THE door buzzer on Mosque Junction Street is cryptically marked with a strip of paper bearing two Chinese characters, "Weixin," meaning literally, "safeguard the faith."
Upstairs, in a headquarters hidden in the maze of meandering lanes above Hong Kong harbor, a team of Jesuit priests practices the arcane art of "China watching" with a mastery esteemed by Western spies.
Yet far removed from the cynical motivations of their cloak-and-dagger counterparts, the scholarly fathers find success in devotion to a nobler aim.
Inspired by their predecessor, the 16th-century Jesuit pioneer Matteo Ricci, the priests are working to deepen the philosophical discourse between Confucian and Christian cultures.
"We're like Ricci, comparing maps and methodologies," observes the Rev. Michel Masson, an unassuming, bespectacled expert in modern Chinese history.
Every morning, Fr. Masson and his colleagues scour the official Chinese press, reading some 20 newspapers and 50 periodicals.
In a labor likened by Sinologist Simon Leys to "swallowing sawdust by the bucketful," they scavenge the mountains of mind-numbing propaganda for clues to important political, economic, and social shifts.
Each useful article or biographical note is carefully clipped, referenced, and filed away with half a million others. The archives, dating back to 1949, rival those of the United States State Department and are frequently consulted by diplomats, scholars, and journalists.
The nuggets of fact and insight are then published in the fortnightly newsletter China News Analysis - nine crisp pages of riveting observations and one of the world's best China-watching journals.
The newsletter is part of the nonprofit organization "Weixin," named after Zheng Weixin (1633-1673), the first Chinese Jesuit priest and a brilliant scholar who taught classics in Rome before returning to China incognito as a missionary. Weixin also offers workshops on China for visiting Jesuits and scholarships in comparative literature for Chinese academics.
For director Masson and the Rev. Yves Nalet, the editor, China News Analysis exemplifies the Jesuit emphasis on education in addition to missionary goals.
"It's very important that people in the church are doing something in China that is purely intellectual and disinterested - without a Bible up our sleeves," says Masson.
"It is almost a Christian necessity to try to understand what kind of people the Chinese are, what questions they are asking," he says.
Moreover, for the first time since the iconoclastic May Fourth movement of 1919, mainland Chinese intellectuals are showing a serious interest in Western theology as relevant to revitalizing China's ancient Confucian culture, Masson says.
Increasingly, he says, scholars such as Shenzhen University sociologist Liu Xiaofeng are finding meaning in Christian ideas that are radically different from Confucianism, such as the concept of life as a journey.
"In Confucianism, man stays at home and cultivates his …