CHINA -- I ran across an extraordinary development in a just-completed trip to this officially atheistic country, where some local officials still persecute religious dissenters: At least 30 CEOs of major Chinese companies have become Christians. They even conduct Bible studies within their companies.
Their stories are fascinating. One executive in his 40s, Mr. Han (using his real name would provoke the Public Security Bureau) explained in his conference room that he came from a poor, rural family: His father died when he was 12, and he often went hungry. The future CEO "studied very hard to change the situation of my family," scored high on tests, entered Beijing University, and went on to garner a grand salary.
Han was an atheist who thought that "only rural grandmas believe in God." By the end of 1999, he "had enough money for my whole life" but "had emptiness and suffering within me. I thought, maybe I'm not happy because I'm working for other people. I'll become happy by starting my own business."
Han did that and made even more money, but his depression became deeper. He tried burning incense at a Buddhist temple and felt a little better, but misery quickly returned. For six months, he paid a top Taoist sage to give him a schedule each month with favorable and unfavorable blocks of time and tried to arrange his meetings accordingly -- only to find that some at the good times went poorly, and some he was forced to have at bad times went well.
In 2002, a classmate who had studied in the United States suggested that Han visit a church. He and his wife did, and she immediately became a believer in Christ, but he "tried to keep awake in the pew and could not." By August, 2003, he was "very depressed. Only when I was cornered and understood that man's end is dust did I become serious about reading the Bible. Then I realized that my preconceptions were wrong, that belief in God is not unscientific, that by myself, I don't know where I'm from and where I'm going."
Han became a Christian and found his new faith changing not only personal but business practice: "As a company we pay our taxes strictly and honestly; we treat our employees with love and pay them in a timely fashion." Those practices are unusual in a China, where the hot business books of the past three years have titles like "The Wolf Spirit of Enterprises" and "Think Like Wolves."
Other Chinese CEOs have their own stories, but a typical pattern is: they have business success; money without meaning only depresses them; their wives become Christians; the executives realize they're not as smart as they thought they were; they ask God for mercy. As one CEO -- call him Mr. Wang -- related, "I begged God, what shall I do? For the first time, I prayed from the bottom of my heart."
One manager, who once was a Communist party member attests to the ways Wang's company is different from state-owned ones and others where "bribery is common." He says CEOs who become Christians no longer have mistresses or win contracts by proffering prostitutes to customers.
These Chinese executives see Christianity bringing immediate as well as long-term benefits, but they do not preach a "prosperity gospel." Wang's company lost a large order it needed for profitability because he refused to pay a bribe. Some of Wang's financial backers think his ethical behavior is foolish. The Communist Party right now hesitates to kill gooses that are laying golden economic eggs, but some local officials for their own reasons are holding up the sale of his current property, a sale he needs to fund new construction at a site where a foundation stone is already laid.
Wang took me to the stone and translated its inscription: "Glory to the Lord, and the people will benefit."