Shanghai - On a gray Sunday morning, some 800 people are crammed into Thanksgiving Church in Shanghai. Among the congregants is Wang Cuimei, a 21-year-old from a village in northern China. She just started working at Semiconductor Manufacturing International, whose headquarters are down the street. While Wang isn't a Christian, she decided to attend the service after hearing about it from the leader of her new-employee training program.
It didn't hurt that top SMIC executives had helped set up the church. "The leaders care about us," Wang says. "Apparently everyone is a Christian, so we wanted to take a look." Adds her friend Liang Shuihong, 21: "We have a responsibility and a duty as employees to go." So the pair made the five-minute walk to the church from their SMIC dorm. Following a sermon from the government-approved pastor and much singing of hymns (with Chinese lyrics projected onto giant screens suspended from the ceiling), Wang says she is impressed and plans to return. "There is a lot of kindness in this place," she says.
That's good news for Richard Chang, the Taiwanese-American chief executive of SMIC. Chang, who eschews the expensive suits, flashy watches, and other bling favored by China's new business class, says spreading the gospel is a key part of his work. He and his colleagues "were called to China to share God's love," Chang says. That sort of talk is rare in a country ruled by a Communist Party that is officially atheist and has a long history of hostility toward Christianity. Yet Chang, 60, feels no hesitation in describing the role his faith plays in his business life. "The Lord says, 'Do good things to those in need,'" he says.
Chang could use some help himself. He spent nearly three decades at Texas Instruments (TXN) and other semiconductor companies before launching SMIC in 2000. Since then, he has built the company into China's largest chipmaker, with operations in five cities, and the world's No. 3 foundry, or contract manufacturer of semiconductors. But even with a slew of A-list customers such as Qualcomm (QCOM), Toshiba (TOSBF), Broadcom (BRCM), and Freescale, Chang has struggled to make the company profitable. SMIC lost $19.5 million on sales of $1.5 billion last year, and its New York-traded American depositary receipts have dropped more than 80% since the company's initial public offering in 2004.HELP FROM ABOVE?
Righting the ship is now Chang's biggest business challenge. In April, SMIC announced it had phased out memory chips, which once contributed a majority of the company's revenue, because it's so difficult to turn a profit in that cyclical business. Instead, SMIC is focusing more on higher-end chips. In December the company signed a deal to license advanced chip manufacturing technology from IBM (IBM). And SMIC says it's talking with potential strategic investors interested in taking a stake in the company to help fund new, multibillion-dollar chip plants. "We knew there would be challenges [in China], but we knew the Lord would help us to solve the difficulties," Chang says.
Chang's efforts are part of a growing focus on China by evangelical Christians from the West. Although Beijing requires all congregations to adhere to a one-size-fits-all Protestant church that doesn't differentiate among Methodists, Baptists, or others, there are signs that evangelicals are gaining popularity. Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance, traveled to China in April, and Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and heir, gave a Sunday sermon in May to 12,000 people in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
Few mix the Bible and business as openly as Chang. He helped fund the church in Shanghai—which opened on Christmas Day 2005—and several others across the country.