The number of Catholics and other believers is rising, but the state keeps a watchful eye.
Jilin city, Jilin province—Sister Gonzaga Hu has a true poker face. On a boat ride across Songhua Lake, her eyes meet a priest’s as she pushes a handful of pistachios across the table to up the ante. Onshore, however, it is not her face that creates confusion. Standing amid T-shirt clad tourists, Hu’s gray wool dress and silver crucifix attract more attention than foreigners do in this relatively isolated part of northeastern China.
Hu is a rare but visible part of China’s religious minority. The BBC reports that Christians comprise less than 12% of an estimated 300 million believers. The Communist Party’s official stance is atheism, but an increasing number of Chinese are flocking to organized religion as government oversight decreases and China’s market orientation has left some spiritually hungry. According to a 2005 human rights white paper issued by the central government, China has more than 100 million religious adherents, more than 100,000 venues for religious activities, and nearly 300,000 clergy members.
“As the saying goes, the mountains are high and the president is far away,” said Hu, who lives in Jilin Catholic Church’s convent. “The government doesn’t bother us up here.”
But for China’s Catholics, the central government is never far away.
James Tong, a political scientist at UCLA, says that while religion is China is becoming more liberalized, the government still keeps a close watch on its five officially-recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, Protestantism and Catholicism.
“They have their own translation of the Bible approved by the Communist Party,” says Tong. “At a recent bible exhibition, they exhibited many editions of the Chinese Bible, in different languages, including the minority languages.”
Each of the five officially-recognized faiths has a national organization. The China Patriotic Catholic Association was formed to control Catholic institutions and believers. According to Tong, to be considered patriotic, the churches need to be autonomous from the external universal church.
Chinese law once prohibited non-atheists from holding public office, however, according to AsiaNews, the records of the Communist Party’s Disciplinary Commission indicate that 12 million party cadres in urban areas and another eight million in rural regions are involved in religious activities.
Tong says religious believers in China have more freedom now than any time since the Communists took power in 1949.
“The Communist Party thought religion was unscientific, irrational and that it would fade away as humanity progresses,” Tong said. “There was an important change in 1982 where they recognized that religion would be here to stay for the long term, and that triggered important policy changes.”
Tong says that China’s faithful are now permitted more autonomy. They can print their own Party-approved devotional materials, invite approved international guest speakers, construct outdoor religious icons and appeal local religious affairs bureaus’ rulings.
“In China, it’s capitalism. If they can accommodate capitalism, why not religion as well?” Tong said. “Globalization is opening to the outside world, and religion is part of it.”
Foreign missionaries founded Jilin Catholic Church in 1926. The church was all but destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, but now more than 500 people attend mass on Sundays, said Father Wang, the parish’s director.
China’s official churches often focus on providing social welfare services to their communities. The Jilin church is home to a nursing home, while others offer nurseries and mobile medical clinics. Chinese law, however, continues to prohibit proselytizing and missionary work, and churchgoers cannot talk about their faith with non-religious people. Religion cannot be discussed publicly.
“People walk by this church and say, ‘What is that place? Is it Buddhist, Daoist—oh, it’s Christian,’” said Father Guo during a June 13 Chinese-language mass. “You need to take every opportunity to help people understand the good that comes from our faith.”
Many parish members live in the church’s nursing home. One parishioner said she learned about the church from her job as a caretaker there.
“I came here on Christmas two years ago, and have come everyday since,” she said.
Most of the country’s Christians live in Jilin and other parts of northeastern China, Hu said.
“If you’re a Christian, you move to Jilin province,” she said. “This is the only Catholic church in the area.”
Influenced by her uncle, a local priest, Hu decided to become a nun when she was 18 years old. She studied at Loyola University in Chicago for three years before returning to work at the Jilin Catholic Church.
Tong says that in recent years, more than 100 Chinese Catholic priests, nuns and seminarians have been allowed to study theology in American seminaries.
“Many people here are Christian because their family was,” Hu said. “You are only allowed to talk about religion in someone’s home, with your friends or family or in church.”
Kaelyn Forde Eckenrode is a junior majoring in International Relations and Broadcast Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Peter Winter is a senior majoring in International Relations and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California.