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Mixing Religion and Noodles Lands Ms. Su in Hot Water

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  • Nina Dimas
    PAGE ONE Business Mission Mixing Religion And Noodles Lands Ms. Su in Hot Water As Christianity Rises in Cities, China Tries to Manage It; State Builds More
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 2, 2005
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      PAGE ONE Business Mission
      Mixing Religion And Noodles Lands Ms. Su in Hot Water

      As Christianity Rises in Cities, China Tries to Manage It; State Builds More Churches

      Officials Shutter a Seminary

      By CHARLES HUTZLER
      Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
      June 2, 2005; Page A1

      SHANGSHUI, China -- From a factory in this small city, Su Xueling's company churned out blocks of instant noodles that are a fast-food staple across this country.

      But these noodles had a mission. Stamped with the company's brand, "Gospel Noodles," they announced Ms. Su's faith in a country that frowns upon religion. Ms. Su then used her modest profits, as well as government connections, to start a seminary that trained hundreds of evangelical preachers to spread Christianity across China.

      "I wanted to do something to pay back God," says Ms. Su, 46 years old. "So I decided to run my business to spread my religion."

      Using private profit to spread religion may seem unremarkable in places like the U.S., where freedom of religious expression is a given. But in China, government regulations limit the circulation of Bibles, proscribe the public display of religious symbols and forbid public proselytizing. Ms. Su's decision was a bold step that set her on a collision course with China's communist government, which is trying both to accommodate the rise of Christianity -- and control it.

      A wave of religious revival that washed across the largely poor countryside in the 1990s is pouring into the cities, sweeping up entrepreneurs, professors and business professionals. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, Protestants and Catholics now number more than 45 million, in the conservative estimates of foreign scholars and missionaries, up from six million 25 years ago. Protestant groups account for the largest share of the growth.

      With social standing, entrepreneurial flair and money, these new converts are less cowed by government authority and are becoming a force in Christianity's rise in China. The situation is stretching the boundaries of official tolerance and loosening the Communist Party's influence over a growing population.

      President Hu Jintao told a closed-door gathering of the party elite in September that religion represents a leading threat to communist rule, along with democracy activists, according to people briefed on the speech. The government's information office says that characterization isn't accurate, but wouldn't elaborate, saying the speech wasn't for public circulation. Universities, whose religious-studies departments are a fertile ground for proselytizing, have been ordered by the party's Propaganda Department to re-emphasize atheism. Some local governments are threatening rural Christians with fines and jail if they attend unauthorized prayer meetings.

      Yet Beijing finds itself in a tough position. Too much repression would alienate middle-class believers. A return to the Maoist-era proscription of religion would anger Western governments, putting at risk China's international standing and the foreign investment that sustains the economy.

      Many local officials are eager for the business investment and social services Christians can provide. In Shangshui, officials courted Ms. Su as an investor, appointed her to the legislature and permitted her seminary to operate openly for four years. They shut it down in June 2004 under pressure from higher-level officials. But they didn't punish any of her students or teachers, who then scattered across the country, many to preach.

      "You have to realize China's not a strict place," says Xing Zihui, a teacher who helped found Ms. Su's seminary. In recent months, he has been to three provinces to preach. "If your relations with officials are good, you can do whatever you like, as long as there's no trouble."

      China's government recognizes only five religions -- Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Daoism and Islam.

      Soon after communists came to power in 1949, the government drove out foreign missionaries and set up official state churches. Today, these organizations vet clergy, supervise congregations and answer to the Communist Party.

      With Christianity spreading, China is trying to broaden the appeal of the state churches it has long used to monitor worshipers. An aggressive campaign to build more state churches is under way. Last year, Beijing broke ground on two churches, the first to be erected in the capital in 50 years. The government ban on worship by children and teenagers is being relaxed.

      "The government is delighted to support us in setting up more churches," says the Rev. Yu Xinli, president of the Beijing Christian Council, a government-backed body that oversees Protestant churches. More state churches, he says, "prevents infiltration from overseas."

      But there are also "underground" churches, which operate without government authorization, often in secret. Increasingly, China's Christians are turning to charismatic and evangelical forms of worship, according to Chinese and foreign religious scholars. Many shun state churches, which they say preach too liberal a theology and obey a state ban on proselytizing.

      Bibles in Briefcases

      In an upscale apartment in a Beijing suburb, well-dressed professionals drive new cars to weeknight prayer sessions, their Bibles tucked inside stylish handbags and briefcases. "I won't set foot in an official church," says Julia Di, an advertising executive who recently gathered with nearly two dozen others. "They won't preach the Gospel to everyone. It's like a banquet where only after they've eaten their fill do they offer some food to others."

      Ms. Di says she was converted by friends after her divorce. She sees parallels with early Christians, who started out as a persecuted group but through patient evangelizing eventually came to dominate the Roman Empire. To achieve that in China, more well-educated converts are needed, she says, because "if you're poor and unsuccessful and go to spread the Gospel, it doesn't work."

      A more open defiance of government policy is under way in a nightlife district of Shenyang city. At the Huaxia Folk Customs Village restaurant, Bible sayings hang from the walls and waiters sing hymns.

      "Christianity is part of my corporate culture," says Feng Kai, president of the company which owns the restaurant.

      Mr. Feng moved to Shenyang 13 years ago to work in a restaurant. After a co-worker's relative gave him a Bible, he started attending a state church and soon opened his own restaurant. Now, he says, his chain of three restaurants earns about $1.2 million a year and employs more than 400 people, 80% of whom are Christians. Each restaurant has a chapel, where employees hold prayer and Bible-study sessions 90 minutes a day.

      Mr. Feng isn't a dissident. He is an official in the state church and member of a city government-advisory commission. His chapels are registered with the state church and restricted to employees. But Mr. Feng also regularly sends donations to underground churches, he says, and refuses to toe the line on proselytizing. Police came to his office in the spring of 2004, he says, demanding he pull down the Bible sayings and stop the hymn-singing.

      "I told them, 'No. This faith is my life and I won't change whether you want me to lead this life or not,' " says Mr. Feng. "Besides," he says, "I'm a big taxpayer. They ought to protect me."

      Police deny the encounter and say they respect religious freedom.

      In the city of Shangshui in central China's wheat belt, Su Xueling, the daughter of a communist-revolution veteran, had never heard of Jesus until she was in her 30s. At the time, she was caring for her husband, who was dying from brain cancer. A nurse suggested Ms. Su might find solace in Christianity. "I never believed in anything," she says. She bought a Buddhist statue and prayed to it at home, but soon stopped.

      After her husband's death, with $12,000 in medical bills and two sons to care for, Ms. Su left her secure but low-paying government job and started her own business. She made fresh noodles, which she sold door-to-door by bicycle. Sales were paltry, she says, recalling how she sobbed one winter morning on her rounds. She started attending Shangshui's state-run Protestant church, with its congregation of mostly elderly women. "It wasn't anything special," she says, "but I was trying to change my life."

      In 1998, her faith took a turn. Walking alone through snow, about 200 yards from a state church, she says she heard a voice call: "Sister, you're late. Come." There was no one else around, she says.

      She took it as a message of support. Since then, she says, God has spoken to her three other times and her faith has provided comfort and confidence. "As Christians, we're supposed to strive to be better than others. In life and work, when there are difficulties, God is always there to help me."

      Ms. Su began to think big. She raised more than $100,000, much of it in bank loans, to buy a production line for noodles and six vans for deliveries. Associates of her late husband -- who was a well-connected official in the local grain bureau -- helped her raise funds and gave advice. Gospel Foodstuffs Ltd. was born.

      With better production and delivery, the company grew. The brand name, written on the package in Chinese, drew the attention of fellow Christians.

      Two preachers from a struggling seminary in another part of the province came to Ms. Su with a pitch. They asked her to put her profits into financing a new seminary, Ms. Su and one of the preachers say.

      "I didn't know anything about running a seminary," she says, "but I thought 'Why not?' " A week later, she and Xu Xingqi, a Shangshui government official in charge of religious affairs, drove halfway across the province to visit the preachers "to see whether they were patriotic," Mr. Xu says -- a common euphemism for accepting government control.

      Humble Beginnings

      In August 2000, the Emanuel Gospel Seminary opened in a storage shed behind her noodle factory. Its 30 students and teachers slept on the concrete floor for several weeks.

      Though many counties set up small training centers for preachers, Shangshui's stood apart. Students didn't just come from state churches, as is the norm, but from underground ones as well. The faculty drew heavily on their evangelical message, with emphasis on converting others. There were even Arabic classes to prepare missionaries to proselytize in the Middle East.

      The school and the noodle business flourished. Ms. Su built a larger factory, increased her payroll to more than 70, and became a deputy to the regional legislature. With a student body that grew to 200, the school relocated to a compound of brick buildings where students planted corn and soybeans in courtyards.

      "We worked in harmony and with purpose," says Mr. Xing, the founding teacher. Recalls Ms. Su: "I was prepared to donate the rest of my life to God."

      Ms. Su cultivated government backers. A police official recalls being a guest of honor at the opening of the seminary's new campus. Before holidays, Ms. Su says, she visited officials, distributing liquor, cigarettes and red envelopes of cash, sometimes hundreds of dollars. Mr. Xu, the religious-affairs official, and others acknowledge receiving gifts, without specifying what they received. "In a small place like Shangshui, money is the only way to open doors," says Ms. Su.

      Still, her operation didn't always escape pressure. In 2001, police sent students to jail and sealed the school doors on suspicion they were part of a cult, Ms. Su says. She called Mr. Xu, who vouched for them, and the school re-opened a few days later. In the fall of 2002, police closed the school again, in a nationwide security clamp down before a pivotal Communist Party meeting in Beijing.

      While successful, Gospel Foodstuffs never generated huge profits, making about $45,000 in a good year, Ms. Su says. As the seminary expanded, it consumed more money, depriving her business of capital needed to compete, she says.

      She went looking for other funds, bringing in a Malaysian Chinese missionary. It was a misstep, she now says, violating a strict sanction on foreign involvement in preaching. But at the time, the missionary had channels to donors.

      Starved for revenue, the city of Shangshui was trying to sell off public schools, thereby forcing more students into private schools. Last year, Ms. Su and the Malaysian missionary signed a contract to buy a vocational high school. They planned to privatize the school and then, they hoped, make money on tuitions.

      When teachers complained to province officials about the school selloff, Ms. Su, with her religious activism, became a lightning rod for criticism. In May 2004, a government investigation soon moved beyond the sale to her other endeavors. Within weeks, Gospel Noodles was closed and the seminary's license rescinded. Police searched her apartment and removed two items: a plan for the seminary and one of her business cards. On the back was printed: "Turn China into an aircraft carrier for spreading the Gospel."

      Party Deputy Secretary Zhang Qi summoned Ms. Su to his office, accusing her of counter-revolutionary acts and using religion to abet the infiltration of foreign forces, she says. "He said 'If you weren't a People's Congress deputy, you would be arrested,' " she recalls. Mr. Zhang doesn't confirm the exchange, but says "the Christian training center didn't obey policy and overstepped."

      Since then, Ms. Su says, she went through a period of questioning whether God was punishing her for insufficient faith. She also tried to get back the down payment for the vocational school, and started thinking about a new business.

      The government didn't refund the money, but in February of this year gave her 17 acres in a planned industrial park. As part of her public rehabilitation, Ms. Su recently spoke at a government-sponsored forum for women entrepreneurs. Though she's abandoned the noodle business as too competitive, the government has given her the green light to set up a private school and she's looking for investors.

      Several teachers from her old seminary have begun preaching in underground churches across China. Says Zhang Tao, one of the teachers-turned-preachers: "We're not idle. The demand is just too great."

      ["Leap of Faith" chart: Estimated number of Catholics and Protestants in China, in millions.

      (Roman) Catholics 1950 per Chinese govt: 2.7; 2004: 5.3. Per religious scholars: 2004:12.0

      Protestants 1950 per gov't: 0.7; 2004 - 16. 2004 per scholars: 35.0

      Note: Chinese government estimates include only state-approved churches. Religious scholars estimates are based on interviews with academics and church officials in China.]



      Nina Tkachuk Dimas

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