Chinese universities alarmed by rise of proselytization on campus

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-8 19:18:01

Visitors walk in front of the Sheshan church which is under renovation on March 13 in Shanghai. Photo: IC

Visitors walk in front of the Sheshan church which is under renovation on March 13 in Shanghai. Photo: IC

After concluding a two-year study on college students' religious beliefs, Marxist scholars warned against the rapid growth of Christianity and proselytization disguised as cultural studies on campuses across China.

Such warnings were met with objections as many people believe there is nothing wrong with college students discovering religion. At the heart of the debate is to what extent and how religion should be discussed and taught on campus.

Xi Wuyi, a Marxist scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote on her blog about a project she led which looked at religion on campuses in 2011 and 2012. She wrote that the percentage of believers among college students was higher than among the general population and growing each year.

However, the validity of the study came under question as researchers surveyed only 195 people at four universities in Beijing, among whom 16 were believers.

Most studies done about religion in China have had rather small sample groups, in the hundreds or a few thousand at best.

Vague figures and concerns

Various religions have been growing in China since the 1990s. Official figures from 1997 put the number of protestant Christians at 1 million.

In 2010, a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) showed that there were over 23 million protestant Christians in China, or 1.8 percent of the population. However, many believe the figure is still larger.

It's difficult to determine the exact percentage of college students who are religious and different studies have come up with varying results.

A study commissioned by the Beijing education authorities back in 1998 showed that 13.4 percent of college students in Beijing said they were religious. Over the years different studies have put the number of Christians among college students at anywhere between 1.8 and 5 percent.

Xi's team also conducted field research at two associations of college students, one registered and the other not. The unregistered association had around 30 people back in 2004 and by last December had grown to over 200 people, most of whom were college students, Xi wrote on her blog.

Zuo Peng, a professor at the University of Science and Technology Beijing who has carried out many studies on college students' religious beliefs, did a study in 2004 and found that over 60 percent of religious students were converted while at college.

Yang Huilin, director of the Christian Studies Institute at the Renmin University of China, however, believes that the percentage of Christians has held steady at about 3.5 percent for years, according to two studies he led in 2001 and 2008 at dozens of universities in Beijing.

Despite disagreement over the numbers, scholars agree that there have been growing proselytizing activities in recent years. Many people say they have been approached on the street and asked if they would like to know more about Christianity.

Chinese regulations prohibit religious activities taking place outside of authorized religious sites. Preaching and proselytizing in schools are also not allowed. 

Xi's research showed that 60 percent of students had had such encounters. Zuo and Yang also said that more students now reported having been approached on campus than a few years ago, although it's not always clear what the background of these would-be evangelists is.

According to focus group interviews Zuo conducted, some students were approached on campus by overseas students.

"Sometimes it starts out with learning foreign languages, making friends, and then moving on to religious activities," said Zuo, adding that some overseas students or expats also host small gatherings for Christians at their apartments.

Zuo said that it is the background and motives of these people that gives reason for caution.

"Some are preaching out of passion for their religion, but there are also some people who are backed by overseas churches or institutions; some may even have political motives," he said.

Studies by Zuo and Xi both found that at gatherings of churches or associations not recognized by the authorities, priests and followers were often critical of the government and sometimes hostile toward the State-sanctioned patriotic church.

Cultural cloak

What scholars find most worrying is that a measure of proselytization is being sponsored by some overseas institutions and in the name of religious or cultural studies.

Between 2005 and 2009, the John Templeton Foundation in the US sponsored the "Science and Religion in Dialogue" lecture series at five Chinese universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua University and Fudan University.

According to its website, the John Templeton Foundation, founded in 1987, "serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality." Its founder, the late John Templeton, a devout Presbyterian and philanthropist, was committed to acquiring new spiritual information.

Some in the West are skeptical about and question the foundation's religious agenda. Some say that it is acting evangelically under false pretenses. 

According to books published in Chinese about the lecture series, most of the speakers invited held a friendly attitude towards Christianity, to say the least. Several of the lecturers came from Calvin College, in Michigan, US, founded in the "reformed tradition of historic Christianity."

For instance, Professor Del Ratzsch from Calvin College, who spoke in Wuhan University in 2005, supports intelligent design, a highly controversial form of creationism. Courts in the US ruled in a number of cases against the teaching of intelligent design in schools.

Other lecturers such as Deborah Haarsma, also from Calvin College, interpret science from a Christian perspective and argue that science and religion are in harmony.

Books that promote intelligent design or the economics of religion were also translated and published by university presses. In 2004, Tsinghua University Press translated and published Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, by William Dembski, an American philosopher and theologian who is another a proponent of intelligent design.

Between 2003 and 2005, Peking University Press also published a series of translated works about Christian culture. But some of the books included in the series are theological in nature, such as Introducing the New Testament and Introducing the Old Testament by theologian John Drane.

According to regulations in China, theological and religious publications can only be published by religious institutions. Public education institutions technically are not allowed to publish such books, but some, most translated works, slip in under the radar under the name of culture or philosophy, said Zuo.

Overseas institutions or foundations are also supporting research projects in Chinese and foreign universities about religion in China, many professors say.

The John Templeton Foundation for instance has given close to $2 million to Purdue University for a "Chinese Spirituality and Society Program" between August 2009 and August 2013, according to its website.

The project aims to promote the social scientific study of religion in China. It supports "research about spiritual capital in China" and provides training to Chinese scholars.

Yang from Renmin University spoke of his wariness that some overseas foundations have programs that are not entirely academic but aim at gathering information about for instance underground churches in China.

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether a professor is simply teaching religion or really proselytizing, especially when religion is discussed in the context of Western civilization.

Xi and her team looked at dissertations from religious studies students, finding many of them were theological.

"The premise of religious studies is acknowledging the existence of many different religions, not subscribing to one religion and trying to argue for the existence of any particular deity," explained Zuo.

Warranted concern or paranoia

"We are not saying that students can't be religious; I do see positive effects of religion on some people," said Zuo. "But it's the forces behind the proselytizing activities we are worried about."

Scholars like Zuo and Xi are concerned that the West might use Christianity as a tool to influence China.

In a 2003 book Jesus in Beijing, author and journalist David Aikman wrote that China's democratization would happen when "the Chinese dragon is tamed by the power of the Christian Lamb."

Yang is less worried about the situation. "Young people today aren't that easily fooled, and they are especially resistant toward ideas that are being forced on them," he said.

Many surveys have also found that college students are increasingly interested in diverse religions. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) crushed virtually all religious belief in China. After the reform and opening-up, religions of all kinds have rebounded and have been growing steadily as economic development has left a spiritual void for many people, said Yang.

Yang's research in 2001 and 2008 showed that religion isn't growing as fast as some might fear. He said that as society becomes more open and different information becomes more accessible, the young generation is not attached to any single idealized vision as in the past.

Yang also pointed out that only having a Marxist and atheist basis for education on campus is not good enough. "The classes are often boring, and they often equate religion to superstition, which isn't helping," he said.

The government also seems to be on guard too. In 2011, the authorities issued a notice warning against proselytization on campus and overseas forces using religion to infiltrate colleges for political purposes.

Despite these rather vague measures, universities have sought to take them in stride. They have worked out specific measures including tightening scrutiny on overseas grants, stricter approval procedures for student activities, and educating foreign teachers as to China's religious regulations.

Nevertheless, although the concerns of Marxist scholars have been acknowledged, it seems that for now the religious activities of students at authorized churches will not be affected.

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