There are only five state-sanctioned religious associations in China, all under the tight control of the Communist Party. Others walk a delicate legal tightrope, with the threat of a crackdown always hanging over their heads. While the government tolerates foreigners practicing their religion and attending services together, it takes a hard line against anything approaching proselytising or missionary work, a prohibition the Mormon Church takes seriously.
“We have to ask to see if they have a foreign passport to attend,” said Jason, a lifelong member of the Church who worked in Shanghai for almost a decade until relocating back to the United State in 2018. “I have frequently been this person watching the doors and on many occasions I have sadly had to turn away Chinese citizens who wished to worship with us.”
And that is during the good times. In recent years, the Chinese government has increased its regulation of religious worship, launched crackdowns against underground churches and instituted new restrictions on those faiths which operate in the grey area of only catering to foreigners.
The Church claims it won’t change anything, but the idea that a US church with expansion in its DNA could open an official temple in China is likely to be controversial — and may not be allowed by Beijing. Already, authorities in Shanghai have suggested that the announcement was made without their prior approval, even as experts said the Church would likely never have revealed the plans without a clear go ahead.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, the spiritual headquarters of the US-based Church, Jason “could hardly believe” the news.
“I couldn’t have imagined that we would ever have a temple in Shanghai at this time,” he said. “Immediately, my WeChat started lighting up as we were all expressing joy and excitement with our China friends.”
Jason is a pseudonym. Like several other current members of the Church interviewed for this story, he requested anonymity to speak about its functioning in China without the permission of Church leadership.
In the beginning
While the true size of the church is debated (some say they include members who are no longer active) one thing is clear: the massive growth of the Church has been achieved through the work of thousands of missionaries.
That is how the Church arrived in China over a century and a half ago.
It was not until 1949 that the Church established a permanent presence in Hong Kong, with the intention again of using the city to get a foothold into China.
Despite this apparent lack of progress, Church leaders say they have built a strong relationship with the Chinese authorities, and in 2010 they announced moves to “regularize” their activities in the country.
Two are considered domestic faiths — Buddhism and Taoism — while the others are foreign religions, with varying historical pedigrees in the country, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism, though Chinese Catholic organizations operate separately to Rome.
“The Chinese government is very suspicious of religion as a vehicle for potential political opposition,” said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International.
“Now the message is clear: either accept state control, monitoring and restrictions, or face state hostility,” he said. “For the Christian activities, the purpose is to get house churches and Catholic underground church back under control.”
As far as non-official faiths go, the Mormon Church is perhaps the gold standard for such a group in China. Current and former members, as well as outside observers, agreed that the Church is scrupulous about following Chinese law and avoiding anything that could be seen as proselytization.
Nee contrasted this with “other forms of Protestant Christianity or evangelical traditions coming out of the US, who have a much more aggressive or underground strategy for spreading the faith.”
Sarah, a Mormon who worked as a university professor for several years in China, said she “did not tell people what church I belonged to or even if I belonged to a church.”
“Some friends would ask me if I was Christian. I would say yes (but) we do not talk about it in China,” she said. “They would nod and agree. That is as far as the conversation would go.”
Marcelo Gameiro, a Church member living in Shanghai, said that he does not talk about the church “because it is against the law.”
“But I don’t hide (that) I am a member of the church,” he added. “When I was in Huzhou, I used to go to the Hangzhou branch, it took me three hours to get there, and people started to notice I was going somewhere every Sunday dressed in a tie, so I did tell them where I was going with no problem, I just did not preach the gospel to anyone.”
Sarah said she would “occasionally see Christian religious groups that would come in and rather openly flout the rules of China.” American students would get scholarships in China and then try and convert their classmates.
“Several times I talked to them about it, I asked is this the right thing to do, are you making a good example,” she said. “I heard from Chinese people who got rather angry because people would come from other countries and give away Bibles and start conversations about religion, and they would say we are not allowed to talk about this in China.”
Playing the long game
Another former Mormon, Bryce Bushman, who lived in China for almost four years, where he worked as an urban planner and designer, said that: “Mormon doctrine states that the LDS Church will eventually cover the whole Earth.”
“It’s considered a prophecy, something that is definitely going to happen at some point in the future,” he said. “This gives both the church organization and the members of the church a kind of patient confidence that eventually every nation on earth will allow Mormon missionaries to proselyte and establish church congregations.”
This patience allows the Church to play the long game in China, confident that one day it will be able to bring its message to the country’s vast population.
Josh Steimle, a practicing Mormon who lived in the Chinese city of Shenzhen for two years, said it “would have been so easy to pass along the URL to a Church website to someone who was curious, or give them a Book of Mormon, or a pamphlet about the Church.”
“It was very difficult because we’re a Church that believes in sharing what we believe, and we’re always being encouraged to be good missionaries, and then to move to China and be told to not say a word about what we believe seems to be contrary to everything we’ve been taught,” he added. “But it’s all about the long term vs. the short term. If we shared our beliefs in violation of Chinese law, a few people might join our Church and then the Church would be shut down and kicked out of the country.”
On paper, a temple should not be too much for the Chinese authorities to stomach.
In its description of the proposed temple in Shanghai, the Church is clear that this does not represent a climactic shift, nor will the Chinese temple be anything like the grand white stone buildings that dot many American cities.
It said that entry will be limited to Chinese members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — those who have converted overseas and returned to China — adding that this “does not represent a change in the legal status” or the ability of missionaries to operate in China.
While the Church appears to be downplaying the significance of a potential temple, all current and former members interviewed by CNN agreed that it would be a major achievement.
Steimle said that it was “difficult to express how big of a deal this is for me, personally, other members of the Church who have ties to China, and really to the entire Church membership worldwide. It’s going to be a very small temple, but it’s a huge thing for the Church.”
The bureau denied any knowledge of plans for a temple in Shanghai, saying they were the “wishful thinking of the Mormon Church in the United States.”
Vendassi, the expert on religion in China, said that despite this apparent denial by the authorities, a temple may still end up opening at some point in the near future.
“If an LDS temple has been announced in Shanghai, I think it means they probably had a ‘go’ from Chinese officials to do so,” Vendassi said. “Even if the government says it is a unilateral statement — they actually have no interest in making a bilateral statement, because that would send a message of religious openness.”
Nee, the Amnesty researcher, said that while there was no reason on paper for the Chinese authorities to object to a temple, he doubted whether officials “would be willing to understand the nuances of religions and their theologies” in order to permit such an institution.
Romney is by no means alone in criticizing Beijing, but as the country’s highest-ranking elected Mormon, his words may carry more weight with China’s leaders when they are considering the Church’s position there.
If the Mormon Church does have to exercise more patience before they open a temple in mainland China, what are a few more years or decades after a century and a half?
Quoting Mormon scripture, Oaks added that God “will bring His purposes to pass in that great nation ‘in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will’.”
Mormons who lived in China spoke of the country with great fondness, despite the restrictions placed on how they worshipped there. Both Jason and Sarah keep in contact with Chinese friends over WeChat, and hope to visit again in future.
Sarah saw many parallels between China and the Mormon people, pointing in particular to the importance of venerating ancestors in Chinese culture.
“My ancestors are special to me,” she said. “Many of them joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while our first leader, Joseph Smith, was a prophet. Like the people of China who went on the (Long March), my people also traveled across a continent in search of their dream.”
Two of Jason’s four children were born while the family was living in Shanghai, and the kids went to local Chinese schools. Jason and his wife made a concerted effort to integrate into Chinese life more than many other expats around them, doing “many things that few foreigners experience in China.”
“We didn’t speak any Chinese when we came but we did when we left,” he said. This brought him closer both to locals and to other members of the foreign Mormon community who weren’t as comfortable operating in China.
“I can’t possibly begin to count the number of people we had over for dinners, the people we took shopping because everything the supermarket was unfamiliar, how many people we helped to simply get a Chinese phone number and register for WeChat, both for members of our Church and those who were not.”
Both were optimistic about the future of the Church in China, but emphasized the need for patience, a view shared by Steimle.
“Great progress usually doesn’t happen in a straight line,” he said. “Although there have been crackdowns on religion in China, perhaps the obedience of our members and the trust and friendship our Church leadership has built up over the years by working openly with the Chinese government will help open doors.”