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University campuses are the first place where Chinese students are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely.
An increasing number of students from China who are attending American colleges have embraced Christianity, the Foreign Policy magazine says.
More than 304,000 Chinese studied in American colleges and universities in 2015 alone, many hailing from large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Although there are no definitive statistics on the number of Christian converts from China, those immersed in campus ministries say it is significant, and growing.
CHINESE STUDENTS INVOLVED IN SPIRITUAL PROGRAMS
Gregory Jao, national director of campus engagement for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA, estimates that his organization serves between 1,600 and 1,800 overseas Chinese out of a total of about 5,000 international students under its tent.
Valerie Althouse, a chaplain at New York University, told Foreign Policy that Chinese have been the majority of those involved in the school's spiritual programs, and explains a possible reason for that.
"Part of it is language-based - it seems most Chinese greatly desire to improve English - and also curiosity about Americans, American life, and even our religious beliefs and democratic system."
LOOKING FOR IDENTITY
China is the largest secular country in the world; most of young Chinese people often identify as atheists, although many may have had some kind of experience in a Buddhist temple.
Public preaching is forbidden there, and the state-controlled educational curriculum emphasises patriotism and socialism, promoting a purely materialistic and scientific worldview.
That is why, as Yang Fenggang, a sociology professor at Purdue University (author of Chinese Christian in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities), tells Foreign Policy:
“When Chinese people go to a new place, their identity as immigrants makes them look for meaning: 'Why me? Why is this happening to me?' When people start to ask questions like these, Christianity provides answers that many find acceptable."
UNIVERSITY MINISTRIES HELP CHINESE STUDENTS
US universities are the first places where hundreds of thousands of educated young Chinese are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely.
At those universities, Christian fellowships and churches assist students with pick-up services from airports and temporary housing at Christian homes before school housing becomes available.
According to Foreign Policy, only in August 2015, 470 freshman from China and their parents signed up for a paid pick-up service organised by the Chinese student union at Purdue University in Indiana.
A Mandarin-language Christian fellowship at Columbia University made a guidebook for new students with tips on navigating the Columbia library system and a complete list of Morningside Heights grocery stores, its pages decorated with Bible verses.
A RECENT CHANGE
Yang, who taught at the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing before leaving for the United States, recalls that before 1989, when the Tiananmen crackdown occurred, “very few Chinese students would go to church when studying in North America. (...) They stayed far away from it.”
When Yang converted to Christianity in the United States, his father, a life-long Communist party member who refused to visit him, called him a traitor.
“For my generation, it was a real struggle between Marxism and Communism, versus Christianity”, he affirms.
CHRISTIANITY GROWING IN CHINA
Pew Research Center estimated that there were around 67 million Christians in China in 2010. On current trends, there will be 250 million Christians by around 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world.
Some analysts say the rise of religious experiences among Chinese people - both in-country and overseas - is due to China’s economic reforms, its opening to the West, and the 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen square in central Beijing.