Communists Turn to Christ
Christianity in many areas of Guizhou continued to flourish throughout the 1990s. The decade saw a further softening in attitudes against the Church compared to the brute force used in previous decades, but life continued to be desperately hard for many tribal believers.
By 1995 the Communist Party had taken notice of the overflowing churches, and they launched a campaign to prevent Party members becoming Christians. The Hong Kong newspaper, Ming Bao, published a report which stated:
"Recently a large number of Communist Party members joined the ranks of Christianity in the Bijie District of Guizhou Province. According to a survey...in 1991 there were only 150 Party members who had joined the Church. But by 1995 the number exceeded 2,000. In Nayong County alone there were 23 Party members registered as church members, of whom 18 were cadres in national organizations. More than 100 Party members regularly attend church activities there....
The survey revealed that Party members who became Christians were not just ordinary young people but old cadres who had been in the Party for decades.... The Party Vice-Secretary in Zhijin County who had served in the 1950s and in the 1970s as Commune leader is now a leading light in the church.
The conversion of leading Party members has led to the growth of Christianity by the thousands and the tens of thousands. The prestige of Party and local government organs has dropped. In some remote villages people obey the pastor rather than the village Party head."
Stone Gateway Revisited
A rural church in northwest Guizhou. [RCMI]
In 1996, a small group of foreigners traveled to Shimenkan (Stone Gateway), hoping to visit the grave of the great missionary pioneer Samuel Pollard. Shimenkan had served as the center for the A-Hmao revival nearly a century earlier under Pollard's guidance. The group reported:
"It is still one of the poorest areas in China without a single paved road. The peasants still live in the same mud and straw huts, tending tiny patches of land among the steep mountains.... The Nosu landlords have gone; many beaten to death during land reform in the early 1950s, but the A-Hmao seem as poor as when Pollard first met them. Locals say that up to 80 percent of the population do not earn enough to feed and clothe themselves."
The visitors were concerned by some of the things they learned on their brief visit to Shimenkan. They discovered that very few A-Hmao children attended school, as their parents were unable to afford the annual school fees of about US$240. One local told the group:
"'It was better before the Revolution. Many believe that there is no point sending their children to school if they just have to go back to the farm afterwards.' Like other impoverished parts of China, locals believe central government subsidies are pocketed by corrupt local officials. 'We don't have roads here but all the local officials have brought themselves expensive foreign jeeps.'"
Because of the excruciating poverty in Guizhou, many A-Hmao young adults left the area in search of work in more developed parts of China. Whereas nearly every village family follows Jesus Christ and regularly attends church meetings, those who left the area found life much more complicated, with only about 30 percent of A-Hmao people living elsewhere managing to retain their faith.
A century earlier, Samuel Pollard had helped free the A-Hmao from slavery to the brutal Nosu landlords, but the visitors soon found that the Communist Party of the 1990s had assumed the role of oppressors of the A-Hmao people. Two of the Chinese men who accompanied the visitors were arrested and detained by the local authorities for bringing foreigners to see Pollard's grave. "We have our own power here and can do what we like," the corrupt officials boasted.
Startling Growth throughout Guizhou
A crowded tribal church in Guizhou.
For a century, the jewels in the crown of the Guizhou Church had been the tribal Christians in the west of the province, whereas generations of Han Chinese and other tribal people had lived and died without believing in Jesus Christ.
The 1990s saw God's Spirit move among the Han Chinese and various neglected minority groups, however, and startling growth occurred in many parts of the province. Tony Lambert, highly regarded as an expert on Christianity in China, summarized the situation in Guizhou at the time:
"In 1993 when I spoke to a leading TSPM pastor in Guiyang, the capital, he estimated there to be 300,000 to 400,000 believers—a 30 to 40-fold increase! The Miao area of Hezhang has seen growth from 4,000 believers to more than 26,000, meeting in 60 churches and meeting points....
In Liupanshui, 60 percent of the Christians are Miao [A-Hmao and Gha-Mu], 20 percent Nosu or Bouyei, and 20 percent Han Chinese. In Weining 9,000 are Miao, 7,000 are Nosu and the remainder mainly Han.
In northwest Guizhou the concentration of Christians among the minorities is sometimes very high.... Some villages in Puding and Zhijin counties inhabited by A-Hmao are 95 percent Christian. In the Wumeng Mountains there are over 10,000 tribal believers meeting in several dozen churches....
Guizhou has large numbers of Christians, but the Church has a chronic shortage of educated leaders. In Hezhang, for example, 80 percent of the preachers have had only a primary school education."
This overwhelming need for competent church leaders became a constant theme in communications from believers in Guizhou. One letter in 1998 said, "For more than a year we have had no teaching. There is no church and the local authorities didn't allow us to set up study meetings, but now we have a small meeting-point of 40 people."
Although at long last the light of the gospel was shining on the Han Chinese in Guizhou, many challenges remained. Although there were now more Christians to spread the gospel, the onslaught of materialism which engulfed China in the 1990s meant that the harvest had somewhat soured, with many people no longer interested in spiritual things as they set their minds to accumulating worldly possessions. One letter from Guizhou in 1999 encapsulated the difficulties facing the churches at the time:
"As we live in a mountainous region where transportation is very inconvenient, we have set up three meeting places with a total of 62 believers. The development of this area is very difficult because it is backward and we are a minority group that is deeply influenced by idols. Most families grow corn for a living. The people here live for money, and very few of them are interested in listening to our message."
The spectacular growth of the Church in certain areas of Guizhou did not go unnoticed, with even government books remarking on the sudden expansion of Christianity in the province. In 1997, one official publication estimated that 50 percent of all Nosu people in Weining County had become Christians.
Although estimates of the overall number of Christians in China fluctuated throughout the 1990s according to various sources, researcher Tony Lambert—a man known to favor a more conservative approach—consistently provided a figure of 300,000 to 400,000 Evangelical believers in Guizhou. These estimates revealed explosive growth since 1987, when 100,000 Evangelicals were reported in the province.
By the end of the twentieth century it was apparent that God was doing a strong work throughout Guizhou, and the flame of the gospel promised to burn even more brightly as the new millennium commenced.
© This article is an extract from Paul Hattaway's book 'Guizhou: The Precious Province'. You can order this or any of The China Chronicles books and e-books from our online bookstore.