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Walking a fine line between the Church and China's government

Unique school in China instills Christian values under the state's watchful eye

Walking a fine line between the Church and China's government
The Samuel Pollard Institute. Inset Wenzong Wang
Alessandro, Speciale, Vatican City
Vatican City

May 2, 2013

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In rural China, a refined accent from the capital goes a long way.

When 20 years ago Wenzong Wang asked authorities in southwestern Yunnan province permission to open a school in a tribal mountain villages, which until then had no access to education, the officials thought that with his cultured Beijing accent, he must surely have important connections. So they said yes.

Wang, a scholar, educator and documentary maker, went on to create something that is perhaps unique in China: a state-recognized school, openly inspired by Christian values.

His Samuel Pollard Institute provides free education for tribal children in Yezhi, who otherwise would have no chance of attending school.

“The government doesn't like to have religion taught at school,” said Wang during a recent interview with in Rome.

Wang, a Protestant, was in Italy for a Vatican-sponsored event on religious freedom with speakers from all over the world.

He stressed that his school respects the state-mandated curriculum and abides strictly to all laws and regulations on education.

“Your purpose is to help the poor in a mountain village. If you break the law the government closes your school, so you don't have the opportunity to help,” he said.

Authorities still keep a close eye on Wang's school, regularly sending “teachers” there, according to Wang.

Even after receiving authorization to build his school, officials objected to a cross placed on the building.

With a smile, Wang recalled that he told them that it was a red cross, such as the one displayed at hospitals. He then started to provide free healthcare as well as education in his school.

“We let our students know we care, for example we have teachers cook breakfast for them. And they know our teachers are believers,” he says. Most teachers at the school are new Christian university graduates.

But the Pollard Institute doesn't provide any overt religious teaching: “If you live and work there, you have many opportunities to be a witness to Jesus Christ. You don't need to teach in the classroom, you can set a good example, and after class you can provide special help. And that's the better way,” Wang adds.

The school itself is named after a British Methodist missionary who worked with Yunnan mountain tribes in the late 19th century. He created the first script for the Miao language and translated the New Testament.

While Pollard was revered by local tribesmen, his tomb was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, as the missionary was considered a “colonialist.”

One of his followers, Wang Zhiming, a Chinese pastor, was publicly executed in 1973 at a mass rally in front of 10,000 people.

According to Wang – who first came into contact with Yunnan ethnic minorities after being asked to do research about Zhiming – he was forbidden to speak in his own language with his wife and children ahead of the execution.

Zhiming’s story shows that religious repression and disdain for tribal and linguistic minorities were deeply linked.

“When I asked villagers to petition the authorities for a school, they said they were afraid because they didn't speak Chinese and were frowned upon for this,” Wang recalled. That's where his Beijing accent came in handy.

In the 80s, Pollard and Zhiming were rehabilitated by Chinese minorities, with then president Hu Jintao recognizing Pollard's contribution to tribal people. His tomb was restored and reopened, while in 1998 a statue dedicated to Zhiming was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, London.

But according to Wang, conditions for Yunna tribal minorities remain dire. There is little access to healthcare and education, and the region remains one of China's poorest.

This is probably the reason behind the success of his unusual experiment in religiously inspired education.

“In an underdeveloped part of China you can use this model because lots of places are remote, there's no school, or students have trouble commuting to school.”

But Wang is convinced that religious schools could help the government stem a rising tide of corruption, a “moral crisis” that coupled with an “unimaginable” income inequality could lead to “social unrest.”

“Children have no idea how to tell right from wrong,” he says.

Wang told the story of a six-year old Guangzhou child who told an interviewer he wanted to become a party official so he could “receive many gifts.”

“The moral fabric of society is falling apart,” he says and the government response of promoting a Confucian revival isn't going to be sufficient.

“The Confucian revival isn't working – it is just a philosophy, it is not a religion. Confucian philosophy can provide certain ethical teachings but it can't provide a good foundation for moral values.”

“People need religious help, they have spiritual needs – and their needs haven't been met."

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