Christianity has fractious history in East Asia. From crucifixions in seventeenth century Japan, to modern day reported police beating of Chinese Christians, leaders have tended to see it as a specifically Western threat- which makes the recent tacit approval from Chinese officials for selective proselytising in Tibet all the more incongruous.
Since 1949, spreading the word of Christianity in China has been illegal. Chairman Mao Zedong labelled western missionaries “spiritual aggressors” and deported them en masse. Ever since, anyone who has chosen to conduct Christian conversions has been compelled to do so undercover, usually under the guise of a respectable pillar of the community such as a doctor, teacher, or student.
In Tibet however, officials appear to be turning a blind eye to the activity of local Chinese bible pushers, tantamount to a positive endorsement.
For many of these missionaries, conversion is literally a matter of life and deaf. Belonging to nondenominational sects which teach that Jesus Christ cannot descend to Earth until everyone in the world has been exposed to his teachings, these groups are feverish in their quest to convert the people of Tibet- going so far as to resort to bribery tactics such as free English lessons to entice young people into their fold.
Tibetan Buddhism is notoriously politically charged, a fact that has long made Chinese officials uneasy
However, whilst the motivation of these Christians is simply good old fashioned religious zeal, the unusually relaxed stance of officials points to a far more insidious ideology. Tibetan Buddhism is notoriously politically charged, a fact that has long made Chinese officials uneasy.
Tibetans themselves are fiercely protective of their native religion, and the majority of Tibetan converts face social shunning if they publically disclose their new religious orientation, making it difficult to gauge the success of foreign missionaries.
A wave of self-immolations in Tibetan areas of China have served to further restrict access for would be spreaders of the gospel, with authorities slapping an outright ban on foreigners in certain areas of the country.
Despite the challenges these proselytisers face, current economic circumstances could mean foreign Christians have more impact on young Tibetans now that at any point in history. Tibet’s next generation, heeding the siren call of globalised industry and lucrative job markets, is abandoning traditional rural family dwellings and flocking to the city in vast numbers, creating a pool of potential converts for foreign evangelists. However for now, it seems that the missionaries still have a few mountains to climb.