Hazel Southam - Journalist

China's Church comes in from the cold

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by 2040 nearly 20 per cent of China’s rural population will be over 65.
And being aged over 65 in China’s rural heartland is a very different prospect from being the same age in the UK. Earlier this year, I met a family of eight living in two adjoined houses in a village in central China. They are fruit farmers, growing apples, peaches and pears in beautiful orchards. They are up at 5am each day, grabbing a quick bite to eat before heading out into the fields, where they also grow all their own food. They have a bowl of rice at about 9am, followed by a bowl of noodles at 2pm. The children come home from school at 5pm. It gets dark early and the family
goes to bed then to save on electricity. The grandparents, both aged 79, and their disabled son, 51, live in one of the two houses. When they’ve paid their rent, water and electricity, the three of them live on 7RMB a month. That’s just 71p.
Across China the growing number of elderly people is placing a burden on the shrinking working-age population. It’s the reason why the Government has progressively relaxed its one-child policy introduced in 1979. First couples who were both only children were told they could have two children. Then last week, the Government announced that couples could have two children so long as either the father or the mother was an only child. It is estimated that this latest concession could give 10 million women the opportunity to have a second child.
But the local pastor to the family of eight I visited, explained that there is a broader problem in the village and the surrounding rural area: migration for work.
“There’s a lot of expansion in the towns,” he said, “ they need carpenters and bricklayers. About 40 per cent of local men aged between 20 and 50 years old go away to work. Some go for several months, maybe six months at a time, and some for a
few years. because of this women carry the burden of the whole family. There¹s less
time to bring the children up as they are in the fields.”
This is the crux of the issue. China’s elderly have traditionally been cared
for within the extended family who generally lived together or nearby. But
urbanization is changing that, as it draws millions from China’s rural
heartlands to cities in search of work. Suddenly, the elderly find themselves without children to care for them, and also having to look after their grandchildren.
It¹s in just such situations that the Chinese government is hoping that the
Churches will step in ­ both Catholic and Protestant.
Government official, Wang Xinhua last month told a conference on the role of
Christianity in China that the Government welcomes the support of the Church.
“We lack the resources to meet all the needs that we face, so we need religious organizations in order to do so,” he told the conference in Shanghai sponsored
by the Bible Society.
In a marked contrast to the attitude of hostility and suspicion the Government once held for the Church Mr Wang spoke of the “beliefs” and “love” expressed by the Church as an advantage to society. Tellingly, he said that China’s charitable sector was facing a crisis of confidence due to corruption scandals, saying that the Church was more trustworthy.
He added that he wouldn’t expect international companies like Apple to be
providing charity to Chinese people, but that it was “wholly inconceivable”
for Christians to refrain from doing so.
Christianity is the fastest growing religion in China. There are some 12 million Catholics in China spread out into 6,000 churches in 110 dioceses. This puts churches in villages and towns across the vast landmass that is China.
Catholics tend to be concentrated in two provinces: Hebei and Shaanxi. Hebei is the home to at least one quarter of the country’s Catholic population. In some places, the Catholic Church is already providing social care. In the Diocese of Liaoning for example, the local government asked the Church to help a growing number of people living with HIV. The Catholic Social Services Centre of the Diocese of Liaoning now runs an HIV and Aids programme, which is supported by Cafod. And in doing so works closely with the government.
In Shanghai, China’s largest city by population, the Church is working with local government to provide social services. It has so far spent 4 million RMB (£409,000) on
educating children living in poverty, working with the elderly, establishing
14 old people’s homes and running women’s hostels.
Prof Zhu Xiaohong from Fudan University told the Bible Society conference that Shanghai Diocese’s social services was expanding its services to other parts of the country. She said that the environment in China had become more congenial for
delivering social care and that the Church was becoming a stronger force in
society. She spoke of the Church wanting to establish its own large
hospital in Shanghai and that it could be modelled on St Andrew¹s Community Hospital
in Singapore, which receives 55 per cent of its funding from the Government,
the rest coming from fees and charitable donations.
The hospital’s CEO, Dr Loh Yik Hin attended the Shanghai conference and said there was “an inspiring opportunity” for Churches to benefit society in China.
ŒI think the Chinese government is becoming more open to this idea,¹ he
“From what I see [this would mean] less reliance on the government to
do everything. There is a sense of empowerment that people can positively contribute and they can make a difference [to their communities].”
But why did the government official, Mr Wang, talk about the Church as being a
less corrupt option than some of China’s other charities? In recent years, China has undergone a number of high profile charitable scandals. Perhaps the most well known occurred in 2011 when photos began to circulate on the internet of a young woman named Guo Meimei who claimed to be the “commercial general manager” of the Chinese Red Cross, China’s largest charity. One picture showed her leaning on the hood of a white Maserati while in another she sipped drinks while flying business class. There was uproar, followed by swift denials from both the Red Cross and Ms Guo that she was in any way linked with the charity.
The scandal broke at a bad time for the Red Cross which was already facing accusations
of having misspent funds from donations in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in 2011 donations to Chinese charities fell by
some £84 million in just three months.
It’s for precisely these reasons that the Chinese Government is looking to
work with Churches to tackle the country’s growing social care needs. How that
works out in practice will undoubtedly be patchy and possibly even
contradictory, as regional government ministers respond differently.
But it does represent a change in tone, and also a new opportunity for the
David Smith, International Programme Manager for Bible Society which
sponsored the conference said: “I think the whole story of the Bible shows
us how to care for the least, the last and the lost. Christians should be at the forefront of that provision,” he said, adding that he was hopeful that this would soon be the case in China.


About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel