Observations on China

A Start has been Made


On a Visit to China and the Russian Far East




M o s c o w -- Conventional wisdom would have us believe it’s the USA that deals in grand sizes and massive projects. But only in Asia can one see a railway station three avenues wide, three stories high and 420 meters long. (Not including the attached airport terminal next door.) That’s Shanghai’s Hongqiao station. The futuristic, oval-shaped Beijing station may be no less than 30 tracks wide. High-speed trains are connecting China’s major cities, while the US has gotten nowhere with a similar rail system for relatively tiny, densely-populated Florida. Actually, Seoul/South Korea is hardly less impressive.


Interestingly, both Facebook and Google are inaccessible on the Chinese Internet. China – which clearly has the right to do so - has chosen to keep clear of the commercial harvesting of private data practiced by these two Western giants The Chinese state uses, among other things, hi-tech facial recognition software to keep track of its citizens and guests.


The People’s Republic of China may also be the world champion in mixed signals. The chasm between rural and urban was already evident in Novosibirsk/Russia. Our S7-flight from Novosibirsk to Shanghai on 4 June was populated mostly by noisy, countryside Chinese. Despite the fact that one’s luggage was stored in various overhead compartments along the entire length of the plane, most Chinese remained seated during both take-off and landing.


The huge gap between official and the actual government policy keeps visitors guessing. A Christian cannot lie, so at China’s Berlin embassy I mentioned my intention of making church contacts. I was consequently denied a tourist visa and needed to contend myself with a 144-hr transit visa limited to Shanghai and neighbouring regions. Yet one of the church-sponsored Westerners hosting us in China operates on a 10-year tourist visa. A Westerner and former pastor in China stated: “The state knew I worked there as a pastor, but officially I was there as a consultant on a work visa. All official church contacts are turned down. So it’s OK to call yourself an educator or a consultant when applying.”


Church repression varies. Since 2013, the southeastern province of Zhejiang has attempted to remove all crosses from public view. Yet between Shanghai and Nanjing, one sees massive, modern church spires visible for miles. State-supported “Nanjing Union Theological Seminary” has “only” 350 students, but its all-white, 2017-dedicated church must rival the Notre Dame of Paris in size. The evangelical seminary in Harbin/Manchuria is said to be even more impressive and includes gardens, regular farming and fish farms to supplement its income. On the other hand, pastors report that restrictions on their activities have tightened during the past several years.


The Chinese church’s official, state-sponsored umbrella is the 1980-founded “Chinese Christian Council”, which is an arm of the non-denominational “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” created in 1951. The CCC is seen by many as a simple bureaucracy – but much life is springing forth from below that umbrella. The CCC has many detractors, but it is nothing less than the vehicle making public church life possible. Divisions are frequently sharp; the foreign visitor is often assured that he/she can only visit official or inofficial congregations - one should not visit both. Yet intermingling between CCC-sponsored and inofficial house churches exists at least from the intermediate level downward.


In general, one is assured that in China, vibrant church action is only to be found on the intermediate level and below. One quote I heard: “There where the CCC is corrupt or compromised, house churches step in and carry the ball.” China’s Red Cross is claimed to be corrupt, but China’s churches support roughly 300 homes for senior citizens. Money is available in church circles, but uneven distribution and charges of corruption are rather frequent.


So is the Chinese church strong or weak? Congregations sponsored by the CCC are said to consist of 28 million members, up from 700.000 in 1950. The US-Mennonite Nate Showalter, who until recently pastored an English-speaking congregation in Shanghai, speaks of a total Chinese membership of 75 million. Yet he concedes that his estimate is probably conservative. Beijing alone has four congregations each with a membership exceeding 10.000. The beauty and splendour of their churches and services rival that of mega-churches in North America or South Korea. Incidentally, 75 million within a population of 1,4 billion works out to 5% of the population – roughly equal to the membership of the ruling communist party. One contact in China stated that the CCC will tend to deflate the numbers, while the house movement will tend to inflate. After all, nothing attracts donations more than a supposedly booming enterprise.


Some reports describe Chinese believers as uninformed and undereducated on the precepts of Christianity, attending church primarily for the sake of its novelty. Showalter on the other hand speaks of inquisitive and eager learners. In any case: Being that Christian culture is not taught in Chinese schools, it is hardly surprising that Christians need to begin from scratch when instructing new converts.


House churches

I am told that China’s officially-unsanctioned “house churches”, though often primitive in their theology, are generally dynamic and vibrant. That makes them comparable to the Pentecostal movement in the West. Christian academics involved in the CCC are squeamish and worry about contextualization of the Christian message – house churches do not.


Contacts told me that house churches are more Western-friendly than the average, reflecting the pros and cons of Western evangelical life in general. They are after all, the offspring of that Western movement. A few Chinese preachers even push an eschatology predicting the downfall of the country’s ruling communist party.


Relations with the Protestants of South Korea are broad and generally positive, indeed, the Chinese hope to surpass them by dispatching more than 20.000 missionaries to foreign countries by 2030. That would make them #2 in the world after the USA. The Muslim world is a primary objective, and the Chinese goal is, apparently, nothing less than curbing or eliminating the Muslim “threat” through Christian mission. In June 2017, two young Chinese language teachers in Pakistan working unofficially as missionaries were murdered.


Though living in a sea of unbelieving Han Chinese, many (unofficial) US missionaries in China are committed to “reaching the unreached” peoples. One observer on location complains that these “unreached” are consequently more “reached” than the vast majority. The Chinese populace consists of nearly 92% Han.


Playing the host in your own house

Western victories during the Opium Wars concluding in 1847 and 1860 greatly extended the freedom to evangelise within China. Or, as “Wikipedia” puts it: “The Chinese had recognized the rights of the missionaries only because of the superiority of Western naval and military power.” Of course, the Chinese example readily shows that a right to proselytize resting on the point of a gun backfires readily. Western missions were consequently seen as part-and-parcel of the Western effort to colonise and subjugate China.


That all changed with the communist victory in 1949. One host from Beijing pointed out that Mao Zedong is honoured above all as a liberator from foreign bondage, not as a social revolutionary. Under Chairman Mao, the world’s oldest unified nation finally “stood up” once again and cast aside the foreign yoke. Shanghai-Pudong’s majestic and scrupulously-restored colonial buildings are crowned with Chinese flags. They intend to demonstrate who is host, and who is guest. That had been unclear until 1949. (Also not clear in Russia during the era Yeltsin.) When a Western church agency rents expensive quarters in Russia and then invites locals to show up for meetings, the lines between host and guest are blurred.


The CCC’s seminaries reflect the same qualms. In Nanjing, foreign instructors are a rarity and cross-fertilization with foreign students is kept to a minimum. These Chinese intend to guarantee that the sorry historical union of mission and colonialism will not be repeated.


Nate Showalter, a 14-year resident of China, believes that China’s government is not anti-Christian. He wrote: “China has an ancient tradition of managing religious activities, long before the current regime. You are free to believe anything you want, but the state carefully manages the public expression of religious belief. At the same time, China vigorously defends it’s commitment to religious freedom” – as stated in its constitution of 1982.


He continues: “The devil is in the details of how religious freedom is to be expressed in actual practice. The party decides what ‘disruption of public order’ looks like. The state determines when the health of its citizens is being impaired. The government Religious Affairs Bureau is the final arbiter as to whether religious education interferes with the educational system of the state.”


It would be unjust the paint China’s missionary past in strictly negative colours. The Three-Self movement’s principles (self-governance, self-support, self-propagation) were first formally stated by a Shanghai conference of foreign missions in 1892! Pearl Buck (1892-1973), the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries from the USA, published her critical treatise, “Is there a Case for Foreign Missions?”, in 1932. Today, a monument in Nanjing honours her memory.


Interested observers should study the work of Bishop K. H. Ting (or Ting Guan-Xun, 1915-2012), principle of Nanjing seminary and president of the CCC after 1980. Much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he took the less comfortable road and returned to the fatherland in an hour of need. In 1951, he and his family moved back to China from Geneva. A liberal theologian known for his inclusive “Cosmic Christianity”, he was long accused of subservience to the state by Chinese compatriots residing outside the country. Yet he too was stripped of all offices and suffered repression during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Orbis Books published Philip Wickeri’s biography on him, “Seeking the Common Ground”, in 1988.


Russia and China – a commentary

Russians and Chinese are no natural allies. Since one country has the people and the other the land with its natural resources, conflicts are inevitable. One host pointed out in Shanghai that Chinese schoolchildren are still instructed on the Russian imperial land seizure of 1858-60. In a phase of political weakness, Russia annexed north-eastern Manchuria (Vladivostok, Komsomolsk, Blagoveshchensk and beyond).


Today, Chinese active legally or otherwise in the Russian Far East speak of rude treatment and corruption. Russians for their part fear inundation by a flood of Chinese dealers and traders. Each side feels itself superior to the other. Here, Protestants on both sides of the divide could do something prophetic.


Despite a small Chinese congregation for ex. in Khabarovsk and a large Pentecostal one with 600 members (and a female pastor) in Moscow, cross-border church cooperation remains in its infancy. A business woman in China has contributed funds to the construction of a Baptist rehabilitation centre in Khabarovsk. One Russian church agency is hoping for meetings between pastors and businesspeople from both countries on Russian soil.


The churches on the two sides vary greatly in population and finance. Harbin, a city with significant Russian roots, is home to at least 500.000 evangelicals. All of Russia has less than a million evangelical adults – the Chinese side outnumbers them by more than 75-to-one. A modest first-step has been taken; proceeding onward will require both fantasy and funding. The signs-of-the times are positive: Eurasian cooperation is the political order of the day in both China and Russia. It makes sense for evangelicals outside of the European Union and NATO to begin comparing notes.


William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 14 July 2017


A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #17-07, 1.885 words.