Feature: Fortune Telling Thrives On Economic Woes


Reuters/March 30, 1999

Changchun -- Fortuneteller Liu Laoxian thrives on despair.

Smiling a golden grin from behind an unruly white beard, the grizzled oracle surveys scores of palm readers, numerologists and sundry magicians doing a roaring trade on streets teeming with Changchun's unemployed.

"Business is good," he beamed. "When people are unhappy, business is good." Liu and thousands more like him around the nation are cashing in on one of China's leading growth industries: belief.

As China's economy slows and painful reforms put millions out of work, despondent masses from the industrial northeast to rural southwest are turning to organized religion, underground worship or just plain old superstition to soothe their aching souls.

"I'm just selling a little bit of happiness," Liu said. "For a few yuan I give people a little lift."

Scorned by orthodox Communists as an "opiate of the masses," religion is on the march in China.

From Christian villages on the outskirts of eastern Wenzhou to China's rambling border with Burma, where Buddha is king, belief is a growth industry.

Since the Communist Party swept to power in 1949, the official number of China's faithful has leapt tenfold. And despite increasingly strict monitoring of religious activity, the growth trend continues.

When Mao Zedong's rag-tag Red Army rolled into Beijing, China was home to only 700,000 Protestants and fewer than three million Roman Catholics.

The ministerial-level Religious Affairs Bureau now records at least 10 million Protestants and four million Catholics. Religious experts estimate double that number meet regularly for unofficial prayer services.

China's sprawling rural northwest is also populated by 18 million Muslims, and tens of millions of Buddhists worship at official temples scattered across the country.

But the surge is strongest outside the official churches and state-run temples, where a powerful cocktail of orthodox religion, ancestor worship and superstition feeds the rural need to believe.

"More than 60 percent of our village is Christian," said Pastor Li, head of the Catholic congregation in a small church on the outskirts of Wenzhou.

"We have a long tradition here of belief in God, going back generations," Li said. "Before it was just the elderly who came to service, but now even the young come for a prayer."

Across the street lies Li's competition for the hearts and minds of the village's 2,000 residents -- a brightly lit, newly built cathedral-like building dedicated to the controversial Zhu Shen Jiao, or Supreme Spirit Sect.

China launched a crackdown on the sect last year, calling it the country's largest cult and arresting 20 members of the congregation in the central province of Hunan.

Sect leader Liu Jiaguo and his lieutenant, Zhu Aiqing, were accused of agitating for the overthrow of the "secular state" and charged in a Hunan court with undermining law enforcement, rape and fraud.

The outcome of the case has not been made public, but in rural Wenzhou, the sect remains a top draw.

"Spiritually, we're not that far apart from our neighbors," said one sect believer surnamed Guo, adding that the spacious cathedral draws a greater number of Sunday faithful.

"More people come here, but there are a lot of faithful who attend both churches," Guo said. "Some even then go to the temple," he added, pointing to the traditional Buddhist temple a stone's throw away.

"It helps pass the time," he added.

In southwestern Yunnan province, where the muddy Mekong river cuts a winding border between China and Burma, belief is also booming and Buddhism is back in vogue after decades of government scorn.

Monks in saffron robes again mingle in rural markets while shopkeepers pay their daily respects to small Buddha statues, praying that the economy will pick up and their fortunes reverse.

"Only recently did we dare bring out the Buddha again," said one shop owner. "With the economy in the dumps, it's nice to have some hope."

Hong Kong-based mainland labor activist Han Dongfang said in a speech on the territory last week that up to 50 million workers were unemployed in China's urban areas and 100 million farmers were out of work.

The craving for hope is also at the center of the belief boom in northeastern Changchun, where state industry reforms have pushed thousands out of work and onto the streets.

Fortuneteller Liu said while surveying the ranks of middle-aged men seeking jobs at a makeshift labor market: "Belief is the easiest way to forget the pain."

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