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Christianity in a Chinese workplace? For some.

A strategic semiconductor firm gets leeway on promoting faith in its halls.

By Carol HuangStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2008

Sunday: Government-approved ministers preach at Semiconductor Manufacturing International Co.'s services. The firm's founder insisted on leeway for religious practice.

Carol Huang

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Beijing

A spiffy corporate campus in China isn't exactly where you'd expect to find a four-foot-tall wooden cross, let alone a church filled with Chinese singing hymns.

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But that's what's happening on the Beijing and other campuses of Semiconductor Manufacturing International Company (SMIC), whose founding CEO is an enthusiastic evangelical Christian.

A leader in what Beijing considers a highly strategic industry, the chipmaking company has secured unusual leeway for free worship from a government that's extremely cautious about organized religion.

But despite their often hard line on religion, in practice, Chinese authorities use a sliding scale of religious control – influenced in part by how much a group contributes to a prosperous and "harmonious" society.

Overseas Chinese investors score very high on helping China reach this goal. "As long as we're considered China's semiconductor company, as long as we're good for China," they work with us," says company spokesman Matthew Szymanski.

Chinese authorities have adapted their stance on religion as its popularity has grown in recent years. The number of Christians alone rose 50 percent between 1997 and 2006, according to official figures. Today they make up 4 to 8 percent of China's 1.3 billion people, says Brian Grim, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington.

China's Constitution, adopted in 1982, recognizes "freedom of religious belief" and "protects normal religious activities." But legal worship is restricted to state-sanctioned facilities. The government keeps a close eye on religious activity, periodically cracking down when it sees something it doesn't like.

At the same time, it has hinted that it sees religion's potential as a positive social force. In a widely discussed comment at last October's National Congress, where top officials of the ruling Communist Party meet once every five years, President Hu Jintao said they should "bring into play the positive role of religious personages and believers in promoting economic and social development."

Indeed, the state's tolerance of religious activities seems to depend on how much they're perceived as contributing to such development.

Groups that are seen as "promoting harmonious society" are "higher on the good scale," says Mr. Grim. Buddhist organizations that do good works and state-sanctioned churches would get a positive rating, for example. "House" churches – independent groups that refuse to register with the government – and the spiritual group Falun Gong, which the government sees as subversive – do not.

Still, many unregistered church groups, where as many as 70 million Chinese people worship, gather openly and undisturbed because they're not considered a threat.

The authorities "don't want to let the crackdown on religious groups get in the way of economic development and social stability," says Fenggang Yang, an expert on religion in China at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "As long as they're not distracting from economic development [or] making political statements, then they will tend to leave those groups alone.

"There's practical space for religious freedom," he adds.

That's been the experience of overseas Chinese businessman and SMIC founder Richard Chang.

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