Now, however, some liberal Marxists within the party see religion as one way to pacify a public increasingly agitated over inequality. "In general, using and controlling religions is not something new in Chinese history. Almost every emperor knew the power of religion," says Peng Guoxiang, Peking University professor of Chinese philosophy, intellectual history, and religions. "For classical Marxist ideology, religion is nothing but spiritual opium. But recently, it is very possible that the authorities have started to rethink the function of religion and how to manipulate it skillfully, instead of simply trying to curb or even uproot its development."
Others support Christianity's spread for more self-interested reasons. According to Cao, religious bureaus and lower-level government organs often want more registered Christian churches in their governed regions in order to enlarge their own power base and create more opportunities for rent-seeking from constituents. China's State Administration for Religious Affairs didn't respond to requests for comment.
To be sure, there still remains much opposition to religion within the Communist Party. In December, a senior official emphasized the ban on religious belief for party members by saying, "Hostile forces home and abroad are doing what they can to use religion for their separatist activities in the areas inhabited by ethnic groups."
The organizational power of religious groups is a major concern, especially in regards to those that may harbor loyalties to figures like the pope or the Dalai Lama. The Catholic Church's role in bringing about the 1989 fall of communist rule in Poland raises worries, as does the rise of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which staged a massive demonstration in Beijing in 1999, prompting a ferocious government crackdown. Even Protestantism is often associated with Western imperialism and aggressive missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
"There's still quite an ambivalent feeling toward Christianity," says Wielander. "Both Buddhism and Daoism are fairly otherworldly. They're more about how to escape from all this chaos and hide from this terrible world, whereas Christianity is very proactive. That can be a good thing for the government provided it manages to channel this energy into projects on the government's agenda."
That may indeed be the direction the party intends to go. A 20-year-old evangelical convert from Jiangsu province, who asked not to be identified, regularly attends services at an illegal house church that now has over 150 followers. The authorities have known of the church for years but tolerate it, she says, and she doesn't think Christian beliefs and the Communist Party's agenda are contradictory.
She adds, "The Bible says we have to follow the rules of the government."