LANDOVER, Va. – There's a growing openness to religious freedom in China, said a former Communist Party official and convert to Christianity.
Though China is officially an atheist country and has been known for oppressing Christians, Zhao Xiao went as far as saying that God will use China to proclaim His works.
"We look ahead and China will probably ... have the largest Christian population," he said.
The prominent economist anticipates China becoming a "new city on a hill."
Xiao was speaking to thousands of North American church pastors and business leaders last week at the 2010 Global Leadership Summit, hosted by the Willow Creek Association in South Barrington, Ill.
It has been eight years since he published the famous article "Market Economies With Churches and Market Economies Without Churches." In it, he concluded that a moral foundation allowed the American economy to flourish and that China's economy would benefit from the spread of the Christian faith.
Xiao had been sent to the U.S., commissioned by the Communist Party, to study why the free market system was doing well. He wasn't a Christian when he published that 2002 article. His observations were made rationally and as a scholar, he has maintained.
But afterward, he began visiting U.S. churches and was moved by the love and goodwill he found. He then studied the Bible – notably, to prove that God doesn't exist – and soon embraced Christ.
Now, as he sees China become the world's second largest economy, Xiao is hoping that his country's growth goes beyond the economic sector.
He hopes China will embrace changes in values and particularly learn from the Christian faith.
"If it embraces message of the cross, China will be a blessing to the world," he said as he spoke through a translator at the summit.
The first seeds of the Gospel were planted in China in the 16th century by Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci. Robert Morrison was a Scottish missionary who introduced Protestantism to China in the 19th century.
It was in 1949 when the Communist Party took over that missionaries were asked to leave the country. Some believed that it would take at least a thousand years for the Chinese church to grow as it did before 1949.
"But God never ceases work," Xiao proclaimed.
Even though the missionaries left China, the number of Christians in China grew from less than a million to 80-130 million over the last half century.
With the explosive growth of the economy and the Christian population, Xiao maintained that all changes in China must rest on the foundation of the cross.
There are only two types of transformations, the convert said. One is with the cross and the other is without it.
The positive transformations he has observed in modern civilization were all on the premise of the cross and influenced by Christian cultures and principles, he said.
Europe's transformation happened with the cross, America thrived as it built a city on a hill and shined the light of Christ to the world, and now it's East Asia's time, he declared.
Already, South Korea is the second largest missionary sending country in the world and education for kindergartners in Hong Kong is largely Christian, he noted.
If China embraces the Christian faith, it will rise to be a blessing to the world, he said.
"Today, the transformation of the cross has come upon China," Xiao asserted. "China should become new city on a hill. China will flow out blessings it received to be a blessing to the whole world."
Xiao acknowledged, however, that some may fear China's "rising up."
In fact, he felt it was "weird" for him, a Chinese, to stand on stage and address tens of thousands of Americans at the Leadership Summit.
But he asked Christians in America to support China, by helping them to love God and their neighbors more and teaching them to lead a godly life.
China's constitution allows freedom of religious belief but citizens have not been allowed to legally worship unless they belong to one of the registered houses of worship that is supervised by government bodies.
China has made progress in the area of Christian persecution and was ranked No. 13 this year in Open Doors' World Watch List. In 2008, it was the 10th worst persecutor of Christians in the world.