The Times: Student protests steer China to spiritual rebirth

Monday, January 12, 2015

Baptisms in China have become common
since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
The Times
Nick Wyke
Published at 12:00 AM, January 10 2015

A total of 247 million people in the People’s Republic are forecast to become Christians by 2030, writes Nick Wyke.

Bob Fu understands better than most the fear and frustration that the students who protested for 79 days last year in Hong Kong must feel as their leaders await prosecution. Back in 1989, Fu led fellow university students at the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

His actions put him on the ruling party’s radar and ultimately led to two months in prison after he started an illegal house church. Fu was forced to write confessions, and was betrayed by his former friends. During his incarceration his feelings of suicidal despair and anger were relieved only by the “beautiful sentences” of a testimony handed to him by a US missionary. “This was the living God I’d been looking for,” Fu says. “A year later when I told the missionary that I’d seen the light, he looked shocked at first and thought I was from the secret police, then he fell to his knees.”

In 1997 Fu and his then pregnant wife, Heidi, escaped house arrest and fled to the United States as religious refugees. They have lived in Texas ever since, although Fu is currently examining Chinese church-state models for a doctorate at Durham University. As part of his studies he has been keeping a close eye on developments in Hong Kong and notes that two of the “three gentlemen of Occupy Central” who led the protests — the Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming and the law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting — are Christians. Moreover, one of the student leaders facing possible prosecution for his role in the demonstrations, Joshua Wong, is a Christian too; he claims that his own commitment and dedication to freedom and social justice are deeply rooted in his Christian faith. Fu comments: “Their faith has provided the [Umbrella] movement with a much more solid spiritual conviction and strength with compassion in dealing with the tense situation. One of the lessons from Tiananmen Square is that protest leaders need to be persistent in setting a clear goal for negotiation. Division or internal fights, like those that happened between the leaders at Tiananmen [instigated partly by Chinese Communist Party officials], always result in the CCP having the upper hand in manipulation.”

In hindsight Fu has another perspective on the events of 1989. “Yes, it was an historical massacre — but God used the tragedy as the beginning of maybe the greatest redemptive movement in Chinese history.”

Christianity has certainly been growing in China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Fu claims he was the only Christian at his university in the mid-1990s; now, he says, the church near his university in Shandong province has about 10,000 Christians and every university has Bible study groups, including nearly 200 at Beijing University alone. Even conservative estimates by government scholars calculate there to be approximately 60 million Christians in China. And an expert on religion in China, Professor Fenggang Yang, of Purdue University, Indiana, predicts that this figure will have risen to 247 million by 2030, making China the largest Christian nation in the world.

In spite of such spiritual growth — real and forecast — there are immense structural difficulties and political hurdles to overcome in a country whose official party “religion” is atheism.

“Christians in China struggle with a lack of biblically sound teaching, solid leadership and the absence of a mature church-state relationship to protect religious freedom for all,” Fu says. “We have to start from the inside out before we can have a meaningful democracy. Christians can make a difference in taking the responsibility of leadership. They can form the backbone of Chinese civil society, providing moral guidance, stability and care for the vulnerable.”

In spite of most Christians in China being apolitical, the ruling party remains suspicious of organised religion, viewing it as a political threat and as a channel for western plots. “The Communist party sees Christianity through an antagonistic lens,” Fu says.

Although much of the world’s media has focused recently on the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, in the past year the Chinese military police has either demolished or removed crosses from more than 400 state-sanctioned churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang alone. Just before Christmas, in an attack on a major government-approved Protestant church in Zhejiang, 100 armed security officials were employed simply to destroy the church’s cross. Thousands of Chinese people remain imprisoned for their beliefs, and there has been a crackdown on the network of underground house churches. Fu adds: “It is the worst persecution since the time of the Cultural Revolution.”

Fu talks often about a prison theology that is born of this persecution. “Prison has become a parish,” he says. “More obedience to God alone will inevitably result in the sort of persecution that leads to closer relationship with God and unspeakable joy in the midst of suffering. This true joy, strength and testimony of faith always translate into church growth.”

In contrast he likens Western faith to the thief, in a story reported in the New York Times, who breaks into a church and steals the valuable Jesus from the cross. “The West has been driven by a kind of ‘fast-food theology’ which requires immediate pleasure, shallow happiness, artificial peace and short-cut success and prosperity. It has somehow downgraded the true version of the Christian faith, seeking only Jesus without any of the pain and suffering.”

Fu has been unable to return to visit family in China, where he is high on the list of wanted men. Instead he has set up ChinaAid, a non-profit Christian human rights group committed to promoting religious freedom and the rule of law in China. And, like many of those playing the waiting game in Hong Kong, Fu finds solace in his faith. He quotes a verse from Romans viii, 31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The Chinese authorities have, he claims, vowed to assassinate him in the past and have labelled him the “Protestant Dalai Lama” but he remains largely unnerved by these threats. “Occasionally scary thoughts come to mind. But most of the time I feel privileged to realise God can use a beggar’s son to ‘stir the world’ to walk with and support my fellow persecuted brothers and sisters. More joy and love can overcome that fear. I know my life span is in the hands of God and he has even counted every piece of my hair. But I am glad I am still alive today.”

God’s Double Agent by Bob Fu is published by Baker Books (£8.99). For more on ChinaAid, go to

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