Merry Christmas, Chairman Mao!

The seemingly only thing Chairman Mao and Santa Claus have in common is an infatuation with the colour red. After all, only a short time ago Ye Olde Saint Nick and his merry elves would have been attacked as counterrevolutionaries and agents of Western Imperialism in Communist China. But change is now fast afoot in China.

In 2006, I stayed in Beijing for two months over the Christmas season. The day I arrived at the Soho high-rise complex in the city’s Central Business District, crews were erecting a ten-metre-tall Christmas tree in its plaza. My local supermarket, not far away, was festooned with Christmas decorations: Santa portraits, red and green banners, ornaments, fake Christmas trees, tinsel. I strolled the well-stocked aisles listening to “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Cashiers wore velvety elf hats. Beijing was awash in Santa’s favourite colour—evidence of both a spiritual and consumer revolution sweeping the country.

Dialectical materialism—the Marxist theory that social conflicts over material needs are the driving force of history—is unraveling in China and being overshadowed by a new dialectic. The Communist Party has been so successful at meeting the material needs of its 1.3 billion citizens—at least for now—that many Chinese are finding themselves spiritually wanting. Economic growth rates are being eclipsed by the even more meteoric growth in the number of religious believers—primarily evangelical Christian converts, but also Buddhists, Taoist and Muslims.

The contradictory, yet complimentary forces of materialism and spirituality, like yin and yang, are profoundly shaping the country and present one of the greatest challenges to Communist rule.

Lets start with the temporal: the reform movement launched in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping has lifted a quarter of a billion Chinese out of poverty. Everyone’s plight is improving, which is one reason why the Chinese, up to this point, have shown such a high level of tolerance for official corruption and grotesque levels of inequality. The legitimacy of the Communist Party rests largely on its ability to deliver jobs and rising incomes. Should that falter there could be trouble, as a restive population grows resentful towards the regime’s corruption, greed and failures.

Yet China’s rulers are damned if they do deliver economic growth and damned if they don’t. Here’s why: With their material needs met, an increasing number of Chinese have come to realize that they still aren’t happy.

“After the Cultural Revolution, there was a collapse in the Chinese belief system,” Linda, a student in Lanzhou, told me. “People are improving their material wealth. They are making a lot of money, but they are confused. They don’t know what will make them happy.”

She took me to the Catholic cathedral in downtown Lanzhou where we met a young priest. “People really need something spiritual to sustain them,” he told us. “There’s now a crisis of belief among the Chinese. In the past, people were forced to believe in Marxism and its propaganda. Some people have come to realize that Marxist ideology isn’t so helpful in their daily lives.”

During my six months traveling through China, I witnessed a country in the midst of a religious awakening. Even the Catholic church—as battered and emaciated as it is in the West—is growing in China. Wherever I travelled, I heard stories about underground house churches and saw churches and temples under construction.

In Jiuquan, near the western terminus of the Great Wall, I came across worshippers putting the finishing touches on a new church that could hold fifteen hundred people. “Hallelujah!” one old guy exclaimed as I entered the churchyard. One fifty-year-old woman, in her Sunday best, was wielding a pick axe, chipping away at old concrete to make way for a garden. Christianity is indeed blooming in China.

In the blighted industrial town of Taiyuan, I met a Western missionary who told me that many Chinese students talk about kongxu, or their “emptiness.”

“There is a crisis of faith,” the missionary told me. “There was a value system and it had a shiny head and red star. It collapsed and the emperor wore no clothes.” The Chinese are now groping to fill that void. “There’s an emptiness in people’s hearts,” he went on. “After 1989 [and the Tiananmen Square massacre], people said ‘You can’t put faith in the Party anymore.’ ”

In business-speak, missionaries are exploiting a gap in the spiritual marketplace. Evangelicals offer an irresistible two-for-one deal: the promise of a better life and a better afterlife. This offering—a blending of commerce and Christianity—is gaining loyal customers.

In 2010, the official number of Christians in China surpassed 28 million, but is likely as high as 90 million if the estimated number of worshippers at unofficial house churches is counted. “Nearly 69 percent of believers said they converted to Christianity after either they or members of their family fell ill,” reported Li Lin, a researcher for the state-run Institute of World Religions which conducted a survey of religious worshippers in China. The survey found that the ecclesiastical boom is tied to China’s economic boom. It noted that 73 percent of Chinese Christians joined the church after 1993, and nearly 18 percent of them between 1982 and 1992.

It would be wrong to just dismiss Beijing’s Yuletide decorations as meaningless marketing ploys of cynical shopkeepers. It is certainly that, but it’s also much more. Paradoxically, the material success of China’s godless rulers has set the conditions for a spiritual reawakening in the country.

At the same time, Beijing gravely fears the divided loyalties of religious worshippers, as witnessed by their attempts to control Catholic and Protestant churches in China and brutally suppress Falun Gong.

And so, red is once again the revolutionary colour of China. This time, however, it is not emblazoned on banners and a little book of quotations, but on the nose of a reindeer named Rudolf.