COMMUNIST Party leaders in this remote township in Guangdong
Province had a problem. Two-thirds of the village children could
not afford to go to school. Their solution: Return it to the local
Consequently, the secular leaders of the region were pleased to
recently attend the opening of the new Love of Christ Primary
School. The four-story concrete building, easily the most modern in
the village, is the first primary school in China returned by the
Communists to a church.
How this came about has much to say about China today, not just
about the state of religious freedom, but also of a new official
pragmatism. After all, it is one thing to let capitalists run a
garment factory, quite another to turn the molding of the next
generation over to a church.
Indeed, churches in China are undergoing a remarkable, some
might say miraculous, rebirth largely through their own efforts.
Before the communist takeover in 1949, more than a century of
concerted missionary efforts had left fewer than a million
Protestants in China. Today there are an estimated 12 million. Much
of the growth has come in the last five years.
Baiwan and its 2,500 villagers are a long, dusty drive north of
Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong Province.
It is a world far removed from the bustle and prosperity of the
Pearl River delta with Guangzhou and Hong Kong as anchors.
Guangdong is one of China's richest provinces, yet about 60 miles
north millions still live in poverty.
A poor, rural region
The limestone-laced soil is too poor even to grown rice. The
staples are taro root and sweet potatoes. Per-capita income was
last measured at $40 a year.
The mountain regions have not been neglected by the provincial
authorities. A new cement plant attested to an effort to bring a
better employment base, but since there was no real industry here
to support this misguided project, and getting cement to markets
over the poor dirt roads was too expensive, the plant has since
Many young people from the township leave each year to try to
find jobs in the new factories that are constantly sprouting up
around Guangzhou and in the special economic zones next to Hong
Kong. But employers tend to shun those who can't read or write.
Even in a shoe factory illiterate workers can foul things up
because they can't stamp the proper labels on the boxes or sew
labels in the shoes right-side-up.
Education too expensive
Education is supposed to be free in China. In practice, however,
many schools charge tuition to cover the costs. In Baiwan only
about 80 of the 350 village children were attending the local
school. The other children's parents could not afford the $25
annual tuition, and the township, strapped for funds itself, could
not subsidize them.
But many of the people of Baiwan and the surrounding area are
Christians. They were converted in the 1930s by several Chinese
Christians and a Canadian Pentecostal missionary, who plodded north
from Guangzhou by horseback.
The first to be baptized was Li Yuansu, still the spiritual
leader of the village, now in his 80s. "By the end of 1936, more
than 200 had been baptized, more than 90 in one occasion," he says.
By the 1940s the local Protestant church had become an important
part of village life, and it was about that time it opened the Nan
An Village School. The school was confiscated by the Communists
after the revolution in 1949, as were all schools in China,
religious or private. …