BAIWAN, CHINA — 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 Christian church.
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 closed.
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.
The next years were hard for the Baiwan Christians. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) all open religious activity was suppressed and the village church sanctuary was turned into a barn.
''The only thing we could do was cry to God for help,'' Mr. remembers.
Subsequently, under more relaxed regimes, many churches have reopened in Guangdong Province. The Baiwan church began holding services again in 1986. It counts 350 members now, only 70 of whom had converted before the Communists came to power.
A new program
A few years ago, with the support of the Hong Kong Christian Council, a cooperative interdenominational Protestant agency, the Baiwan church began a free literacy program for village children.
''Eventually, there were more children in the literacy classes than in the Nan An School,'' says Philip Lam of the Hong Kong council.
''Seeing this, the church was approached by the township government to find out if it was willing to take over and run the school, '' Mr. Lam says.
That is why when the first group of Christians from Hong Kong visited the village in the spring of 1994, the local Communist Party chief, Chen Gexing, was there in the church courtyard wearing a big smile, shaking hands and inviting everyone into the church.
There was a reason for the fulsome welcome.
The local Christians are no better off than their neighbors. But they have a pipeline into a wealthier Hong Kong community to help raise the $150,000 needed to build the new school, furnish it, and pay the salaries of a complement of teachers.
A new school board was established composed of five members from the Baiwan church and four from the local township government.
It is responsible for running the school and providing free primary-school education for about 550 children from the village and the surrounding area.
The new school is not overtly religious, however. Rather than crosses or pictures of Jesus, there are portraits of former Premier Zhou Enlai and ex-president Liu Shaoqi on the walls. The teachers are government-trained. It is a secular, public school - run by a church.
A new dependency?
Some worry that by turning for financial help to Hong Kong, and to mainly expatriate churches there, the Chinese have begun a new dependency on foreign help.
Before the revolution, Chinese Christians were sometimes derided as ''rice bowl'' Christians, suggesting that their only interest in becoming Christians was for a square meal. It is a stigma that the church has worked hard to live down.
The three selfs
In the 1950s, after most of the foreign missionaries were expelled, the major Protestant denominations united into an all-embracing ''three-self'' movement (self-governing, self-propagating, and self-financing) denoting a strong desire to keep the Chinese church free from foreign influences.
''There is a danger of a new kind of paternalism emerging,'' says Wendell Karsen, director of communications for the Hong Kong Christian Council.
''But the Guangdong Christian Council approached us, not the other way around, and they control all the funds,'' he explains.
But in Baiwan worries about a new paternalism take a back seat to the more pressing problem of getting children educated.
After all, it was paramount leader Deng Xiaoping who once famously said, ''It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.''