Like most of the congregation, the minister is Chinese, and old enough to remember when communist authorities routinely jailed people, or worse, for what he does every Sunday. He takes his place behind a light-blue pedestal hand-painted with a thin red cross. A woman strikes a chord on a keyboard. "All people that on Earth do dwell," sings the congregation, most in Chinese and some in English. "Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice."
Among the worshippers is Richard Chang, president and chief executive of Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. Chang sees his company as a means to strengthen Christianity in China. Having built a school, company housing and a recreation center, he plans to build a church for his workers and community members.
Chinese officials, eager for the company's multibillion-dollar investment and technology, allow the religious activity as long as the minister doesn't attract a crowd out front. The unorthodox arrangement shows that Chinese leaders are so eager to attract the high-tech industry they are willing to risk changes they've long resisted. Beijing leaders gamble that rapid economic growth enabled by foreign investment will strengthen political stability. U.S. advocates of engagement with China bet that economic openness will foment political and social change.
Beijing, which has banned the Falun Gong spiritual sect for allegedly threatening national security, allows local governments to authorize state-approved churches under strict conditions. The U.S. State Department continues to place China high on its list of nations that repress religious activity in ways that include harassing, detaining and sometimes torturing leaders of unauthorized groups.
At SMIC, some Western employees speak in spiritual terms about their decision to move to China and to make sacrifices, praising God in business e-mails and in the company newsletter. Six dozen people crowded into the temporary church on a recent Sunday, listening to the minister explain Ecclesiastes 3, "A Time for Everything." Worshippers at the nondenominational church ranged from young adults to a stooped, elderly couple. After everyone recited the Lord's Prayer, a man rose from the front row. "It's time for us to greet the newcomers," he says. Two dozen worshippers stood up, introduced themselves in turn and signed in on a sheet of paper. The congregation clapped enthusiastically.
After the service, Chang invited visitors to a conference room back at the plant. "We come here as engineers to help build this industry in China," Chang says, "and the Chinese government supported us to have Sunday service as we share God's love through our work."
Chang spoke at length about his life and his dreams, describing his parents' flight from Nanjing for Taiwan in 1948, when he was an infant. He recalled his initial master's degree studies at Oregon State University. He described his workers as pioneers and said God controlled the timing of his company's growth. After saying goodbye to his visitors, Chang walked across a dark, empty lobby toward weekend work awaiting in his corner office. He turned with a smile and waved.
"Pray for us," he said.