BEIJING — Yao Chun works for an upscale private firm, has a polished "corporate" persona, and loves China. But as an evangelical Christian he also loves the Gospels, which he encountered as a student in the US, describing them as "a light I never experienced before." In China, his strong faith makes for life in a gray zone of semilegality.
He visits the largest official church in Beijing, but the crowds on Sunday often force him into the basement with a closed circuit screen. "We feel strange praying to a TV," he quips. Mostly, Yao attends an illegal "home church." The small group rents an apartment for Sunday services and weekday study. The Bible study is most frowned upon since officials feel such gatherings can incubate dissent, Yao says. So he and friends sing and pray in low voices.
Yet despite the challenges of practicing Christianity in China, there are signs that the once near pariah faith is being given more latitude. Most striking is what appears to be a public admittance by Beijing that Christianity is not only on the rise but is growing rapidly - and that the church is benefiting a spiritually hungry population that is growing more "individualistic."
The change is part of a new official formula that is fitfully taking shape here: a basic and perhaps grudging acceptance of faith, including low-level experiments with religious exchange abroad - so long as Chinese believers profess loyalty and patriotism to the state.
"Christianity is growing quickly here, faster maybe than in any other part of the world," says Gao Ying, vice president of the Beijing Christian Council. "Individualism is growing, and people need to feel love and community.
"We encourage the home church members to worship, and to register themselves as Christians so they can worship under the law."
Ms. Gao, a theologian trained at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., was speaking Tuesday at an unusual foreign media event: an unveiling of blueprints for two huge new churches.
Scheduled for completion this year, the new Protestant churches in Beijing will hold some 4,000 to 5,000 worshipers, easing the crowding at the nine other official churches that Protestants may attend. At least five other churches are also planned.
In recent months Yao and other underground Christians in Beijing speak of a more relaxed official policy. But they remain quite reticent.
"The police have been leaving us alone," Yao adds. "But I feel the night is very close to me. I always feel the night. The web of the state is near. They know who we are. They can easily pick us up. They are good hunters."
Last week, as China's National People's Congress prepared to meet, a number of political and religious activists were whisked out of town. On March 5, Hua Huiqi, a house church leader was put under house arrest. When he protested, he was arrested and later beaten, along with his wife, Wei Jumei, who lost a tooth in the assault, according to Human Rights in China. His parents' apartment was raided by police, who reportedly took the family life savings, some $12,000.
The contradictions of Christian growth in mainland China are manifold, and are reflected by a policy of simultaneous acceptance and tightening, as officials try to grapple with it. The spiritual message of the New Testament has often clashed with the temporal message of Marxism in China. Experts point out the contradictions of religious searching in a newly mammon-obsessed culture. There are fears inside a rigid communist party hierarchy bent on control, as it confronts a highly fluid set of unofficial church movements - charismatic, pentecostal - that in some ways appear to be developing denominational forms, as pointed out in a fresh assessment of faith titled "Jesus in Beijing," by David Aikman, a former Time magazine bureau chief.
The official Protestant church numbers about 20 million, whereas the unofficial or underground home churches are estimated between 30 and 50 million.
Mr. Aikman suggests also a rise of interest among party officials and bureaucrats. Some home church members report a new genre of stories from believers in the party who are unsure how to handle their faith. One mid-level party member, feeling pangs of conscience while serving in a party that eschews religious belief, asked her boss if she should "confess her sin" and resign. Her boss told her, "No, believe what you want. You are a good worker. Just stay."
A number of prominent entertainers and musicians in China also are starting to claim faith. The actress Lu Ling Ping, who plays the wife on a famous soap opera "Passionate Years," is openly Christian. So is Zheng Jun, a pop star, whose CD liner notes contain thanks to God.
"The new situation in the party-state recognizes that religion and Christianity are gaining momentum with the globalization of China, including the WTO accession," says Nicholas Becquelin, of the Hong Kong branch of Human Rights in China. "Having recognized this and drawn a lesson from history - the attempt to stamp out religion in the Mao era - the main message is that the state will give more space to worship in exchange for guarantees of political loyalty."
Partly for this reason, systematic crackdowns also still take place. Last month, two unofficial church leaders in Hangzhou were arrested. Liu Fenggang and Xu Yonghai, a church historian and a church organizer long associated with evangelicalism, were charged with disclosing state secrets. In China, the charge is an expansive and vague one. Sources including Mr. Xu's wife say the two had reported to foreign groups the evidence of a systematic destruction of home churches in their east coast city. Four other well-known underground church leaders were arrested in Henan, a hotbed of evangelical faith, in January.
Some sources argue that given the numbers beginning to worship, the new open policy on churches represents an attempt to "co-opt" the growth; one source argues that the technique of official acceptance is designed to temper the fervor of evangelicals, which has been shown to thrive when it is suppressed.
Policy toward Christians differs dramatically between regions, and even counties. Henan Province and the city of Wenzhou are often described as the Bethlehem and the Jerusalem of China, respectively - and are often the scene of vigorous, though peaceful, clashes over worship.
At the same time, several home church sources and other witnesses report new instances of loosening that have not been seen in recent years: Recently in Shanghai, one of the least accepting cities, authorities allowed an open youth meeting of evangelicals. In another major city, overseas Chinese ministers were invited to speak at home churches, and despite the knowledge of local police, were allowed to come.
Since its creation following the communist revolution, the Chinese state church has not accepted foreign influence - funding, exchanges, authority. Theologically, the church defined itself with a patriotic, socialist gospel vision whose purpose was to "serve the people." However, it was deeply resented by evangelicals who felt the official church was a status quo faith.
Currently, with Beijing allowing the building of new churches, a debate is under way over which group, the official or unofficial church, kept the faith alive. Says Yao: "What's not so important to us is a building. We feel that church is in our hearts; we worship in spirit and in truth."