Jesus and the Chinese economic miracle

The official narrative on China's economic growth ties it closely to Deng Xiaoping, but now scholars are looking at Christianity's role in the country's resurgence.

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What has Jesus got to do with the Chinese economic miracle? This question seems rather insane -- especially considering the official religion in China is still atheism. But three professors from the prestigious Peking University have taken up that challenge and analysed the effect of Protestantism on Chinese economic growth.

A bit of history first. The debate started 100 years ago when Max Weber, the founder of modern sociology published the hugely influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

He argued that Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, played an important role in the development of the modern capitalist economy. He noted that Protestant countries usually have more developed capitalist economies.

In his book, he also noted the role of religion in the development of China’s economy. Confucianism and Taoism were regarded as obstacles to developing a capitalist economy. However, the reputation of Confucianism has gone through rehabilitation after predominantly Confucian societies like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea joined the ranks of the industrialised societies.

The resurgence of China, the birthplace of the ancient sage, has prompted many scholars to search for the Confucian secrets behind China’s success. However, three Chinese scholars from Peking University have assumed Weber’s mantle a century after the publication of his book.

Professors Yuyu Chen, Se Yan and Hui Wang argue that Protestant missionaries partly laid the foundation of Chinese economic growth in the late 1970s through their extensive education and medical missionary activities in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In a nutshell, Protestant missionaries helped to build China’s human and social capital before Mao took over in 1949. These cultivated values and capital endured even through Mao’s mad reign and have been put to good use again after China opened itself to the world again.

This result could potentially be quite controversial. The official narrative on the Chinese economic miracle is clearly tied to the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who played an influential role in ending the communist party’s obsession with ideological struggle and re-oriented it towards economic modernisation.

The Peking university scholars’ argument does not deny the importance of the historic change unleashed by Deng and his followers but they point to another element of the story -- the crucial role played by the protestant missionaries in spreading Western science, technology and social values in China.

Their interesting argument raises several important questions. How do they establish the causal link between missionary activities that took place more than half a century ago with contemporary economic development? If they are right, what lessons can we draw from this interesting investigation?

These professors have found a strong positive correlation between the density of Protestant coverts in 1920 and the level of economic prosperity in 2000. In essence, more Christian converts there were back in 1920, the higher the level of economic prosperity in 2000.

The Protestant missionaries’ contribution to China’s contemporary economic prosperity is principally transmitted through better education and health care. It must be mentioned that a lot of China’s best education institutions including Peking University can trace their origins to missionary schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The number of protestant schools rose from 347 in 1877 to 7,382 in 1922, just about tripling every twenty years. Historical records also show that graduates from missionary schools went on to become much-needed professionals in China such as engineers, doctors, teachers and other professionals.

The Chinese professors have also shown through statistics, the positive spill over effect of an education system that was built by Christian missionaries. John King Fairbank, arguably one of the most influential China scholars of the twentieth century said “in the end the Christian influence was probably strongest in education.”

Apart from education, another area where Protestantism exercised a strong influence was in health care. Christian missionaries were the first ones to introduce Western style medicine and hospitals to China. Peter Parker, an American missionary, founded China’s first western hospital in 1837.

That first adventure mushroomed into a network of 300 by 1937, providing 20,000 beds and treating over one million people a year. They were also responsible for creating China’s modern medical education system and established 116 medical education institutions by 1920. Nearly all of them are still operational and continue to train good doctors to this day.

In fact, China’s best medical school -- the Peking Union Medical College -- was founded by Christian missionaries. The Peking University Professors show through their statistical analysis that long-term health improvements contribute 12-25 per cent of the total effects of protestant activities on GDP per capita today.

Apart from the tangible benefits of improved education and health care, missionary activities might have promoted more open attitudes toward new ideas and technologies.

“If we are correct, our conclusions may have important implications for understanding the so-called Chinese miracle, which in the past has been entirely attributed to radical institutional changes that accompanied China’s reform and opening-up,” they say in their conclusion.

“Our findings imply that a significant amount of China’s growth since 1978 is the result not just of sudden institutional change but of human capital and values acquired over a much longer historical period.”

Though not entirely sold on their analysis of Protestant values and Chinese economic development, I think that an important lesson from their study is that China benefits tremendously from opening up itself to the wider world. Early Jesuit missionaries to later day protestant preachers have all contributed to China’s understanding of modern science and technology.

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