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The sheer diversity of Chinese Protestantism makes such overseas contacts very difficult to control. There are thousands of foreign missionaries, ostensibly students, language teachers and businessmen, from North America, Taiwan, South Korea and Scandinavia, at work in the country. 

With Catholicism, members of the churches registered with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) outnumber those who are not. But both, in varying degrees, feel the magnetic pull of the papacy. In a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI called on the registered and unregistered churches to unite, so that all of them could come into communion with Rome. Aware of the immense potential of China, he reminded Catholics of their missionary vocation. "For 2,000 years", he wrote, "Christ's followers have carried out this mission. Now, at the dawn of the third millennium, it is your turn. It is your turn to go out into the world to preach the message of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes."

This astonishing vision of China as a global evangelistic powerhouse — any more than that of their country as an American ally against radical Islam — cannot have made comfortable reading for the Communist Party.

The drive to extirpate religion in China died with the end of the Cultural Revolution. Article 36 of the 1982 constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and the CCP has since tried to harness what it now accepts as an integral part of national life to promote a "harmonious" society, the leitmotif of Hu's term of office, and the furtherance of economic growth.

The most striking synthesis of religious belief and material prosperity can be found in the eastern port of Wenzhou, which has become a byword for entrepreneurial drive since Deng opened the economy to the outside world. The city has an unusually high percentage of Christians, among whom are managers convinced that the values of honesty and personal responsibility inculcated by Christian teaching are good for business. The Protestant work ethic has found a new home in post-revolutionary China. 

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