Franklin Graham in Hong Kong: Chinese Christian Leader Warns of “Rise of the Religious Right” in Asia

The BBC World Service’s Reporting Religion has an interesting report on a visit by Franklin Graham to Hong Kong; some local Christians are wary over “the rise of the religious right in Asia” and wonder whether a big-name foreign evangelist is really needed. Graham himself, however, hopes the event will lead to further advances into mainland China.

While Graham enjoys a reception put on by Hong Kong Home Affairs Minister Tsang Tak-sing, the note of caution comes from Rev Ralph Lee, the General Secretary of the mainline Hong Kong Christian Council:

This Billy [sic] Graham “festival” (or the “crusade”, I would say), it tells [us] the new trend is emerging. China being an atheist, or a Communist, country, is going to the religion or the religious bodies or people who are happy to work with them.

Our mission and vision is more than just evangelic meetings and prayers. We [are] concerned [with] social and political development and of which we might be critical or uncooperat[ive] with the government. So it is easier [for the government] to work with them than with the mainline churches.

According to the presenter, Lee sees the new trend as “the rise of the religious right”.

This is an interesting turn-around: in the past the general impression was of mainline churches cautious and compromised by accommodation with the Communist regime, while brave and principled underground evangelical Churches kept themselves pure. Certainly, some conservative evangelical leaders in China have over the years shown incredible fortitude in the face of persecution and imprisonment. However, it now appears that as the Chinese government sheds its militant atheism and Communism, its conflict with conservative churches is lessening – and continued authoritarianism is no bar to détente. This undermines the thesis that increased Christianisation in China would lead to increased democratisation – an argument that informs David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing, his 2003 book that contains a lot of useful information but which draws some very questionable conclusions (as I wrote way back on day two of this blog).

The BBC report also introduces Wu Chi-Wai, of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement. Wu estimates that 95% of churches in China are evangelical, and he tells us that this success is due to the fit between the Gospel and local culture: in particular, the Chinese respect for tradition accords well with the concept of the “inerrancy of the Bible”. However, the presenter also tells us that Wu is aware of surveys which suggest that conversions at mass events are often temporary, and that some Christians are questioning whether Franklin Graham is needed.

The visit is being coordinated by Dr Cecil Chan, and is being advertised under the slogan “New Life! New Power!” The report notes that Billy Graham held meetings in China in the past, but these were always in churches rather than open-air affairs. It is worth remembering that the Grahams are held in affection by Chinese evangelicals, and that Billy and Ruth Graham both held supportive meetings with prominent evangelical dissidents