THE door buzzer on Mosque Junction Street is cryptically marked with a strip of paper bearing two Chinese characters, "Weixin," meaning literally, "safeguard the faith."
Upstairs, in a headquarters hidden in the maze of meandering lanes above Hong Kong harbor, a team of Jesuit priests practices the arcane art of "China watching" with a mastery esteemed by Western spies.
Yet far removed from the cynical motivations of their cloak-and-dagger counterparts, the scholarly fathers find success in devotion to a nobler aim.
Inspired by their predecessor, the 16th-century Jesuit pioneer Matteo Ricci, the priests are working to deepen the philosophical discourse between Confucian and Christian cultures.
"We're like Ricci, comparing maps and methodologies," observes the Rev. Michel Masson, an unassuming, bespectacled expert in modern Chinese history.
Every morning, Fr. Masson and his colleagues scour the official Chinese press, reading some 20 newspapers and 50 periodicals.
In a labor likened by Sinologist Simon Leys to "swallowing sawdust by the bucketful," they scavenge the mountains of mind-numbing propaganda for clues to important political, economic, and social shifts.
Each useful article or biographical note is carefully clipped, referenced, and filed away with half a million others. The archives, dating back to 1949, rival those of the United States State Department and are frequently consulted by diplomats, scholars, and journalists.
The nuggets of fact and insight are then published in the fortnightly newsletter China News Analysis - nine crisp pages of riveting observations and one of the world's best China-watching journals.
The newsletter is part of the nonprofit organization "Weixin," named after Zheng Weixin (1633-1673), the first Chinese Jesuit priest and a brilliant scholar who taught classics in Rome before returning to China incognito as a missionary. Weixin also offers workshops on China for visiting Jesuits and scholarships in comparative literature for Chinese academics.
For director Masson and the Rev. Yves Nalet, the editor, China News Analysis exemplifies the Jesuit emphasis on education in addition to missionary goals.
"It's very important that people in the church are doing something in China that is purely intellectual and disinterested - without a Bible up our sleeves," says Masson.
"It is almost a Christian necessity to try to understand what kind of people the Chinese are, what questions they are asking," he says.
Moreover, for the first time since the iconoclastic May Fourth movement of 1919, mainland Chinese intellectuals are showing a serious interest in Western theology as relevant to revitalizing China's ancient Confucian culture, Masson says.
Increasingly, he says, scholars such as Shenzhen University sociologist Liu Xiaofeng are finding meaning in Christian ideas that are radically different from Confucianism, such as the concept of life as a journey.
"In Confucianism, man stays at home and cultivates his moral garden.
"But in the Christian tradition of the West, man is thrown out of the garden" to reach his moral destination only through a lifetime of trials, Masson says.
Such discoveries are heartening to the Jesuits, whose 400-year-long relationship with China has been turbulent.
It took Matteo Ricci 20 years to work his way from the Portuguese enclave of Macao to the imperial court in Beijing during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Clothed in a traditional Chinese scholar's gown and quoting Confucian proverbs, Ricci won many followers. His successors helped introduce European science and Christianity to China by translating hundreds of books into classical Chinese.
Yet ultimately, this early exposure to Western ideas had little impact on the thinking of China's Confucian rulers, who in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) denounced Ricci as a liar and banned Christianity as subversive.
China's communist leaders have been no less hostile. Chairman Mao Zedong banned much religious worship as "feudal superstition." And in the early years after the 1949 revolution, about 1,000 Jesuits were either expelled from China, jailed, or persecuted with thousands of other missionaries.
One of the missionaries expelled during the communist repression was a young Hungarian Jesuit and fluent Mandarin speaker, the Rev. Laszlo Ladany, who arrived in Hong Kong on June 22, 1949.
Fr. Ladany founded China News Analysis in 1953 and ran it for 30 years from Ricci Hall at the University of Hong Kong.
Described by friends as a strong anticommunist able to demystify propaganda and "make cold intellectual judgments in the face of general disbelief," Ladany repeatedly shattered academic misperceptions of China.
For example, China News Analysis was the first to report that Mao's quixotic "great leap forward" into industrialization had caused famines during which millions of Chinese perished in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Ladany was one of the few China watchers to discern the catastrophic dimensions of Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-76). He spotted the split between Mao and his prot Lin Biao at a time when China's official press was still describing the men as bosom comrades.
Since Ladany's retirement in 1982, the tone of China News Analysis has become more thoughtful and less critical.
"We don't bear the same grudge against communism," says Masson.
Yet, unfortunately, the Jesuits of Weixin cannot assume the Communist Party bears no ill will against them. They keep a low profile, suspecting that in the past, Chinese informers have attempted to infiltrate their staff.
As China's takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 nears, the Jesuits are already making plans to quit the British colony and take their archives with them.
"We don't think we can stay because it's unclear how much freedom there would be to report on China," says Masson.
"We claim that [China News Analysis] is academic, but they [the Chinese leadership] could decide in a moment it is spying."