.God vs. Country

When Chinese scholars arrive at Cal, Christian ministers help them get settled. But church involvement may set the visitors up for trouble back home.

On a clear spring evening in Berkeley, Ying, a former atheist, goes to church. Inside the building’s fluorescent-lit dining room, she sets out folding chairs for a dinner that will precede the evening’s Bible study. Not quite five feet tall and carrying herself with a mixture of nervous reserve and childlike joy, she pauses from chatting with friends in Mandarin to whisper conspiratorially: This friend is a new believer, too, Ying says in her soft, self-conscious English; that girl doesn’t believe at all, but she comes to learn about the Bible anyway.

Eight months ago when Ying stepped off the plane — the shy 37-year-old professor’s first time outside of China — Pastor Wilson Wong of Berkeley’s nondenominational Chinese for Christ Church was waiting, eyes peeled for the face he’d seen in Ying’s e-mailed photo. The middle-aged pastor and his wife, Susan, took her home with them for three days, fed her, and helped her find housing in between outings to church. Now, every Friday after work at UC Berkeley, Ying attends a fellowship for students and scholars from China, most of whom were brought up as atheists, too.

As the fellowship members trickle in, Susan gives out mother-hen hugs, occasionally chiding a student for missing several weeks. Wong makes the rounds like a busy politician, the scholars and students demure and respectful in his presence. Ying was won over, she says, by the Christians’ Jesuslike generosity: the airport pickup, the housing help, the rides to the grocery store, weekend trips, and loans of furniture. She says she doesn’t know how she would have adjusted to life in America without them. Yet at the beginning, following the ingrained Chinese code of social conduct, Ying went to church only out of obligation.

“Relationships between [Chinese] people are sometimes very complicated,” she says, her spectacled face framed by shoulder-length black hair. “I just think that if they want me to do anything, I should do it. They didn’t ask us to do anything difficult — just go to church.”

Actually, with her husband and daughter remaining in China during her year-long research stint, Ying’s free time is packed with religious activities: Christian lessons and church service on Sundays, occasional special events with another group of Christian academics on Saturday nights, and Bible study on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday evenings.

She’s excited to talk about her newfound passion, but also cautious. After our first interview, Ying sent a worried e-mail. She’d spoken to her family and best friend in China, she wrote, and they all said the same thing: She shouldn’t allow her real name to be printed. The truly pious are few at the fellowship, and potential dangers await new Christians at the hands of the Chinese government, which sponsors most of the visiting scholars.

The church missionary leaders are aware of the dangers. They also know they are up against decades of Communist Party propaganda. Watching the recruits pile paper plates high with second helpings of home-cooked dishes — stir-fried noodles, meatballs, sautéed bok choy — it’s clear that the free buffet and chance to socialize are as much a pull as the Bible study, if not more. The church knows it, too. In fact, it’s part of the plan.

This friendly indoctrination has become increasingly prevalent on university campuses across the nation, as Chinese-speaking missionaries seek converts among the 66,500 graduate students and scholars visiting from China each year. The missionaries, often from Taiwan or Hong Kong, are armed with the cultural know-how to tailor messages to people like Ying. Even English-speaking missionary groups maintain Web sites with tips on how to approach Chinese intellectuals without scaring them off.

Working with scholars has a huge payoff if they submit to conversion, says Benjamin Yi, who ministers to Chinese students and visiting scholars at Pastor Wong’s church. “The potential is mind-boggling!” exclaims China Outreach Ministries, a Pennsylvania-based outfit targeting Chinese intellectuals, in a statement on its Web site. “Key Chinese thinkers are coming to faith and impacting the largest nation in the world for Christ! And they are returning to China and making a difference!”

Historically, missionaries wanting to export Christianity to China have focused on Chinese graduate students, but most postgrads now prefer to stay in the United States rather than return to China, as was common in the 1990s. At the same time, a rising number of academics such as Ying are arriving for temporary research stays: During the 2005-06 school year, Chinese universities, localities, and the central government sent more than nineteen thousand visiting scholars to the United States, a 27 percent increase from two years earlier. “They can take the gospel to China,” says Zhang Ping, leader of an Albany fellowship similar to that of Chinese for Christ. “They become the seeds to spread the gospel.”

Recognizing the shift, the missionaries are updating their tactics. Zhang is eager to take advantage of the opening he sensed during a recent visit to China, where Christian leaders and the international press report that church attendance is up and government interference down. He is part of an organization of more than one hundred North American campus missionaries that meet annually to strategize how to convert visiting scholars. He recently moved into an apartment adjacent to UC Berkeley’s student-family housing to be closer to his target audience, whom he’s convinced crave spiritual teaching. “Since they grew up in an atheist country, they feel very open and excited when they hear the Gospel,” Zhang says.

Yet, as scholars from across the spectrum of Berkeley’s research departments detailed in interviews, the battle to save Chinese scholars’ souls is not so easily won. And not everyone wants to be saved.

Following dinner and a round of gospel pop ballads, it’s time for Bible study at Chinese for Christ. The “believers,” baptized grad students who’ve been in the United States for years, go to another room for discussion in Mandarin with Pastor Wong, and the “seekers” stay behind. Tonight, just four seekers gather for a lesson on the Ten Commandments.

Leading them is James, an American Christian working with the group in preparation for missionary service in mainland China. He asked that his surname not be printed, given Beijing’s disapproval of Christianity. “I don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot before we even get there,” he says. (Indeed, none of the Chinese students or scholars interviewed would allow their real names to be printed for fear of persecution. Their fields also were withheld to protect their identities.)

Susan, the pastor’s wife, passes out used Bibles, but Ying has brought her own: a brand-new bilingual version encased in a blue-and-white-plaid zippered cover, with tidy notes in the margins in red pen. “So we’re in the second book of the Bible, Exodus, chapter 20,” James calls out in English. The room fills with the sound of rustling paper as students flip the pages. It takes a while: The students are confused between the Old and New Testaments, and have to translate the chapter names from Chinese to English as they search. Once they all locate the verse, each reads a line aloud.

At Ying’s turn, her voice is hesitant. “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” she reads haltingly. “Okay,” James says, the scratch of a black dry-erase pen filling the silence as he writes on a board. “Have no other gods. Any thoughts or questions on that?” Ying sits next to her friend Xuan, another newly devoted visiting scholar. Heads down, the two reread the verse to themselves in Chinese, their lips moving noiselessly.

James’ flock is timid, but clearly intrigued, and the discussion putters into gear. Given their almost complete lack of religious knowledge, the atmosphere is part ESL class, part children’s Sunday school session. Working with people from mainland China is vastly different than other groups, James says: “It does feel more like I’m starting from scratch.”

There’s a subtle cultural exchange at play here, a mutual advantage-taking by the church and the scholars. James works to ensure that students fully understand the Bible’s lessons, using Susan for Mandarin backup when he hits a snag. The idea is that this will prepare them to soak up the Christian morals James presents, in language carefully worded to be understandable to every Chinese: Obey, honor, and love God as you would your parents.

But here’s the other half of the equation: Many scholars see the Bible as a guidebook of sorts, a way to feel that they’ve truly experienced American life. “Learning Bible is also learning Western culture,” Ying says, “because Western culture has much to do with Bible.” At Christian meetings across Berkeley, Chinese scholars confided — often with wry smiles — that it was the cultural lessons that drew them, and that they would never become Christians themselves.

Not Ying. She’s a true believer, she stresses. Yet given the exhaustive training in analytical thinking common among intellectuals in some censorious regimes, she still has theological doubts. She suspects church leaders don’t know what to do with her questions. Earlier in the day, sitting in the sun on the Berkeley campus, she recounted her main philosophical gripes: How can some people be poor while others are rich? Is there really a heaven, and why does hell exist? Usually the Christian leaders don’t fully address her concerns, Ying complains. They urge her to believe and promise that clarification will come later.

Tonight’s Bible study is no different. “What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments?” James asks after reviewing murder, blasphemy, and adultery. “To be good,” Ying says softly, “to have peace in heart.” James challenges that it isn’t that easy: Could any one of them, he asks, go a week without breaking a single commandment? A long silence follows. “We have sin,” Ying says when James asks what lesson is to be learned from this. Ying’s friend Xuan murmurs in agreement. “What’s that supposed to teach us?” James presses. “That we’re failures?”

“We cannot reach God’s requirements,” volleys back Xuan, who is a near-believer, but not entirely convinced. “I think even if we ask God help, we cannot meet the requirements of the Ten Commandments. Nobody can.” James subtly dismisses her idea — once they have Jesus in their life, they will have help, he says, then adds: “That’s something for another Bible study.”

Ying has doubts. “I feel people are just always selfish, even in heaven,” she says, laughing uncomfortably at her own boldness. “I think the Communist Party is just a target, a goal,” she says, echoing a common complaint about the difficulty of advancement in Chinese society. “I just think heaven is like that — can’t be reached.”

Mention of the Party catches James off guard. Pastor Wong will later tell me the church tries to avoid political criticism, and that Chinese government spies have infiltrated fellowships such as his. Moving along, the American picks up on another student’s question of whether people can remember their earlier lives when they are reincarnated. For that James has no easy answer. “Stay tuned,” he jokes.

The struggle over Christianity in China began in AD 635, with the arrival of Middle Eastern Nestorian missionaries. Successive waves of Franciscan, Jesuit, Orthodox, and Protestant missionaries came in the following centuries, and were chased off now and again by leaders suspicious of incursions on Chinese sovereignty. After 1949, when the Communists took over, the Party quickly cracked down on Christians, says Carsten Vala, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in political science who researches Chinese Protestants: “The Communist Party organized state associations for Protestants, a separate one for Catholics, and herded the people into these state associations so that they could eventually destroy any sort of religious practice.”

The Communists, according to Vala, have always viewed religion as competition. “What the Communist Party fears is people who are very dedicated and believe very strongly in something,” he says. “The combination of organization and an ideology can be very explosive. They believe in something so strongly that life and death is not going to be a decision that stops them — because they have a sense that even if they die, there are rewards beyond this life. The Party is very aware that in Chinese history, it’s often been spiritual sects that have risen up to overthrow the dynasty or the government in power.”

By the 1980s, when Ying was a child, religion had been largely erased from Chinese society. In her rural grade school, teachers taught her to trust only in the certainty of science. At home, however, Ying was confronted with an alternate belief: In the dark of night, her maternal grandmother set out offerings of fruit, fresh-baked buns, candles, and incense, and prayed to Buddha, her ancestors, and an assortment of traditional Chinese spirits.

During the prayers, Ying watched quietly. But in the daylight, Ying teased her grandmother that superstition — a derogatory term in China at the time — made her backward. As Ying grew, her interest in science solidified her distrust of spiritual affairs; she believed in what could be seen and proven.

In Berkeley, missionaries work to massage the scholars’ dogged allegiances to science. “In science it’s hard to prove something does not exist,” says Wong, a trained engineer who tries to convince scholars that it is easier to prove the existence of God than to disprove it. Wong’s scholars minister Benjamin Yi, an engineer himself, engages the academics on the topics of physics and scientific precision. “When I talk to them,” he says, “I say the universe is unbelievable.”

Yi’s wife, Meirong Pai, who has studied in seminary, laughs while recounting the initial skepticism of the intellectuals. “In the beginning, they don’t believe in Jesus,” she says, motioning with her hands as if shutting a Bible. “They think we are so foolish, we worship The Little Red Book.”

With grandmothers praying at homemade altars and Christians meeting clandestinely, Beijing never truly succeeded in eliminating religion. By the 1970s, at the end of the Cultural Revolution — Mao Zedong’s attempt to crush opposition through forced labor and public humiliation — state authority had largely disintegrated, Vala says.

In a strategic play during the 1980s, the Party liberalized its treatment of Christians, expanding state Christian associations and allowing house churches so long as they registered with the government. The move, Vala says, came from “a desire to bring people into the state-organized realm and out of the shadows, where they can be much more easily monitored, easily surveyed, and pose much less of a threat to the state.”

The transition also allowed China to show a more moderate face to the world, he says. Since then, Christianity has grown explosively, although estimates vary widely: Chinese Christians were thought to number between 700,000 and 4 million in 1949. Researchers at East China Normal University estimate there are now forty million Chinese Protestants — Vala says it may be as high as sixty million — while the international Catholic Church puts the number of Chinese Catholics at between twelve million and fifteen million.

All of the missionaries interviewed for this story claim the Chinese are hungry for religion after decades of state-imposed atheism. Some of them, including Zhang and Yi, plan to move to the mainland to preach. “We feel people are very open-minded,” Zhang said after his China trip. “We think you have to wait for the correct season to fish. It is fishing season now, and we want to seize this opportunity.”

Part of that opportunity, as they see it, has to do with moral decay in the rapidly developing country. “Every person wants to make more money,” Ying says. “They lie, they cheat. So some older people want to go back to the 1950s. They were educated to be unselfish, very unselfish.”

In her opinion, the Party’s attempts at combating corruption and materialism are not enough: “Everyone want to be comfortable,” she says. “It’s just like the Bible says about that: Everyone has sin, everyone is selfish. They [the Party] think that if people want to be in the Communist Party, they will be unselfish, they will devote themselves to the country. They don’t analyze the reason for selfish[ness]. They just give some slogan to call for people to be good.”

Political scientist Vala concurs that Chinese upheaval has given the missionaries an opening. “Christianity provides a lot of comfort in a time where there’s very rapid and confusing, and sometimes very disruptive, changes going on,” he says. “People who look around them, they see a society that’s very focused on making money. They see a society that’s very focused on advancement and career opportunities. And they also see a government that is rife with corruption. There’s the sense that the communist ideology is really bankrupt, and that if you are to look for a way to save China, or a way to have hope for the future of China, then that hope is not going to be found in communist ideology.”

Pastor Wong views his role as that of a provocateur to change China’s future one soul at a time. “Christianity gives the answer of how to be a more valuable person,” he says. “Communism tries to answer that question, but unfortunately it fails badly. China also wants people to have virtues in life, to not have so much corruption. So actually, we are doing something very good for the Chinese government.”

Over time, Ying, like her government, has become less suspicious of spirituality. Sitting in a campus cafeteria one afternoon, she details her transformation from atheist to believer. In college back in China in the early 1990s, a friend invited her to the home of his American English teacher, who led students in hymns and Bible study from copied booklets — despite the country’s ban on proselytizing by foreigners.

Ying didn’t get hooked, but her friend did. He moved to the United States, and during their phone calls tried to get her interested. For years she listened politely — Ying giggles, remembering her annoyance — until she heard of a faith-healing miracle in China that convinced her of a higher power. She began asking her Christian friend about theology. By the time she was invited to UC Berkeley months later, she wanted to know more.

Ying’s initial contact with Christians, like that of many Chinese scholars, came via the campus Berkeley Chinese Students and Scholars Association: She e-mailed the association about housing, and was put in touch with Pastor Wong. Church leaders then came on full-force, offering Ying rides to church and calling her if she skipped.

From her first church visit, Ying says she felt moved. She continued attending regularly, although her belief waxed and waned. At one point about six weeks into her stay, disturbing dreams disrupted her belief. “I can’t feel there is a God,” she says, her voice low despite the empty cafeteria. “I feel people who go to church are nonsense, a waste of time. I want to ask, ‘Why do they go to church? Why do they believe?'”

The crisis made Ying stop attending church. One afternoon, Wan Ruolian, Yi’s predecessor as minister to visiting scholars at Chinese for Christ, asked Ying to pray with her. Ying says she wanted to say no, “but I think that I should be polite to her. She helps us a lot in our life. If we don’t want to go to church, she might invite, invite.”

When Wan arrived at Ying’s rented Berkeley room, they sat on a mattress. Ying’s crisis was caused by her landlords’ Buddhist beliefs, she recalls Wan telling her. “She asked God to help me to have a belief, asked God to be with me, stop other spirits to bother me.” Within a few days, Ying says, her faith was restored.

Ying defends the fellowship’s insistent tactics. At first, church bored her, she says. She wouldn’t have gone had the leaders not cajoled her. Now she feels grateful for the pressure because she believes the church truly wanted to help her. Simply telling people about religion isn’t wrong, she says — scholars can make up their own minds, and she was never pressured to convert. “It’s my personal thing,” Ying declares forcefully, pointing to her chest. “If they push, it’s bad for us. Some of my friends say if [church leaders] don’t push, they like to go. But if they push, they don’t want to go.”

Not all of her fellow scholars are so open to proselytizing. Ying has friends who attended church just once or twice, and decided to show their gratitude to the Christians by buying them gifts instead. Other scholars say that when they get e-mails from Christians about events, they invent excuses — unless it’s an out-of-town day trip — but end up attending church occasionally out of guilt for lying to the Christians, who have been kind.

Others bristle at the hounding. (Again, few wanted their names printed. “A Chinese idiom says, ‘Your mouth is shorter if you accept people’s food,'” one student wrote in an e-mail. “It means you become silent when you receive help from someone.”) Some students and scholars without housing find themselves trapped at the homes of Christians bent on converting them. Others are delivered directly from the airport to religious activities. One student, who asked that only his surname, Zhou, be printed, says missionaries called him for months on end, even after he’d made it clear he wasn’t interested.

While the attention may be merely a nuisance for some, others worry about repercussions for being affiliated with Christians should word spread back home — particularly if the scholars are Party members. Despite recent changes, Vala says, China still is not entirely hospitable to religion, especially when the churchgoers have ties overseas. “People could be arrested, held for ransom,” he says. “If there is knowledge of an international connection, then local authorities may see this as a moneymaking opportunity. You may have torture.”

It’s not an entirely abstract threat. Over the last year, the Chinese and foreign press have reported that Chinese authorities beat townspeople attempting to build a church near Hangzhou, raided underground churches, sent house church leaders to reeducation labor camps, arrested Christians for walking too close to the 2008 Beijing Olympic complex — missionary groups have publicized their plans to infiltrate the games — and executed leaders of a Christian sect that the authorities deemed a cult.

Back at Chinese for Christ, Benjamin Yi thinks ahead to the summer, when the next crop of scholars will arrive. A graduate of an all-Chinese seminary in Concord, the Taiwanese minister is new to his scholars-and-students post, which has become higher-profile with the influx of scholars. With short salt-and-pepper hair, Yi, dressed carefully in khakis, striped dress shirt, and a blue windbreaker, is warm and soft-spoken. He and his wife, Meirong, sit for an interview on folding chairs in the church vestibule, where the door’s stained glass tints the morning light orange.

Yi gets his list of new scholars’ names from Berkeley’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association — Wong was cagey when asked about his church’s connection with the campus association, as was its president, Peng Li, who refused to discuss anything related to religion.

In any case, Yi says some of the newcomers will be housed with church members until they find apartments. Once they get settled, Yi and others will show them around town, and teach them how to take public transport, open a bank account, and get driver’s licenses. “When a new student comes here,” he says, referring to the church, “they’ve been hosted by some family. It’s hard for them to say no.”

The statement sounds brash, and his wife laughs uncomfortably as he continues: “Some of them will keep coming. Friday night fellowship is a good way to attract them — the friends, the food. Gradually they make friends, and when they have friends, they come.”

In the beginning, the couple says, they take care not to be preachy. While helping scholars with day-to-day tasks, they try not to come on too strong or talk about the Bible. “We have to build a relationship,” Yi notes. “We have to be trustworthy, and then they come to church. Very few of them keep coming because they’re aware of the consequences. They visit one time, two times — that won’t cause problems.”

But the faithful are indeed under surveillance, according to the minister. “There are spies in every church, and they report back to China,” Yi says matter-of-factly. “The spy will tell, ‘These are the scholars that constantly attend the church.’ So our church is very conscious. You don’t know who the spies are.” He tells of a friend who came from a house church in China to study at the Concord seminary. Shortly thereafter, the man received a phone call from a Chinese government agent, asking whether he needed help. The purpose of the call was clear, Yi says: “They’re watching everything.”

The ostracism scholars may face upon return to China isn’t lost on Yi: “We know this probably will affect their promotion — the promotion is controlled by the government. So definitely if they are Christian, they will have trouble.” However, Yi says self-protection is ultimately the scholars’ responsibility. “They understand,” he stresses. “They know the Party, they know it well.”

He also sees adversity as part of the grand plan. “Don’t you think that’s God’s work?” the minister asks, smiling. “They know that this would jeopardize their career. They are smart guys; they know the consequences. So why can they conquer their fear and really believe? It’s not the food that attracts them. It’s God’s calling they cannot resist. If they don’t go to church [in China], we don’t blame them. We understand. In the Bible, the Christians were underground.”

The same morning, Pastor Wong sits down for an interview in a College Avenue cafe near the church. With an assortment of pens and highlighters in his breast pocket, the erudite minister tells the brief version of his story — he grew up in Hong Kong, and was an engineer and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley before becoming a full-time pastor two years ago. Chinese for Christ started out as a small student fellowship in the 1960s, and has always been geared toward Chinese intellectuals.

Wong is evasive, however, when it comes to the church’s mission of preaching to visiting Chinese intellectuals. “Is it part of our motivation? Yes and no. It’s of value. This is something that motivates us, but it’s not the only motivation.”

Trained by years in business, Wong stays pointedly on-message. He does not mention that he’s on the board of Partners International, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit mission that has been working to train Chinese Christians on the mainland since 1943. When I ask if he will agree to a photograph for this article, Wong declines. “You never know what is the trigger point in China and when they start watching you,” he says. He also tries to avoid political commentary. “They don’t take it as a joke. They take things out of context. These things are highly sensitive.”

In addition to being worried about himself, Wong says, he is concerned for the two dozen scholars — out of Cal’s 263 Chinese visiting scholars and postdoctoral fellows — who attend his church. “We try very hard to protect them,” he says. But, in an echo of Yi’s logic of nonresponsibility, he adds that only they “understand how much they can expose themselves.”

Wong says he doesn’t push scholars toward the Bible, or force them to talk about their beliefs until he knows them better. But if they weren’t interested at all, they wouldn’t come to fellowship, he says.

When asked how he approaches those he believes are open to Christianity, Wong turns the tables. “I want to show you how the conversation develops,” he says. He asks what it would take for me, a nonbeliever, to believe in God. “If you have any criteria there may be a God, you can get your intellectual mind satisfied to give it a try.”

A few minutes later he returns to the subject: “You’re too nice of a girl not to be a Christian.” For the remainder of the interview, Wong answers questions, but increasingly probes for any religious tendency I may be hiding. After an hour, we walk back to the church, and as Wong fiddles with his keys to the front door, he pauses and grins, saying, “That’s called marketing.”

In the small bedroom she rents from a Chinese family, Ying pulls out boxes of CDs of Mandarin sermons and shows off her bookshelf, which is stuffed with titles like Hymns for God’s People and Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die. With two months left in Berkeley, Ying often thinks about how she’ll adjust to life back home as a new believer.

Every day she sits down to a laptop on a dark-green card table loaned to her by church friends, and exchanges instant messages with her husband. “At first he said, ‘Don’t waste your time. Why do you go? It’s nonsense,'” Ying says. “He doesn’t say anything now. Or he says, ‘I can’t do anything to stop you because you are abroad.'” She assures him that going to church helps her and that, with few friends here, she’d be bored otherwise.

But Ying doesn’t plan to reveal her religion to anyone in China other than family and close friends. “I don’t want other people to know I am a Christian or know I believe in God,” she says. “People might look at me differently. They might talk a lot to each other about me.” Ying says she isn’t too concerned about the government, but worries that her co-workers, if they knew, might think she had psychological problems, which could affect her career: “Some people might think I am a failure.”

The decision that will likely prove most difficult for Ying is whether to try and attend church in China. The closest Protestant church she knows of is two hours away from her home, and given that she’ll be keeping her faith secret, it’ll be hard to learn of others.

Ying would like to find a church, she says with a dejected tone as she looks out her open window. Reading the Bible by herself is boring. If she found a fellowship, she’d have a social network to turn to for help and encouragement. But there is another pressing reason to find a church, Ying adds with a new tinge of hopefulness. She wants her young daughter to grow up believing in something beyond just science.


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