On Christmas Eve in 1991 when Bob Fu was a student in Beijing, he handed out Christian literature to a government-licensed neighbourhood church. On Christmas Day, police took Mr Fu out of his class at the People's University, where he was studying international relations, to interrogate him, then searched his dormitory. He says he can only safely discuss his experiences, which include being jailed for being an illegal evangelist, because he now lives in America, where he runs the China Aid Foundation. He said that last year, several friends in China got into trouble because they received Christmas cards from his family in the US. They were threatened with jail if they did not say from whom the cards had come. 'As a result, I had to painfully sever our friendships after I read their letters requesting to end our communication in exchange for their freedom,' he said. Although this Christmas Eve thousands of Chinese will attend services in government-approved Christian churches, either because they are devout believers or simply following a Western trend, things have changed little over the past decade for those who prefer to follow an alternative type of Christianity. 'The authorities argued that university students were supposed to be trained as the successors of communism or socialism, not as believers of a foreign religion, let alone as a self-appointed illegal evangelist like myself,' said Mr Fu. 'Ten years later, nothing has changed in this regard.' The government fears that if too many people turn to Christianity, it will compromise allegiance to the government, according to overseas human rights groups and Christian bodies. Informal Bible study, for example, could turn into a complaints session about government policies, a human rights leader in Hong Kong was quoted as saying this month. So while over the past decade the government has eased up on people attending officially licensed 'Three-Self Patriotic Movement' churches, and while college Christians can have parties with religious overtones, Chinese are still not supposed to worship in private groups or spread their faith. The result is that underground churches still thrive. According to one Christian Web site, there are 30 to 80 million secret Protestant followers, compared to the 15 million government-approved followers. Another 15 million people are Catholics, three times the figure belonging to the official Chinese Catholic Church. The term 'underground' can apply to churches without permits or groups of people who meet in private to worship. In the 1980s, 57-year-old Beijinger Sha Yuguang was criticised and followed by authorities for publishing his belief that Christianity was compatible with communism and for posting related material on the Democracy Wall in 1989. He argued that God welcomed both communists and Christians with open arms. Interviewed at his house in Beijing this month, he said there was still a possibility authorities might be watching him. He does not label himself a Christian, although he has read the Bible four times and compared it to the holy books of other religions. Asked what he would do at Christmas, the retired radio factory worker had no answer. Like most, his family puts more effort into celebrating Lunar New Year. But he is hopeful the situation will improve. Last Christmas, he spoke at an informal meeting of believers, and in 2000 he went to an open Bible reading where people exchanged gifts without interference from the police.