Many Chinese families, atheists, seek qualified schools with high moral values and family environment. Their children, while studying, find the faith. With some risk of proselytizing and "superficial" conversion.

Columbia (AsiaNews) -Haiying Wu's family in Shandong Province wasn't religious. But after a born-again Texan teaching English in China advised her that Christian schools in the United States are safe and academically strong, Wu enrolled at Ben Lippen High School in Columbia, S.C.

She was required to attend church and chapel, take Bible class and join a Bible study group. At first she didn't understand "why you need to believe in something you can't view or touch," she said. Gradually, it began to make sense.

Shortly before her 2009 graduation, she was baptized.

Her parents were taken aback. "In China, I don't think there's any chance I would have become a Christian," said Wu, 21, now a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans. "It takes a lot to convert someone. Because Ben Lippen is such a strong religious environment, it makes you feel you have to learn about Christianity, and how come everybody around you believes."

As evangelical schools capitalize on the desire of affluent Chinese families for the prestige of a U.S. education, many Chinese students are learning first-hand how the Bible Belt got its name.

With proselytizing is banned in China, religious high schools are doing their missionary work on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Through placement agents and religious networking, they're recruiting growing numbers of students from China, most of them atheists, and encouraging them to convert, in hopes that some will spread the faith back home.

Struggle to fit in

Plunged with little preparation into an intense religious environment, Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Some shed their skepticism and become Christians, delighting school officials and dismaying their families in China.

Eighty of Ben Lippen's 108 international students come from China; five years ago there were almost none, Emery Nickerson, director of the boarding program, said.

"I'm pleased that so many of these kids come to Christ while they're here," Ben Lippen School headmaster Mickey Bowdon said. "I'm not sure the Chinese government would be."

China's Ministry of Education and State Administration for Religious Affairs declined to respond to written questions.

"The government is in a real quandary," said Daniel Bays, director of the Asia Studies Program at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., who researches Christianity in China. "They can't forbid people from sending their kids overseas. They may worry about these kids coming back, but they can't do much about it. These kids are just added to the crop of suspects that they already have to deal with."

Overtly fervent

Teachers, classmates and host parents with whom Chinese students stay are sometimes overly fervent in proselytizing them, former Ben Lippen headmaster David Edgren said.

"What we have are wonderful, sensitive, caring, committed Christian people who want so much for this particular Chinese student to come to know the Lord Jesus Christ the way they do," said Edgren, who now recruits Chinese students for Ben Lippen and other evangelical schools. "There is sometimes a tendency for the Christian student/host family/teacher to press for and receive what appears to be a commitment."

Nonbelieving Chinese parents choose Christian schools for their moral values, college-placement records and lower tuition than secular private schools, Edgren said.

Because the United States is regarded in China as a Christian nation, many parents see Christian schools as part of mainstream U.S. culture, said Susannah Clarke, who taught in China for three years and helps with a Bible study group at Ben Lippen.

Religious schools are the latest entrant in the race by American educational institutions to tap the lucrative China market. About 57,000 Chinese undergraduates, most paying full tuition, attended U.S. colleges in 2010-2011, six times as many as in 2005-06.

Limited to one year of attendance at U.S. public secondary schools under federal law, Chinese students are flocking to private high schools, where they diversify student bodies and offset declines in domestic enrollment.

Numbers soaring

The number of Chinese students at U.S. private high schools soared to 6,725 in 2010-11 from 65 in 2005-06, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which doesn't keep separate statistics for religious schools.

Religious schools boost Chinese enrollment by sending staff members to China and using agents such as New Oriental Education & Technology Group, China's largest education firm by market capitalization.

Known for preparing Chinese students for the SATs and other exams, New Oriental also connects them with U.S. high schools. Eight Protestant U.S. schools, including Ben Lippen, and two Catholic schools, were represented at a New Oriental recruiting fair in Beijing in October.

New Oriental's pipeline to religious schools worries Annalee Nissenholtz, a St. Louis-based counselor for international students and a consultant to the company.

"Relying on recruiters who do not emphasize their schools' religious focus, Chinese parents perceive these schools as 'safe' and 'family-oriented' places where their children will get a typical American experience," she said in an email. "They have no idea how religion permeates the day-to-day environment. I would no more place a Chinese student in an evangelical Christian school than in an orthodox Jewish school."

Edgren, the former Ben Lippen headmaster, said his experience with Chinese culture has taught him that many Chinese students at Christian schools convert to please administrators or save face.Of Ben Lippen's 80 Chinese students, "if there are more than three, four, five believers as I would understand a commitment to Jesus Christ, I'd be surprised," he said. "From a practical standpoint, we don't know until the kid goes back to China. Many of them will not tell their parents."