Christianity in a Chinese workplace? For some.

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

Raised in Taiwan and educated in the United States, he worked for 20 years at Texas Instruments and then ran a leading semiconductor firm in Taiwan. Eight years ago, he leapt into the Chinese market.

In Beijing's eyes, semiconductors are central to the country's long-term economic strategy of producing on a large scale higher-end, higher-profit products such as electronics, which all require the tiny silicon chip.

China's demand for semiconductors surpasses that of America, Japan, and Europe, and rose 31 percent in 2005, compared with 7 percent globally, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But the country still lacks the know-how and capacity to meet demand. In 2005, it accounted for 24 percent of the semiconductor market but just 7 percent of global production revenues.

"This whole sector of semiconductors is a very high priority that they've been trying to develop very rapidly, but they're still very dependent on imports," says Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

So when Mr. Chang insisted that, to expand his semiconductor business in China, he wanted churches on company campuses, the government obliged.

To Chang, the move was not simply a business decision. He's made no secret of his noncommercial goal: "The Lord wants us to come to China and share God's love with the Chinese people," he said in a 2002 interview with BusinessWeek.

"It was important to our founding CEO, so he made an issue of it, [and] the government has accommodated us again and again and again. They told us in the beginning, we'll make this possible," says Mr. Szymanski.

"Churches have been agreed to or permitted in each location," he adds. SMIC, which now employs several thousand people, is headquartered in Shanghai and has branches in Beijing, Tianjin, Chengdu, and just broke ground in Shenzhen.

The company's Beijing campus include the "fabs" where semiconductors are made and a sprawling residential compound for the some 2,000 employees and their family members who choose to live there. Amenities include a school, a gym, a supermarket, and a hotel.

The church meets in a hotel conference room that seats about 200 people, with hymn verses projected onto a screen up front and Bibles available on a table in the back. The pastor is one of a half-dozen appointed by the state who take turns preaching here each Sunday.

While other campuses also organize other Christian activities, at SMIC Beijing they are informal, often held in homes. The company doesn't require people to attend, but some Christian employees make an effort to invite coworkers.

Deng Xiaoli, a clerk who started at the company in 2004, says she was invited to attend a Bible study led by a company vice-president, then joined another hosted by an IT director. "They were a very open family. You could make food here, eat, watch movies," she recalls. "You felt like there was love there."

She found herself spending most of her free time at their place – on these company grounds on the outskirts of Beijing, there isn't much else to do, she points out.

Ms. Deng began attending the church after it opened in 2005 and decided to get baptized last year.

Now she also tries to bring co-workers to Bible study and church. Plenty of them have zero interest. "They say 'next time, next time' every time," she says. "So every time I just keep asking."

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