China's 'Come to Jesus' Moment

How Beijing got religion.

BEIJING – Last spring, a delegation of 11 Chinese government officials visited Nairobi, Kenya. Their mission: to seek advice on how to promote Christianity in China. Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which regulates religion in China, reportedly told Kenya's Anglican archbishop that "religion is good for development."

Amid growing social tension and an ominous economic outlook, some quarters of the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party seem to be warming to Christianity. Land is being donated, churches built, and research being conducted on positive Christian contributions -- all by the Chinese government, which until recently treated religion as a harmful but unstoppable force. In 2001, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called for religion to be cautiously accommodated, but actively discouraged, and adapted to the socialist culture of atheism and materialism.

The traditional antipathy toward religion in the Communist Party stems from Karl Marx's idea that it is the "opiate of the masses" that "dulls the pain of oppression" from capitalist aristocrats. In an egalitarian socialist society, there's no need for this remnant of exploitation.

But recent moves toward religion suggest this ideological aversion is transforming along with China's socioeconomic situation -- albeit more slowly. Since Deng Xiaoping began opening China's economy in 1978, its GDP has grown 40-fold with increasingly serious side effects. Corruption, yawning wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and the threat of a major banking crisis weigh on the Communist Party's ability to maintain control. The religious opiate could be just what the doctor ordered for a nervous Communist Party.

Academic studies and think tanks devoted to studying religion's political and sociological effects have been sponsored by government organs to explore topics such as Christianity's role in developing the United States and Europe. And institutions like Fudan University's Religious Studies Department in Shanghai and the Institute for Advanced Study of the Humanities and Religion at Beijing Normal University are becoming more common in Chinese academia.

"There's a fair amount of overlap between the government agenda and the Christian agenda," says Gerda Wielander, who researches Chinese religion and politics at the University of Westminster. "When you speak to [Chinese Christians] or look at the data, they all emphasize what good citizens they are and what good citizens they want to be, so there's a lot for the government to tap into there."

Last October, in the southern city of Foshan, a van ran over a 2-year-old girl. After pausing, the driver continued to drive over her again with the back tire. The video of the incident, which went viral and incited debate on the state of Chinese society, showed 18 bystanders walking past and ignoring the fallen girl until a scrap peddler eventually came to her aid. The driver later reportedly said he'd be liable for less money with a dead girl than an injured one.

For many Chinese, the incident highlighted some of the problems that have emerged from the post-socialist jettison of morality in the pursuit of material wealth. "The old moral system doesn't work anymore, and the new one hasn't been established," says Fenggang Yang, a professor at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. "Many people in society feel kind of lost and don't know what to do."

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.

If You Build It...

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.

Some have argued that the "Protestant work ethic" is beginning to have a similar impact on China as it did in the West. In the business hub of Wenzhou, which has a 20 to 30 percent Christian population, the government has begun to study the success of Christian-owned enterprises.

"Conservative Christian morality has, perhaps indirectly, contributed to Wenzhou's success by helping maintain family stability and, thus, the stability of their family businesses in the context of perceived moral decadence," says Nanlai Cao, author of Constructing China's Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou. "After all, the family is the basic unit of petty capitalist production for Wenzhou people." One Christian factory manager in Wenzhou in 2010 told the BBC that he prefers to hire Christian workers. "When they do things wrong, they feel guilty -- that's the difference," he said.

Over the past few months Wenzhou's economic growth has started to slow, creating what looks to be the rumblings of a severe credit crisis. Shadow lenders are aggressively calling in private loans, and some business owners have fled the city or committed suicide to escape debt. The city's Christians appear to be faring a bit better, though, thanks to a bond and sense of trust cultivated through regular interaction in churches. "In sermons, Wenzhou preachers have preached on Christian love and told the congregation not to expect full repayment on loans to church members because they are all brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God," says Cao. "By framing the debt crisis in a religious language and in the context of God's punishment for human greed, Wenzhou Christians tend not to put pressure on lenders to repay loans."

International studies suggest there might be some merit to that sentiment. A study last year in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, titled "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior," found that those who believed in a vengeful God performed more honestly on a math test designed for easy cheating. "Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counternormative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring," the study said.

While the allure of moral and economic development accounts for some of China's new interest in religion, a quieter motive is perhaps in play as well: political control. In a 2006 interview, Reuters asked Li Junru, a high official in China's top political advisory body, why India can handle being a democracy but China can't. He replied that India has religion to control its people.

In December, when residents of Wukan expelled all officials in their small fishing village, they drew attention to a nationwide trend of corrupt officials seizing land from peasants in order to raise revenue and enjoy kickbacks from developers. China is showing many of the symptoms of the crony capitalist system Marx decried.

Under Marx's theory of development, societies transition from feudalism to capitalism before moving on to socialism. When Mao Zedong came to power, he tried to jump over the capitalist stage -- and he unleashed the "Great Leap Forward" socioeconomic campaign, which caused the deaths of as many as 40 million people.

But by initiating the Reform and Opening Up campaign in 1978, Mao's successor, Deng, tacitly acknowledged that China would first have to embrace a capitalist economy, but not necessarily some of the other tenets of a capitalist society. Although Deng ended the de facto religion ban and allowed worship in heavily controlled churches, he still advocated atheism through schools and official channels. Religion remained a "feudal superstition" in official-speak -- strongly discouraged but reluctantly accepted.

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."

China Photos/Getty Images


The World's Baby Factory

It's already the world's second-most populous country. So why is India turning grandmothers into mothers?

KOLHAPUR, India — Four years ago, when she was expecting her first baby, Kisabai Biranje wanted desperately to be invisible. She tried for as long as she could to keep her pregnancy hidden behind the crumpled pleats of her floral printed cotton saris. But as the months passed, it became impossible to keep her bulging belly a secret. 

Becoming a mother was Kisabai's greatest joy. But pregnancy in the sixth decade of her life was also her greatest shame.

As her stomach began to show, it set off a trail of tarnishing gossip and innuendo in this agrarian town in India's western sugar belt: How did she get pregnant in her post-menopausal years? Was the egg her own? Was the sperm her husband's? Why would she want to become a mother at the age of a grandmother?

But her unremitting quest for motherhood, however risky -- or risqué -- at her age, kept her going. "We had nearly given up after more than two decades of marriage," explains Kisabai, who does not have a birth certificate, but says she was born just after British colonial rule in India ended in 1947. "We went to doctors, shamans, god men -- nothing worked."

"Then we discovered a clinic that made childbearing at our age a reality," chimes in her husband Mahadev Biranje, a 68-year-old sugarcane farmer. "When we told the doctor we were thinking about adoption, he said, ‘Why do you want to raise someone else's child when you can have your own?' We looked at him incredulously and said, ‘Can we really do that at our age?'"

The Biranjes discovered that in vitro fertilization (IVF) -- a procreation technique that involves harvesting a woman's egg from the ovary and fertilizing it artificially with a healthy sperm -- could circumvent, if not undo, the deleterious influences of aging on female fecundity, making pregnancy possible even at an advanced reproductive age. For Mahadev, the procedure was akin to being plopped on a biological time machine that miraculously rolled back the years.

In recent years, thousands of fertility clinics have cropped up around India, spawning a new industry of "fertility tourism" for reproductively challenged couples from around the world. They are the medical equivalent of dollar stores, offering IVF treatment at a fraction of the cost in developed economies, and often without the strict regulations and waiting periods that elsewhere make the procedure a logistical nightmare. IVF -- along with other reproductive specialties like surrogacy (the world-famous "womb-for-rent" business), hormone therapy, and gamete (egg or sperm) donation -- are part of India's flourishing fertility treatment business, on track to blossom into a $2.3 billion enterprise in 2012 according to the lobby group Confederation of Indian Industry. The sector, described as a "pot of gold" in a report by the Indian Law Commission, has earned India the dubious reputation of being the world's baby factory.

Fertility clinics aren't just serving the international market, they're increasingly serving the domestic market as well. And regulation has not kept pace with the proliferation of clinics as India emerges as the Wild West of fertility. In recent years, facilities have been accused of a litany of shocking abuses -- from exploiting impoverished women who became surrogate mothers to prescribing unapproved fertility drugs to delivering "stateless babies" who are refused citizenship by both their mother's country and their Indian birthplace.

The Indian government is gearing up to pass a new law to regulate the fertility business, prepared by a 12-member committee of the Indian Council of Medical Research and expected to be tabled in parliament in the coming months. It mandates that all fertility clinics be registered with the government; spells out specific guidelines for the sourcing, purchase and storage of gametes; and also explicitly enumerates the health and legal rights of surrogate mothers and babies delivered by them.

But one pressing issue has remained beyond the purview of regulation: How old is too old to get pregnant?

In 2008, Rajo Devi Lohan, an Indian woman from a tiny village in the northern state of Haryana, became the world's oldest mother at the age of 70.  About a year and a half later, Bhateri Devi, a 66-year-old from the same state, became the world's oldest woman to give birth to triplets.

In India, as in many other countries, medically assisted procreation techniques have long been the preserve of the upper-class elite. But in recent years, with proliferating clinics hawking cheap treatment, it is fast becoming the trend du jour among middle- and working-middle class couples, including the elderly. Bearing children at an old age is considered anathema to cultural norms in India, as the Biranjes have learned, but it often does not overshadow the social pressure to reproduce.

After about five decades of a childless marriage, both of the Haryana women were impregnated by fertilized eggs implanted to their post-menopausal uteruses by Dr. Anurag Bishnoi, who runs a private fertility clinic in the city of Hisar. Lohan's health rapidly deteriorated after her caesarean delivery and she suffered internal bleeding. In various media interviews, she said she is still surviving on pain killers and wasn't forewarned by Bishnoi about the dangers of giving birth at her age.

Critics say Lohan's predicament is not an isolated case. Fertility clinics generally don't offer patients reliable information about IVF's low rate of success and high probability of health complications and fetal abnormalities. Women over the age of 50 who undergo IVF are known to be prone to a high incidence of gestational diabetes and pregnancy-associated hypertension. With an older uterus being less capable of effecting normal labor and vaginal delivery, the chances of cesarean delivery in women of this age group are significantly higher after IVF than with natural conception. There is also a high probability of twins or triplets -- which increase the chances of maternal and neonatal morbidity.

Bishnoi, the doctor in Haryana, has publicly denied that Lohan's ill health was linked to her delivery and appears to glorify women who take the plunge despite the risks involved in such pregnancies. "Becoming pregnant at advanced age has its own hazards," he acknowledges on his website. But "procreation is considered a basic civil right of man. We salute those women who endanger their lives when opting for IVF for becoming mother and getting rid of the stigma of infertility."

The website lists a number of cases of advanced-age pregnancies, including Lohan's case, under a separate header titled "our achievements." Leading the list is a 75-year-old man who got married twice, apparently in the quest of a baby, but to "no avail". Then in 2007, he brought one of the wives, a 60-year-old woman, to Bishnoi and was "blessed with a son and a daughter" in the same year. The reason for the woman's infertility is unknown, the website says, but her case highlights that "if a lady has uterus," nothing -- not even age -- can stop her from becoming a mother.

India's draft fertility law will mandate that a surrogate mother should not be over 35 and cannot produce more than five children, including her own. But it defines no upper age limit for other women looking to get pregnant through fertility treatments. In the United States, as in India, there are no restrictions on advanced-age pregnancies. Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority officially lifted age restrictions on pregnancies in 2005. France is one of the world's few countries that has sought to outlaw artificial insemination of post-menopausal women, arguing that the practice is "immoral" and "dangerous to the health of mother and child."

In India, where fertility treatment is significantly cheaper, regulation weaker, and childlessness is considered a curse, the recent high profile cases have highlighted how women -- even across small towns and villages where health facilities are scarce -- are taking extraordinary risks to conceive babies.

"Medically it is now possible to impregnate a 60-year-old. But medically, it is also possible to impregnate a pre-pubescent girl. Does that mean we should allow it?" says Imrana Qadeer, a retired professor from the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "The misguided emphasis on genetics -- ‘It has to be my baby, my blood' -- has overshadowed safer and more progressive options such as adoption."

But Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, one of the chief architects of the Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, says deciding whether an upper age limit should be fixed is a "non-question."

"Procreation is a basic right, and we cannot deny it to anyone," he says, adding that the draft law includes a provision to "discourage" medically unfit women from seeking fertility treatment by requiring  clinics to provide professional counseling about its health implications, the low rate of success, the costs involved, and also advice on the possibility of adoption. Bhargava says a fertility counselor's role would be analogous to that of a marriage counselor. "The counselor will offer advice, but in the end, to do or not to do is entirely your decision."

But given the intense social pressure that surrounds childbirth in many parts of India, prospective mothers often don't see it as a choice. Infertility is rarely countenanced as just another random happenstance of birth. A victim of nature's caprice you may well be, but childlessness in many corners around India epitomizes a grave sexual defect, eliciting guilt and shame. "‘No baby? Is something wrong? Is it you or your husband?'" Kisabai Biranje describes it. "That's the general thinking. A married couple must reproduce to be venerable in society."

Before their marriage, Mr. Biranje was wedded to Kisabai's elder sister, Akatai, but he left her after she was diagnosed with a uterine fibroid -- a non-cancerous tumor lining the muscles of her uterus -- which challenged her ability to conceive. The current legal status of their marriage is unclear. The two women and Mr. Biranje live together in the same house. IVF was tried on Akatai once, but it failed. Kisabai has undergone numerous IVF cycles in the past half-decade -- each more physically daunting and emotionally nerve wracking than the other. "After every failed cycle, you cry and cry for days," she says. "Then you wipe off your tears and get yourself ready for more needle pricks." Mr. Biranje says the medical bills have cost him more than 200,000 rupees ($4,000). He is not comfortable sharing where the egg or sperm came from, but the source was vetted from their own caste. The Biranjes say they were warned by their doctor of the low success rate, but they still revere him as "god" for holding out hope that they "won't die barren."

Hope does eclipse realism at Dr. Satish Patki's clinic, spread over three floors in a boxy building that stands out in a sedate neighborhood in Kolhapur's leafy suburbia only because of the crowds it attracts. On a typical weekday, the clinic's slender corridors are packed with patients, clutching scans and medical reports, many from faraway places -- a nurse from Pune city -- 145 miles away -- whose husband has threatened to dump her if she did not produce an heir; a municipal employee from Hubli in neighboring Karnataka state whose wife has been declared "normal" by gynecologists and is troubled by whispers among relatives that he maybe impotent; a Moscow-based Indian businessman visiting with photographs of his teenage daughter delivered in Patki's clinic in 1997 after his Russian wife underwent 19 failed IVF attempts elsewhere.

Patki, a diminutive man with an amiable boy-like charm and receding hairline, has delivered more than 1,000 IVF babies in over two decades. His private chamber is festooned with a rack full of awards and trophies and photographs of him hobnobbing with influential politicians. But he spends much of his time inside his laboratory, a compact cleanroom accessed through a hygiene sluice with an air shower system. Inside, Patki, dressed in surgical scrubs and squinting into a microscope, makes babies in a petri dish. Outside, white-clad nurses explain the technique to bewildered couples watching the magnified image on a large plasma television. On one afternoon, a waiting middle-aged couple gazed with amazement at shoals of sperm bobbing around like jumpy tadpoles as they were plucked and pierced into egg cells. Minutes later, Patki emerged from the lab, wearing a triumphant smile as he took off his scrubs and reassured the wonderstruck couple that the embryos would soon be ripe for implantation.

Young and middle-aged couples form the bulk of his patients, he said later, sinking into the overstuffed swivel chair in his office. His clients comprise poor peasants -- who are lured to his small-town clinic, which is significantly cheaper than fertility clinics in cities -- as well as wealthy tycoons who are assured fully discreet personal service if they so wish. With some patients, he often feels compelled to explain that medically it is not possible to manipulate the gender of babies -- at least not yet -- a stark indicator of the cultural preference for male children in India, which has dangerously distorted the country's sex ratio. He says he does not carry out requests for sex-determination tests either. "Disclosure of sex of fetus is prohibited under law," reads a placard tacked on his cabin wall.

Unlike the controversial Bishnoi, he does not advertise advanced-age pregnancies as a specialty, but he does not discourage them either. "The uterus is the only organ that can be rejuvenated" post menopause, he beams, as if declaring a prophecy.

Patki says he has had only a "handful" of such cases, the most memorable of which was that of a 50-plus woman from a nearby village who became a surrogate for her own daughter in 2006. The daughter suffered from Rockitansky syndrome -- a rare congenital disorder which causes the uterus to be absent. Too ashamed to publicly reveal that she was pregnant with her grandchild, the woman was given a private room in the clinic after her abdomen started to bulge.

The local press had a field day with the sensational story. "Granny delivers grandson," read a headline in the best-selling Times of India -- the clipping is part of Patki's glossy clinic literature. But she had no desire to be celebrated. Just hours after her caesarian delivery, she sidled out of the clinic with the baby, becoming the only patient who, Patki regretfully says, lost all contact with him.

The Biranjes had no desire to be celebrated either. For them, undergoing IVF was like taking a blind leap, knowing fully well there may be no redemption in the end. But many failed cycles -- and a million tears -- later, a miracle happened. "Parenthood, however late in life, makes you feel complete," Mr. Biranje says, as Madhura, his tiny and underweight daughter, lolls on the floor near his feet. The wives, coy and reserved, nod in agreement. As he lifts her in his arms, Kisabai speaks, almost as an afterthought: "Yes, but we might not be around when she grows up."

Her eyes brim, but don't well over. After she had Madhura, Kisabai got lucky a second time in 2010, but suffered a miscarriage in the third month. The Biranjes recently sent Patki a stack of freshly peeled sugarcane from their farm through a messenger, requesting another appointment. They are hoping he will give them a boy.