Historian Jonathan Spence, in his classic volume To Change China, recounts the stories of various foreigners who came to China in past centuries. Missionaries, engineers, merchants, doctors—all dedicated their lives to addressing what they saw as critical needs or opportunities. All believed they were bringing lasting change to China. In the end, however, it was they themselves who were changed, and not China.
Foreigners who end up living long-term in China are by necessity resourceful. The challenges they encounter are an invitation to exercise their ingenuity and come up solutions, whether dealing with a less than ideal housing situation or figuring out how to interpret the latest regulations from on high. Like the real-life characters in Spence’s book, they see themselves as agents of change. If something needs fixing, they’ll find a way.
While this ingenuity may have been an asset to foreign Christian workers in China over the past three-and-a-half decades, in the current situation it could become a liability. Unlike the church of a generation ago, which welcomed many “teachers” from abroad to assist in areas that local believers were ill-equipped to address, the Chinese church of today—like the society in which it functions—is increasingly urban, well-educated, cosmopolitan in its outlook, forward-thinking, and creative.
Foreign workers who still assume their role is to come up with solutions on behalf of believers in China may actually become part of the problem. Their local counterparts often see the challenges in ways the foreigner cannot understand, and they introduce new options that, while outside the foreigner’s frame of reference, make perfect sense in the Chinese context.
The opportunity here is for shared innovation. Both parties bring something of value to the table. Together they can find a way forward that will ultimately be more effective than if either side approached the problem alone.
A case in point is the creative way in which Chinese Christians are utilizing social media. China’s WeChat is miles ahead of other platforms being developed elsewhere. More than a messaging platform, it constitutes an entire online environment. Living within this environment has become second nature for Chinese netizens, who may see little need for the traditional Internet.
Foreign content providers who focus on traditional platforms and on strategies to “jump the wall” in order to avoid possible censorship may end up investing needlessly in systems that ultimately prove ineffective. On the other hand, were they to team up with those local Christians who are the innovators within China’s thriving online Christian community, the end product would be much more “Chinese” and would be more likely to make a meaningful and lasting contribution.
Confucius’ proverb, “In a company of three, one is my teacher,” is an appropriate reminder that we all have much to learn from one another. Rather than jumping to solutions, those seeking to make a difference in China would do well to discover the teachers in their midst.