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As Churches Revive, China Lets Christians Run a School

By Todd CrowellSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 1995



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.

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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.