Among Chinese Intellectuals
“It’s all because those soldiers on June 4th used real bullets to shoot the people. If they had used rubber bullets there would be no revival among the students today.”
- Beida University Student
Behind these emotional words, spoken in December by a young man called Jiang, a recently converted student from China’s premier Beida University, lies a brilliantly cogent argument – one which goes at least some way to accounting for a remarkable phenomenon in modern China. Namely, the turning of thousands of Chinese intellectuals away from a Maoist to a Christian faith.
Because the Chinese government put down the pro-democracy movement with such ferocity and cruelty, China’s students saw two truths clearly for the first time in their lives, which set them on the road to Christianity.
First, they saw that the Chinese Communist Party could no longer be trusted. “Before June 4, we were all quite ‘pink’ in our attitude to the government. We were the elite of society, and hoped to receive the plum placements in China at the end of our courses,” said Jiang.
“To be rebuffed with such murderous ferocity by a government we thought was flexible enough to make real changes woke us up to the fact that we must no longer have any faith in the system.”
The disillusion was bitter. As a Christian teacher involved in the demonstrations said in December, “We are all still in a state of shock. It never crossed our minds that the government would do such a terrible thing as order the army to mow down defenseless civilians.”
The second truth that dawned on Jiang was a startlingly simple one: People are evil. Yet in a Chinese context, this is a radical conclusion. As a Christian professor in Beijing said, “All our religions for the past 5,000 years, including Maoism, teach that man is basically good, and only circumstances make him bad.”
“We saw pure evil …”
The brutality of the massacres in Tiananmen square was inexplicable to the Chinese people. “We saw pure evil,” said a Beijing surgeon, “and it horrified us.” Fright, horror, fear, and shock are still written on the faces of the Beijing student population eight months later.
One young woman said, “In our dorm we heard that the PLA was shooting students, but that seemed ridiculous, so I went to the square with my boyfriend.” She related, with tearful eyes, how she watched him approach a soldier to ask about the reports, then saw him wheel around in terror. He was shot in the back of the head at point blank range.
Sobered by the carnage, and disillusioned with the system that instituted it, students began to look for spiritual comfort. But which religion should they choose?
Jiang explained, “We could not try any of the Chinese religions like Confucianism, Taoism or even Buddhism, because they were based on a premise that people are morally good!” He said, “I turned to Christianity because it seemed the only realistic religion … it told us we had evil tendencies, but that this evil could be conquered.”
Are claims of revival far-fetched?
Admitting his argument is in no way a complete explanation of why China’s students are converting to Christianity, is Jiang’s claim of revival far-fetched?
According to Dr. Leslie Francis, a Christian academic specializing in Chinese intellectual history, and a visitor to Beijing in December, “The turning of students to Christianity since June 4 involves not merely hundreds, but thousands throughout China.” She added, I would rate this as one of the most significant periods in the history of Chinese intellectualism.”
Sources among the student population confirm this turning. Students have indicated that at several of China’s most prominent universities, as much as 10 percent of the student body has been converted to Christianity. In some cases, entire dorms or even faculties have become Christian.
A veteran foreign teacher related how he attended church in July and was pinned to his seat after the service for two hours by inquisitive students asking questions about his faith. He said, “In five years in China, I have never seen anything like it. It was an explosion of interest in the Christian faith, and all the Three-Self churches I know here are just overwhelmed by the numbers coming to the services.”
The Christian broadcasting company, Trans World Radio, reported it had received a letter from a member of the Hua Xiang Three-Self church in Fuchow sharing that a staggering 8,000 students had come to that church since June 4, inquiring about the Christian faith.
House church leaders in the major cities also report being inundated with converted students asking to be discipled. A leader of a large house church in northern Beijing said, “Frankly, we cannot cope with the discipling of these new converts.”
Even the press is starting to notice. In fact, they have been the first to use the term “revival.” In the Chinese language newspaper Ming Bao in Hong Kong, it was reported, “There has been a revival of religious interest in China … more students are going to church at Christmas time than ever before.”
A new phenomenon among Chinese intellectuals
The teachings of Jesus Christ have attracted thousands of battered and disillusioned students. A Beijing professor contends that “students are attracted to the twin notions of absolute truth and unconditional love that are enshrined in the Christian faith.”
To a people weary of the relativism and the constant revision of Marxist tenets, to say nothing of their distaste for the lying that is so much a part of life, a religion which professor to have truth which is intrinsically objective, unalterable, and pure, is indeed a great attraction. As one student said, “I cannot tell you what a relief it is not to have to believe a lie, or live a lie anymore!”
China’s intellectuals are becoming Christians in unprecedented numbers today. In Chinese intellectual history, and in Chinese Christian history, this represents a completely new phenomenon.
It remains to be seen whether traditional house churches can provide a suitable context for nurturing the majority of these new intellectual converts. It could be that an entirely new strand of Chinese Christianity has come into being as a result of the tragic events of 1989 – a strand that will stand on its own.
The difference these new believers may make to the fabric of Chinese society could be crucial, especially in these uncertain days. Dr. Leslie Francis envisages a bloody overthrow of the Chinese government sometime in the next two years. She argues, “All the elements that historically signal the end of a dynasty are in place – rural discontent, urban unrest, military regionalism, economic stagnation, and an inept government.
Yet there is a new factor which may sway the inexorable laws of history. Speaking to intellectuals in 1977, a certain Chinese philosopher asked, “Why was MAO so great?”, and answered, “Because we were all kneeling down.” China’s intellectuals are knelling down again in 1990, but this time no longer to Mao, but to Jesus Christ.