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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

All this week we are reporting on the rise of individualism in China. Our series is called A Nation of Individuals, and today we turn to the topic of religion. NPR's Rob Gifford has this profile of a 40-year-old Christian evangelist in central China.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Chairman Mao subscribed to Karl Marx's belief that religion was the opiate of the people, but he then set about creating some ideological opiates of his own when people had little choice but to believe in them. Now after more than 25 years of reform, almost no one believes in communism in China. Many people are simply filling their minds as well as their pockets with money, but increasingly many ordinary people are looking for something else, some spiritual satisfaction. While there are still limits, sometimes quite strict ones, on how people express their beliefs, it's clear in today's China there's plenty of choice.

(Soundbite of song)

Group of People: (Singing in Chinese dialect)

GIFFORD: It's Wednesday afternoon in a small village in the central Chinese province of Anhui. About 20 people are gathered in a typical peasant home singing Christian hymns. There are people of all ages. Some have just come in from the fields.

(Soundbite of song)

Group of People: (Singing in Chinese dialect)

GIFFORD: The service is taking place in the house of Zhang Aiguo, a 40-year-old peasant who has just returned from Beijing. Zhang is a full-time evangelist who travels around the country preaching, teaching and helping to build up the burgeoning Protestant church. Because China still doesn't allow complete freedom of belief, Zhang doesn't want his real name used, but he's not so timid in his prayers.

Mr. ZHANG AIGUO (Evangelist): (Chinese dialect spoken)

GIFFORD: Zhang prays for blessings on all those present and for the country and the leaders of the country that they would turn from atheism to Christ. Zhang's prayers and, indeed, his whole approach to life raise a large question which will in the long run have a huge impact on what kind of country China becomes: What exactly do modern Chinese people believe in?

For centuries they believed in the emperor as the son of heaven. The mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism created a melange of spirituality unlike the monotheistic cultures of the West and the Middle East but no less devout.

In 1949 Chairman Mao made himself the son of heaven and set about wiping out the old beliefs. Now communism as a creed is dead and many Chinese people are standing looking out into a spiritual void. Zhang Aiguo says it's Christianity that will save China.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through Translator) We believe Christianity can be a real force in China. God will do many miracles in China. There are maybe 100 million believers; that's one in every 13 Chinese people. That's a lot of good people all having an impact on the society. The government can't change the people. God can.

GIFFORD: Most analysts say the number of Christians is probably more like 60 or 70 million, but that's still the same number of people as are members of the Chinese Communist Party and nearly twice the entire population of California. Zhang has several party members in a Bible study he leads in Beijing. He says Christianity is not only changing people's hearts, it's also having a very positive impact on society.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through Translator) There is a saying in Chinese that sums up the Chinese way of thinking. We say take care of sweeping the snow from your own path. Don't worry about the frost on your neighbor's roof. In other words, don't get involved in other people's business. But I can tell you from my experience that in the church we will first go and help people like widows who have no family. This is something that Christians do.

GIFFORD: The sermon today is given by a visiting pastor from another town. He's preaching from Paul's letter to the Philippians. It's about humility and how the last shall be first and about how, if people want to be leaders, they must be servants. The man preaches with the zeal of a Chinese Billy Graham.

Unidentified Pastor: (Chinese dialect spoken)

GIFFORD: He's not preaching revolution but his message is, in some ways, revolutionary because it's talking about equality and leaders being servants of the people. That's something the Communist Party has always said but never put into practice. The message of equality taps into a growing interest in Christianity, not just among ordinary peasants like these but among intellectuals, too. In the West many intellectuals see Christianity as reactionary and anti-science. In China it's frequently the opposite. Even non-Christian intellectuals see Christianity as the foundation of a Western culture and society that has rule of law, prosperity and, says Zhang Aiguo, democracy.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through Translator) Christianity is revolutionary because it talks about unconditional love to the individual. If every government official knew about Christianity, it would give them a standard by which to behave. Democracy is definitely linked to the Bible because both talk about freedom and the rights of human beings.

Unidentified Preacher: (Chinese dialect spoken)

GIFFORD: After long prayers the service ends. Zhang thanks the visiting preacher and says goodbye to the congregation. Sitting in the echoing, bare dining room of his home, he says he prays that China will become a Christian nation.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through Translator) People are choosing their own way because the government doesn't believe anything anymore, nor do the leaders. People are used to the government telling them what to believe. Now people have freedom and they believe all sorts of things.

GIFFORD: Chairman Mao once said that the Chinese people are a blank sheet of paper to be written on. In fact, they weren't then at all, but he made them into one by annihilating many of the old Chinese ways, spiritual and temporal. What's now happening is that the people are writing on the blank sheet of paper that Mao created, not just Christianity. Buddhism, Taoism, folk religions are all making a comeback, and people are choosing for themselves what to believe, everything, in fact, except communism. Rob Gifford, NPR News.

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