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There is no hint of a Mormon presence in the high-rise where the Beijing LDS branches meet.
Visitors must pass through a lobby featuring several boutiques, including a liquor store, find their way to the elevator, take it to the fourth floor and then stroll down a long hallway. No familiar logo above the door. No church name or meeting times on the directories.
And every Sunday as expatriatesgather for their weekly services, the branch (congregation) president reads an official statement from the pulpit, explaining to any new members or visitors that proselytizing is forbidden. So is distributing LDS literature or mingling with Mormons who are Chinese nationals and meet separately.
None of that is likely to change with Monday's announcement that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has held "high-level" talks that are "expected to lead to 'regularized' [church] operations" in China.
The Utah-based faith isn't about to overwhelm the world's most-populous nation with young men in dark suits or erect temples in Beijing, Shanghai or anywhere else on the mainland.
"It is important to understand what the term regularizing means, and what it does not mean," LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson said in a news release. "It does not mean that we anticipate sending missionaries to China. That issue is not even under consideration."
Same goes for temples. The church has a temple in Hong Kong to serve its 24,000-plus members there. But outside of Hong Kong and nearby Macau, the LDS Church is not allowed to proselytize in China.
So what does "regularizing" mean? Even longtime China scholars such as Brigham Young University political scientist Eric Hyer aren't sure.
The whole issue of religion in China is "irregular," said Hyer, who directs the LDS Church-owned school's Asian studies program and who spent the summer in Beijing.
The Chinese government recognizes only five religious groups: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslim and Taoists (the only native Chinese faith, the others all were imported).
Mormonism, which did not break off from other forms of Christianity but rather claims to be the restoration of Jesus' original church, does not fit into any of those groups.
"As religions have become more and more common in China and as religion is more freely practiced, government officials are left with this straitjacket of categories," Hyer said. "They don't know what to do. Are they going to create a new category?"
So that, he said, has left Mormonism in a kind of legal limbo.
Chinese nationals, who joined the LDS Church elsewhere, have formedbranches (smaller versions of Mormon wards) throughout the country. Some of their family members have been allowed to be baptized into the church but none of them may meet with expatriates.
Expatriates, Hyer said, must send their tithing directly to church headquarters, rather than to local leaders, because the church does not have a bank account there.
This move to "regularize" church operations may make official what's being done unofficially now, he said. Government leaders maybe wanted "to help facilitate the church's activities, financially and legally, without recognizing it."
One thing is clear: the LDS Church has seen potential for growthin China and, to that end, is determined to maintain a good relationship with Beijing.
"The church deeply appreciates," Otterson said in the news release, "the courtesy of the Chinese leadership in opening up a way to better define how the church and its members can proceed with daily activities, all in harmony with Chinese law."
A senior representative of the People's Republic of China huddled with the faith's governing First Presidency in Salt Lake City on Aug. 24, according to the release. That session came on the heels of meetings in February and May in Beijng initiated by the Chinese representative and attended by Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks and fellow general authority Donald L. Hallstrom.
No U.S. government official or diplomat including U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr., a Mormon and former Utah governor was involved in the talks, Otterson said in an interview.
In a way, though, the high-level talks represented the next logical step in a relationship that has been building for more than 30 years.
In 1979, BYU began sending its performing groups, including the Young Ambassadors, Folk Dance Ensemble, Ballroom Dance Company, Chamber Orchestra and Wind Symphony as goodwill ambassadors to China. A decade later, the school created the China Teachers Program to place qualified LDS volunteers in Chinese universities.
Both programs continue today, Hyer said. "It's a kind of lifestyle missionary. People see you and see how you live."
David Stewart, who reports LDS growth across the globe, is optimistic about China's prospects. He calls the government regulations a "fortunate convergence."
"Even if China suddenly allowed the church to do missionary work, we don't have enough missionaries available for the job," said Stewart, in a phone interview from Kiev, Ukraine, where he was attending the dedication of a new LDS temple. "In China, and in many other nations, growth will depend on strengthening local members and helping them reach out to their relatives."
The key, Stewart reiterated, is to "respect the government."
LDS Church in China
About 10,000 mainland members in 20 small congregations for Chinese nationals and 14 congregations for English-speaking expatriates. No chapels.
More than 24,000 members in 30-plus Hong Kong congregations.
One temple in Hong Kong.
In 1996, Gordon B. Hinckley became the first LDS Church president to visit mainland China.
Twenty-six humanitarian projects, including book donations to school libraries, English and educational training, clean-water projects, emergency relief, wheelchairs and cash to assist victims of a 1998 flood.
All LDS scriptures are available in Chinese (both traditional and simplified characters), Mongolian and Korean.
Chinese-speaking congregations have been organized in the United States (12 Chinese, 2 Mandarin), Canada (3 Mandarin, 2 Chinese, 1 Cantonese), Australia (2 Chinese), Malaysia (1 Mandarin), and Singapore (1 Chinese). One Mandarin-speaking branch operates in Hong Kong.
By the end of March 2010, 42 missionaries from mainland China were serving full-time missions, many in the United States and Canada.
Source: International Resources for Latter-day Saints at cumorah.com