When Dawa said yes to a party held by American friends in the city of Xining, she expected music, drinks, and a chance to practice her English. But it soon transpired that there would be more to the evening's activities.
"When we arrived one person said loudly: 'Lord!' and started to cry," Dawa, an earnest Tibetan in her late 20s, recalls in a café in Xining, the capital of China's Qinghai province. "Some people came and touched me and cried. We were so afraid. We thought, Why are they crying?"
For Dawa and her friend Tenzin (names have been changed to protect their identities), both Tibetans from nomadic families trying to make it in the big city, the situation was not only potentially dangerous if they had been caught by police but humiliating. "We were upset," explains Tenzin. "They had told us we could learn English. We felt like fools."
The pair had been roped into an evangelical Christian gathering. For missionaries, places like Xining provide rich pickings among so-called unreached peoples. In the city, Hui Muslims sporting white caps live side by side with Tibetans, many wrapped against the cold in colorful robes. An increasing number of the latter have come from the sprawling Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in search of work and education.
Tibet is one of the most coveted locations for nondenominational American and Korean Christian groups angling for mass conversion. Most are fundamentalist Christians who prioritize preaching and winning converts over the charitable works traditionally performed by mainstream missionaries. The more radical evangelists believe in the biblical notion of the "Great Commission" — that Jesus can only return when preaching in every tongue and to every tribe and nation on earth is complete.
On websites like the U.S.-based Joshua Project, ethnic minorities are seen as "the unfinished task." Of these, "Tibet has long been one of the greatest challenges," reads a summary. "In 1892 Hudson Taylor said: 'To make converts in Tibet is similar to going into a cave and trying to rob a lioness of her cubs.'"
Missionary work remains illegal in China and is viewed as a tool of Western infiltration. In 2011, officials issued a secretive 16-page notice ordering universities to counteract foreigners suspected of converting students to Christianity. But in parts of Qinghai proselytizing is being quietly tolerated, according to Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University. He cites estimates that as many as 80% to 90% of the few hundred foreigners living in Xining are fundamentalist Christians.
Barnett believes the reason for the government's tolerant attitude is twofold. First, American missionaries, often funded by their churches, provide a valuable service teaching English for scant pay. Second, by targeting Tibetan Buddhism, missionaries might just help the government erode this integral part of Tibetan identity. Keeping a lid on restive Tibet, which China invaded in 1949–50, is paramount. Under Chinese rule, self-immolations by Tibetans protesting religious and political subjugation have become common in recent years. Tibetan-language schools have been closed down, nomads resettled in towns and cities, and monasteries subject to close police surveillance. Images of the exiled Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, are banned.
"There is a certain underlying commonality of purpose between the evangelizers and the new modernizing Chinese state. It's just convenient for them to use each other," explains Barnett. "[Today missionaries] have greater opportunities coming in on the coattails of the Communist Party."
Jason, whose name has been changed at his request, is one such American working clandestinely on a student visa. He knows foreigners who have been kicked out of more politically sensitive areas of Tibetan-populated Qinghai by authorities. But he is thriving in Xining. Leaning forward enthusiastically in the bustling Western-style business he manages, he lays out his reason for coming to China: "When I moved out one of my main agendas was to see if the teachings of Jesus work in an environment where they are not known at all."
Jason compares the Kingdom of God to an outstretched hand available for anyone to "grab." But for most Tibetans grasping the hand of Jesus is a moot point. Some might adopt him as one of a pantheon of gods; others simply find his story unimpressive. "[Missionaries say,] 'Well, look at the miracles Jesus is able to perform, to turn water into wine and to heal the sick,'" Elizabeth Reynolds, a Fulbright scholar researching Tibetan culture in Xining, explains. "The Tibetan goes: 'Is that all he can do?' It's believed that such special phenomena [already] occur around high lamas."
To combat such indifference, radical Christians in the past have employed tactics such as tract bombing — undercover distribution of thousands of leaflets in Buddhist areas. In one blog, published in 2006, a young zealot gives a blow-by-blow account of tract bombing among Tibet's "satanic" monasteries. After his mission is complete, he observes: "Man how blinded these people are."
Many missionaries today are subtler. Many become Tibet scholars in their own right. Most entrench themselves in local life. Much of the informal English instruction in Xining is run by missionaries as are the majority of the foreign cafés. They translate the Bible into Tibetan, distribute flash drives containing their beliefs and rework Tibetan folk songs with Christian lyrics. Some help run orphanages. Targeting the young is key. When a South Korean missionary asked Tenzin which Tibetans needed help, he suggested the elderly. According to Tenzin, the Korean replied: "Not old people — [we want] children."
Aggressive tactics persist, however. In a quiet Tibetan town three hours drive from Xining, one local describes seeing a missionary throw coins into the air. "This comes from Jesus," he declared to the astonished crowd. The same Tibetan remembers with an incredulous laugh being told that Christianity brings cash. "All Buddhist countries are poor," the missionary said. "If you believe in Jesus, you will be rich."
If conversions are to be found, it is among those who stand to benefit the most from missionary-led charities and social enterprises. Tibetans in Xining reported knowing at least one convert, an uneducated teenage Tibetan given a job and board by missionaries. According to sources, he hangs around hospitals, spreading the word of God and translating for nomads who do not speak Mandarin.
Open conversion, however, remains rare. Few would risk the wrath of family members by abandoning their own faith. Barnett describes hearing about one case in which relatives threatened to kill a missionary who had converted their kin. As such it is impossible to know how many converts there are. Barnett says: "I think we are going to wake up one day and see these people have made serious inroads into a culture already under threat."
For Jason, it is about providing choice. If a Tibetan travelled to America to share Buddha's teachings, he reasons you "have a right" to hear their views. It is misguided to think that "Tibetans are too stupid to make decisions about their own life," he says. "Personally, I would like for all people in the world to have access to the teachings of Jesus." Asked how he envisions Christianity in China, he insists: "I don't think it is building big gaudy churches and having people wear suits and changing their culture."
Back in the café, Dawa is not so sure. Religion is essential to her Tibetan identity. "I know my way," she says resolutely. "I believe in Buddhism. They cannot change me."