2016: Not “Business as Usual”

In his recent post, “The Challenges of Localization,” Swells in the Middle Kingdom says developments this year in China are pushing organizations like his own to hasten the process of turning their work over to local believers.

Given that most foreign organizations entered China with the end goal of “working themselves out of a job,” as Swells puts it, one may ask what has, in fact, changed. Are we merely arriving at the long-anticipated point where foreign workers are no longer needed (or at least in the roles they have been playing for the past three decades) and believers in China are prepared to take up the proverbial baton (which, as Swells points out, does seem to be the case, given the readiness of today’s Chinese church to step up and take the lead.)

Or has there been a more fundamental shift, a true “game changer” that is now forcing a rethink of how expatriate Christians serve in China?

I tend to agree with Swells that what we’re experiencing is the latter, particularly in view of the new policy environment and its affect both upon foreigners and upon Chinese Christians whom they seek to serve.

Events over the past year suggest that what’s ahead may be anything but “business as usual:”

  • Tightening visa restrictions for foreign workers
  • New foreign NGO law severely limiting activities of overseas organizations in China
  • Heightened surveillance of all foreigners
  • Clampdown on Christian book publishing 
  • Ongoing cross removal campaign in Zhejiang province, with serious consequences for those who resist
  • Highly publicized show trials of Christian lawyers who sought to aid fellow believers and other disadvantaged groups in society
  • New draft regulations that would potentially limit Christian activity on the internet, forbid believers going abroad for conferences or to study, and target unregistered Christian gatherings.
  • Increased pressure on Christian university professors
  • Unofficial “house churches” in several parts of China forced to close

In fact, it may be argued that Christians serving in China are facing the most challenging environment in decades. These developments are not entirely unexpected, given the overall tightening that has characterized China since 2012. Nevertheless they do suggest that those serving in China need to seriously rethink their approach.

Hence the urgency in Swells’ encouragement to consider seriously the process of localization. Even as I write this, the news is fresh in my mind of a foreign family with a long and illustrious track record in China that recently had to pull up roots, hastily handing off to local friends the responsibilities they had so diligently carried for years. The need to let go of the reins may come sooner, and more abruptly, than we expect. Starting the process now can help to ensure a more orderly transition when that day comes.