A Christian church in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Photo: Yi Fan
Zhou Shuguo, 47, used to be rich. Prior to 2004, his family assets reached into tens of millions of yuan and he owned two drug factories. But after converting to Christianity his life changed abruptly. Not only did his wealth fall sharply, he also became alienated from business partners. All the changes originated from a pledge he made with his church - an informal church run by people in the neighborhood - promising he "would never offer bribes, evade taxes or break promises." For drug companies, it has been routine to offer commissions for doctors and hospitals. However, Zhou's awakening religious awareness banned him from doing so. He then launched a painful and disastrous transformation of his company. The first step was to stop bribing doctors and hospitals. But for drug companies, refusing to offer bribes can result in severe consequences. "None of the doctors would help recommend my medicine to patients because they could not get commissions. The sales of drugs from my company declined sharply," Zhou told the Global Times. Disasters came in quick succession. "Within months, almost all the people in my sales team had left the company, and the company was on the brink of bankruptcy," Zhou said. Zhao was also criticized by his counterparts for breaking the rules of the trade. "Other drug companies were offering bribes but I wouldn't. Some acquaintances accused me of deviating from the normal path after converting to Christianity," Zhou said. Zhou came under criticism from both his employees and counterparts. Some of his business partners even cut off contact. "It was a fatal attack on me. I prayed to God again and again to show me the way. The only thought that supported me in continuing this transformation was that I was following the teachings of Jesus Christ," Zhou, who continued to struggle to transform his company over the following two to three years, told the Global Times. Zhou's tale is not unique. A number of Chinese businessmen who made their money cutting corners in China's booming albeit cutthroat business environment have been turning to Christianity for help and spiritual consolation, but paying a heavy price. Painful transformation Despite a lack of figures revealing the exact number of Christian Chinese businessmen, they all seem to have some common characteristics - they believed their money was tainted with sin and they felt extreme guilt over their wealth. In most cases, certain difficulties prompted their conversion. "They had been poisoned by their own money and prosperity and they wanted inner peace. They began to transform their own behavior and their companies by changing their irregular commercial dealings," George Chen, the Taiwanese director of the Beijing Christian Businessmen Fellowship, created in 2004 by Credible Business Alliance, told the Global Times. After turning to Christianity, these businessmen often face pragmatic problems. The Bible bans bribery, tax evasion and keeping mistresses - all of which are often considered standard conduct among business circles. Such significant change can be fatal. Sometimes, these businessmen have to give up profits, lose business partners or bring their companies to the verge of bankruptcy. "The sacrifice and burden makes you feel the same as Jesus Christ carrying the cross for us," Zhou said. In 2002, Zhao Xiao, the president of a training center for Christian businessmen in Beijing, wrote an article which pointed out that the transformation of China's market-oriented economy "cannot stand without further support ... It will eventually benefit from vivid religious groups." The article is believed to have created a stir among business circles. Zhao created the Cedar Leadership Agency, which attempts to train Chinese entrepreneurs using the doctrines of the Bible. The first step is to encourage entrepreneurs to make pledges in front of God, promising they "will never offer bribes, evade taxes or keep mistresses." Gradually, making this pledge became an initiation rite, Zhao told the Economic Weekly. Bian Shuping, the chairman of Sayyas, a leading door and window manufacturer, signed the pledge. At the very beginning, his shareholders were glad to see his change: The previously short-tempered Bian became amiable. However, in 2007, when he announced to the shareholders that "his company would never offer bribes," they were stunned. "How can we run a business if we don't bribe people?" they asked. Bian insisted, and the shareholders withdrew their capital. Soon the sales team also fled. It was Bian who shouldered the burden and began to carry out reform within the company. "Now that we cannot offer bribes, my company has lost the big customers. We began to shift our business to guests who don't demand bribes," Bian said. That year he transformed his business to focus more on exports and the wholesale market. In the process, Bian lost $8 million.
Wenzhou businessmen at church Photo: Yi Fan
Abandoned by colleagues For most of these businesspeople, the transformation meant abandoning a so-phisticated market and turning to other fields. But it is not an easy process. Zhou Shuguo encountered similar difficulties. After Zhou stopped offering bribes, his company was dragged to the brink of bankruptcy and the people who had previously been of assistance abandoned him.Zhou abandoned selling drugs to doctors and public hospitals, but turned to the privately run drug stores that were flourishing at the time. "I didn't need to bribe to them. What I needed to do was provide good drugs with low prices," Zhou said, adding that from then on, he put more focus on developing and improving the quality of the medicine. "It was like starting from scratch. I had to read the Bible almost every day and pray to God again and again to seek confidence," Zhou said, recalling that his Bible was almost worn out during that time. In the fall of 2004, dozens of church fellows were absorbed into Zhou's company and his sales team became stable. By travelling all across the country to promote their drugs, business gradually picked up. Despite his yearly income decreasing from around 10 million yuan before 2004 to around 1 to 2 million yuan afterwards, Zhou said he has no regrets. "Your life values change. Running a company is not merely to earn money, but it matters whether you have done the right thing," Zhou said. Fellowship of the coin Zhou said that a trustworthy Christian fellowship can play a great role in helping businessmen when they are in trouble. A Christian fellowship with around 20-30 members is effective at allowing businessmen to share their experiences and help each other, Chen agreed. The Economic Weekly report said that in order to cater to the needs of a growing number of Christian businesspeople, churches in many cities, such as Beijing, Wenzhou, Hangzhou and Sanya have set up a growing number of Christian fellowships dedicated to helping Christian businessmen seek spiritual support if they want to transform their lives. George Chen said he was often invited to give sermons in several churches in Beijing. His sermons mainly related to issues such as how to lead your company under the doctrines of the Bible, leadership training, and company management skills. "Who is the best CEO?" George Chen asked, and "Jesus Christ" was the answer from the audience. Churches have embraced the situation, with an increasing number of churches opening the fellowships especially for businessmen, he noted. Wu Jianhua, the owner of a private hospital in Beijing named Dongfang Boda, converted to Christianity and was baptized in 2010. Wu said he attends a fellowship each Thursday evening, held in Fengtai church located on Jingkai Road, Beijing. At 6:30 pm, dozens of social elites - company owners, senior managers, and lawyers - sit together for Psalm readings, hymns and prayers. Cries of "Amen", a Christian word meaning "yes" ring out throughout the two-hour gathering. "It was like being rejuvenated," Wu told the Global Times. Cash and God For businessmen who have turned to Christianity, a church fellowship offers them a chance to seek mutual consolation, but sometimes also caters to more pragmatic needs. Once, Wu said, group members helped a shoe factory owner with a surplus to offload his excess product, and last mid-autumn festival, a Christian arranged a sales promotion among members of his fellowship for his moon cakes. Some who work in the finance sector also use the church as a platform to sell their financial products. But this has raised questions over the ambiguous boundaries between business and spiritual endeavors. "I don't want to discourage commercial events taking place within the fellowship, but it will definitely hurt the image of the fellowship if it continues," Wang said. Before, Wang said, churches shied away from attracting businessmen because they have always been linked "with original sin" - they believed businesspeople would use all means to earn money, regardless of morality. With churches becoming more open minded, congregations in Taiwan and Hong Kong were the first Chinese churches to cater to businesspeople. "Church leaders began to change their old mindset that 'money-makers are impious,' and they began to open their doors to help businessmen," Wang said. At its peak, around 1,000 Christian businessmen were participating in the Christian fellowship in Fengtai church. "Those people have become a power to revitalize commercial ethics," Chen Cunfu, the director of the Christianity and Multi-cultural research center of Zhejiang University, said. According to a survey carried out by Chen, 54 of 248 Christian businessmen who participated in the survey said they can be exempted from Sunday worship if they are busy with their businesses and 166 said they can read the Bible instead of going to church on Sunday. According to reports from Fujian's Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committees of the Protestant Churches and Christian Council - official organs that administer Chinese Christians - Christi-anity has been helpful in dealing with existing problems among business circles, such as offering and taking bribes, living a corrupt life, and family crises. "Can we stop offering bribes? When you're offering bribes, others do the same. Bribery just pushes up costs and eventually no one can benefit. So, we have to block off the road, be competitive and improve quality and service," George Chen said.