Twenty-one-year-old Nanjing college student Chu Zhen felt adrift before finding solace in Christianity. "About 30 years ago we had 'Reform and Opening Up,' and almost everything changed," he said. "But we don't know how to accept it."
Four months ago he started going to informal Christian clubs and Bible studies on his campus. "At that time I just wanted to find a belief," he says. "I feared in the future I might do something really bad that I can't undo. So I went to church and we sang songs, told stories. I found peace in my mind."
According to one estimate, around 10,000 Chinese are following suit every day. From under a million Protestant followers in 1949, there are now anywhere from 21 million Chinese Christians by official figures to 130 million by independent estimates. Within the next 30 years, that number could climb as high as 400 million -- equivalent to 20 percent of the world's Christian population. It is difficult to get an accurate estimate on the number of Chinese Christians, though, as many worship secretly in illegal house churches, which government figures don't include.
These underground gatherings attract many Christians because their sermons escape government oversight. This doesn't sit well with the Communist Party, which frequently cracks down on independent churches for fear that they might begin harboring political ambitions. A prominent house church leader recently spent six months in a labor camp, and groups like Beijing's 1,000-member evangelical Shouwang Church regularly face evictions and detentions for defying orders to disband.
Across town from Chu's campus in Nanjing, the government has funded the construction of an officially sanctioned 5,000-person Protestant church, one of China's largest. And the U.S.-based Christian group International Cooperating Ministries reports to have assisted in building 292 churches across China in recent years -- with the government's blessing. While this is partly in hopes of drawing followers away from underground churches, it might also be with the understanding that Christianity could be good for China's economic development.
"Christianity is seen as useful from the official point of view because it's not just about acting morally as an individual and being a good citizen. It's about the work ethic," argues Wielander, adding that there seems to be an attraction to the argument that Protestantism curbed excesses like greed and corruption in the market economy of the West during the early stages of capitalist development.