the life of Christ. The meeting was reported on Chinese national television and in the press. Millions who never heard of Graham became acquainted with his name and mission.
Graham was hosted by leaders of the China Christian Council (CCC), and the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. He told them he had come for four reasons: to see his wife’s birthplace at a former medical mission compound in the Jiangsu province, to learn about China, to proclaim the Gospel, and to help build bridges of friendship and understanding.
Accompanied by his wife, Ruth, his son Franklin, and a small team, he spent a week in Beijing, then Jiangsu Province, Nanjing, the central coastal city of Shanghai, and finally Guangzhou. He preached to overflow crowds at CCC churches and met with independent house church leaders and government leaders of all the cities in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
Sources say China is experiencing dramatic church growth. In Shanghai, Graham met with Wang Mingdao, 86, one of the most prominent figures in Chinese church history. Wang suffered much persecution and spent years in prison.
Graham also addressed academic gatherings in Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing. According to a department head at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, Graham’s meetings with scholars was the the first time Christianity was ever discussed there seriously. At other academic sessions, teachers, and students quizzed him on moral and spiritual isues.
For many Protestant leaders, Graham’s visit signaled the best climate in church-and-state relations since the Communists came to power in 1949.