BEIJING - One is a former spokesman for Communist China's Cabinet, the other, an American evangelist known for his elaborate, two-day Christian festivals. The question they are both asking: Does God exist?
While atheist Zhao Qizheng wants proof, preacher Luis Palau's answer is a resounding "Yes!"
The two men have met privately on three occasions over the past 18 months to debate religion and exchange ideas. The result is a book in English and Chinese versions launched Wednesday in Beijing titled "Riverside Talks: A Friendly Dialogue Between an Atheist and a Christian."
The book is in part a public relations exercise. Palau wants to reach out to Chinese curious about religion, while Zhao is hoping to give the West a better understanding of China's culture and beliefs.
Their different agendas illustrate the complex picture of faith in China: Religion is thriving as Chinese search for answers amid tumultuous economic and social changes, but the government is trying to maintain control through restrictive religious policies.
The authors, however, warmly praised each other and insisted the point of the publication is less about politics and more about the philosophy of religion.
"The fact that two people of opposing points of view can speak clearly, intelligently, honestly and respect each other simultaneously is a great victory," Palau said at a news conference Tuesday.
Zhao, who stepped down as spokesman for China's State Council last year and is now a member of a government advisory body, said it was a way for China and the United States to have bilateral exchanges.
"The channels for communication are many and the dialogue between religion and non-religion is one of them," said Zhao, a Communist Party member. "It will promote the understandings between people from both sides and help people to get to know the opinions of each other."
The pair met when Palau was visiting Beijing in May 2005. Instead of the usual pleasantries, Palau said Zhao told him he had read the Bible three times and the two men immediately jumped into a discussion.
An hour later, Palau joked about writing a book, "and that's how it started." They met in Shanghai the following November, debating for eight hours over two days.
For Zhao, the conversations showed "both of us have questions we can't answer at this time."
"I asked Palau to conduct a lab experiment to show that God exists. But he told me to have a lab test to show that God doesn't exist," he said. "Neither of us could do it."
Some 100 Chinese and foreign readers mobbed the pair for autographed copies at a book fair Wednesday in Beijing. Palau and Zhao gave short speeches before hugging each other and signing the books.
About 10,000 copies have been printed in Chinese and another 2,000 in English to be sold at bookstores across China, said Zhou Jun, deputy director of the distribution department of the New World Press.
The 140-page text is a dialogue between the two men consisting of seven parts, including sections on creation, spiritual beliefs in China and the relationship between religion and science. Photos of the authors, along with scenes from Chinese and Western cities, fill the pages.
In a sign of the dialogue's limits, Chinese regulations make it nearly impossible for Palau, whose Luis Palau Association is based in Portland, Ore., to hold the massive, modern evangelical meetings he is known for. The two-day festivals showcase Christian rock bands, extreme sports and food courts, and seek corporate sponsorship instead of offerings.
The officially atheistic Chinese government prohibits worship outside state-approved venues and forbids proselytizing — a rule that Christians both Chinese and foreign ignore at their risk. Christians are frequently detained and harassed by police for defying the regulations.
At Tuesday's news conference, Palau sidestepped questions about Beijing's religious policies.
It's not because "we don't have opinions about it," Palau said. "But ... let's not politicize it with details that are important but not for this dialogue."
Zhao denied that the government repressed religion.
"It's acceptable to say we do have some problems in some regions regarding religion," he said. "But if you say that the Chinese government has very strict limitations on religion, that's not in accordance with fact."
For now, both Zhao and Palau have agreed to disagree. The most difficult questions they've wrestled with are over the origins of the universe and where God came from.
"I don't have an answer to where God came from," Palau said. "But I said to (Zhao), when we get to heaven, we'll find out."