Early on in Dr George Carey's 12-day visit to China, one of his hosts declared: eeIt's very good to welcome you into our mists.' That has been the Archbishop's problem. There are the mists of misinformation and obfuscation by a one-party Communist state that maintains, for instance, that there are no religious prisoners of conscience. There is also the contradiction of a tightly controlled official church that is nevertheless increasingly vibrant spiritually.

For a man with a reputation for verbal gaffes, the potential for disaster in such a situation is enormous. Dr Carey's detractors say he should not have come, that as a guest of the state-sanctioned Protestant church, the China Christian Council (CCC), he will be duped into thinking the situation is far rosier than it is and ignore serious human rights abuses. The Archbishop insists that eeno one is pulling the wool over my eyes concerning the real situation' but that he wanted to see for himself the astonishing growth in the church, a phenomenon which is making the government nervous.

China's churches were closed for a decade during the Cultural Revolution, but since Easter 1979, when Chinese people were again allowed to attend services, there has been a boom. Figures are imprecise; more than 7 million belong to the CCC but, if one includes the unregistered rural eehouse' churches, there may be up to 20 million Protestants in China. The number of Roman Catholics could reach 12 million.

Objective reasons for the growth are hard to come by. Fellow Christians point to the collapse of Marxist certainties, followed by the moral chaos of the shift to a quasi-capitalist economy. At Nanjing Theological Seminary, a 22-year-old student tried to explain his faith. eeThere is a vacuum in spiritual life and faith . . . More and more we are confronted with challenges.' Corruption is rife. eeMoral values should be the ideological basis for business and economic life in society,' the student said.

The question is whether Dr Carey has any hope of seeing the full picture. On Monday morning, for example, he visited Nanjing's state orphanage, which is partly supported by the Amity Foundation, a Christian welfare organisation aligned with the official church. In one room, about 20 handicapped babies in clean nappies were patted as the cameras rolled. Down the corridor in the direction the Archbishop would not be passing, a family of rats were playing in the bathroom. That is the problem with official visits to China, many would say. You do not see the rats.

But there was much more to that vignette that illustrates the society within which the church is thriving. At the moment in China, while entrepreneurial businessmen and corrupt cadres get rich, the central government is broke. The state social welfare system is collapsing, especially in the countryside. Educational and medical units have been told they should strive to be self-supporting, and so have started charging fees that are out of the reach of rural dwellers.

Ninety per cent of the orphanage's children, most of whom are girls, were simply abandoned by peasant families who could not face bringing up a handicapped child, particularly a daughter. But amid this upheaval, there are examples of effective humanitarian projects, often staffed or aided by Christians in the state church. This, Dr Carey would argue, is also part of the big picture.

In his welcoming address to Dr Carey, the head of China's official Protestants, Bishop Ding Guangxun, said that the Archbishop would see both the eebright' and the eetruly dark' aspects of the church in China. To a certain extent the credibility of this trip depends on what he says about this eedark' side at the end of his visit.

The itinerary keeps the Archbishop cocooned. After two full days n during which he has not actually been near a church n he has only really talked to senior church leaders and academics. Nor has he shown any inclination to head off by himself during the rest periods to have a look at Nanjing's street life. The nearest he has come to a normal eeChinese' experience was lunch in a local restaurant, where unidentifiable gastronomic specialities were accompanied by the waitresses singing video-karaoke and the Chinese men on the next tables getting well oiled on mao tai.

But he is not unschooled in those darker realities of China. He has been briefed by human rights organisations, and among his entourage is the Rev Bob Whyte, who has been visiting China regularly since 1972, and an experienced diplomat from the embassy in Peking. But in a month when the US Commerce Secretary conducted a whirlwind, contract-signing trade mission through China while talking about the eedeference' owed the Middle Kingdom, and the French government banned demonstrations during President Jiang Zemin's visit, the unpalatable fact is that table-thumping about human rights is out of fashion.

An Archbishop of Canterbury has the extra problem of being unwelcome as far as the Chinese government is concerned. This trip has not yet received a mention in the party mouthpiece, the People's Daily. No crowds met Dr Carey; indeed it is quite possible that no one off the official itinerary even knows he is in the country. Not one British newspaper journalist who applied for a visa to accompany the visit was accepted.

So far, the most controversial statements of Dr Carey's trip will hardly have worried Peking. Irritated by people who dismiss the official church as run by elderly government stooges, the Archbishop has strongly backed China's official Protestant leaders as eeauthentic' Christians. eeIf anyone were to say to me that Bishop Ding is not a real Bishop I would laugh that out of court. Of course he is a real bishop, and of course he is presiding over real Christians,' he said. Others would argue that the official leadership is, by definition, compromised, and in any case is merely a puppet of the government.

As for the 20,000 or more eehouse' churches that operate outside the CCC, Dr Carey has yet to challenge the party line that the majority of these are not estranged from the state, they just have not signed up yet. Christians in China had to behave eeresponsibly and sensibly', he said, but added that if specific incidents of oppression of Christians were brought to his attention, eethese will of course be raised' with the Chinese authorities.

There is no question that there are serious human rights violations against religious groups in China, but beyond that bald statement it is difficult to generalise. Within the unofficial churches, there are those with close links to the CCC who have no problem with the new law that all churches must now register. There are those who would rather not, but can live with registration. And there are also evangelical and charismatic groups, often sponsored by overseas Christians, that are definitely at the extreme, loopy end of Christianity. Missionaries who sneak into China often return brandishing photographs of blue-suited impoverished peasants, walking trance-like, hands outstretched in orchestrated prayer meetings.

On the other hand, there are also those with deep moral objection to any membership of organisations sanctioned by a repressive police state. It is these in particular who can be victimised in Public Security Bureau crackdowns and who are most vulnerable under the new laws.

If the Archbishop was free to travel, he would find that levels of religious tolerance vary hugely from region to region. Abuses can also sometimes be connected with the wider problem of corruption. Local cadres levy illegal taxes and fees on peasants at will, so that closing a house church and fining its members may be one of many such extortions endured by rural families.

Yesterday, Dr Carey was still buoyant about the healthy side of China's Protestant church. In the morning he visiting the country's only Bible printing press; it opened in 1987 and next Tuesday will print its eight millionth Bible. There is no stock in the warehouse.

That same day, the Archbishop has imprudently been scheduled to make a 50-minute visit to Tiananmen Square. That puts him firmly in the eeno win' section of the trip; if he cancels it, he will not be able to say why. If he goes ahead, but fails to make some gesture to those who were shot down in the June 1989 protests, he will look lame.

And if he makes that gesture, he will not be invited back to China.

(Photograph omitted)

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