“It is time to file away whatever I knew about China and get out a blank sheet of paper,” was my comment speaking at a 2014 conference. I could see China was heading in some new directions and my prior understanding of how China worked was increasingly irrelevant. This decade, 2012–2022, is referred to in China as the start of the New Era (新时代). In this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly, we want to explore what the new changes have been and what these portend for the future of the Chinese church and China ministry. One former diplomat commented and warned that we must deal with the China that is, not the China we want. The purpose of the current issue is to help readers understand where China is headed so that we can better pray, support, and engage with brothers and sisters in China.
As we approached various potential writers, everyone expressed how important this review would be. We started early in the year to give our writers time for reflection. We also knew the important Party Congress would be held before our publication.1 I have not asked or expected our writers to be prophets. Trying to predict China’s future has always been an invitation to being proven wrong. Instead, I have asked them to prayerfully reflect on what they have seen in this New Era and to share their perspectives on the future. I have prayed that they would be like some of King David’s men who were described as “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”2
The most common association of the New Era is with China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, partly because President Xi was the one who began to use this phrase. While President Xi’s leadership has had an undeniable impact on China’s trajectory, there have been other important global and national changes that have contributed to the New Era being different from what we have known previously. These include:
- Chinese Communist Party resurgence under the leadership of Xi Jinping
- Economic growth (China became the world’s second largest economy)
- Social media (WeChat started in 2011)
- Pervasive surveillance—IT/Big Data/AI/facial recognition
- Coming of age of the 90s and 00s generations in a rapidly aging society
- Rising nationalism
- Urbanization—a majority of China’s population resides in cities for the first time in its history
- COVID-19 pandemic and China’s dynamic zero-COVID response
I see these factors coalescing into four macro shifts that are impacting China and Chinese society generally while also affecting the Chinese church and individual Chinese Christians:
- Change from administration to ideology
- Securitization of everything
- Rise of national pride and nationalism
- Centralization of power
Below I provide a brief explanation of each shift.
Move from Administration to Ideology
The Party has been reclaiming control of many sectors of society and life. In 2017, the Party Constitution was updated to include the phrase, “Party, government, army, society, and education—east and west, south and north, the party leads on everything.”3 There has been a reversal of the previous efforts to separate Party and government functions. China’s ideological renewal has been a synthesis of Marxism, Confucianism, and China’s five thousand years of “excellent traditional culture.”
For Chinese churches one of the most significant impacts has been the merger of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) into the Party’s United Front Works Department (UFWD).4 While SARA was an administrative department under the government and generally considered one of the weaker departments, the UFWD is one of the major divisions of the Party and has considerable power, budget, and influence. The UFWD has been called the Party’s “secret weapon.”5
Unregistered churches had previously been criticized and penalized for not obeying the rules (an administrative approach). Increasingly churches are being criticized for believing things that conflict with Chinese culture (an ideological approach) or current national/Party policy. This new approach has been implemented under the banner of Sinicization of religion in China.6 This ideological approach is more challenging for churches to navigate and touches on many core theological beliefs and church practices.
Securitization of Everything
Increasingly all areas of life are seen and managed through a security lens. This has been articulated in terms of comprehensive national security (总体国家安全)—national security, food security, cyber security, cultural security, and more.7 Comprehensive security is seen as a prerequisite for China’s continued development. Looking at the current global and domestic environment, China’s leaders increasingly talk about “struggle” (斗争) to overcome the obstacles and challenges.
This trend toward securitization has been enabled by massive advancements in IT technology. Big data, AI, facial recognition, and so on have become daily realities as they have been widely applied in creating what some call a surveillance state8 or digital Leninism.9 Real name registration for almost all transactions and ubiquitous use of cellphone technology have enabled real-time monitoring down to the individual level. The efforts to control the effects and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have only hastened these processes. Today China has the world’s most advanced techno-autocracy and is exporting these systems to other countries.
For churches and individual Christians all relationships with overseas groups and individuals are seen through a suspicious security filter as potentially threatening and carriers of unwanted foreign infiltration and subversion. The increase in security and surveillance has made it difficult for local churches to meet in large groups. However, some of the same IT technology has allowed the creation of many online communities that have helped overcome barriers between individuals and churches.
Rise of National Pride and Nationalism
Chinese people have good reasons be proud of their progress and development. For example, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network and is now helping other countries upgrade their rail systems. Having replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy, China is playing an increasingly significant role on the global stage. China is the largest trading partner for more than 100 countries. China has rolled out a series of concepts and programs (BRI, GDI, GSI, SCO, and community with a shared future for mankind)10 that are affecting countries around the world.
Along with increased economic, technical, and military strength, China has seen a rise of national pride and nationalism. The core of the “Chinese Dream” is for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” This is coupled with a view of the world summarized by, “The East is rising, and the West is declining.”11 China’s leaders tend to look to China’s past where for centuries China was the preeminent power in Asia and beyond. When thinking about solutions to current challenges, they are equally likely to look into China’s several thousand years of history of managing a large empire for inspiration for today’s challenges.
Regardless of their views about the Party, it is hard to find Chinese who do not love their country and are proud of its progress. A 2020 Harvard Kennedy School report found that 95% of Chinese people are “relatively satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with their government.12 Young Chinese have come of age in a period that many see as some of the best years to be alive in China. The education system and media control have given consistent messaging about how China had been subrogated by Western imperialists and now how China has risen.
Social media has provided an outlet for China’s youth to express their interests in seeing their country continue to develop and grow, taking its rightful place in the world. These nationalist sentiments can take on an anti-foreign tone. China’s leaders have long had a healthy suspicion about “hostile foreign forces.” When translated into China’s foreign policy actions, these have resulted in what has been called “wolf warrior diplomacy” coupled with a belief that history is irreversibly on China’s side. The results have been seen in surveys that have tracked China’s favorability rating among various Western and Asian countries.13 For example, the unfavorable view of China rose in the UK from 35% in 2012 to 69% in 2022. In the USA, the 2022 unfavorable rating was 82%. These surveys do not break out Christian demographics, but we suspect that the sentiments are similar to the overall national cultural outlook.
These negative sentiments are a growing challenge for ministries focused on China and Chinese people. On the positive side, China’s expanding international reach has grown at the same time as an indigenous missions movement. Chinese churches see themselves as playing a key role in the global missions efforts. When China announced its Belt and Road Initiative many Chinese Christians identified this as God opening opportunities for outreach and mission.
Centralization of Power
After the disaster of the Cultural Revolution and the start of reforms in the late 1970s, the Party developed a consensus leadership model with the top Party leader serving two five-year terms. This system has been fundamentally altered in the past decade. After the recent Party Congress, President Xi has started an unprecedented third term. There is no apparent timeline or process for naming a successor or handing over power. His mother is currently 96 and his father lived until he was 89. In another ten years President Xi will be as old as President Biden is today.
President Xi has been explicit about his goals and timelines. He has provided a clear vision of what China will become in the New Era. Even with the strong headwinds of COVID-19, the Party reached its first 100-year goal of eliminating absolute poverty and achieving a moderately prosperous society (小康社会) in time for the centennial celebration of the Party’s founding in 2021. China has now moved to focus on the second centennial goal of building China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049. There are intermediate goals set for completion by 2035. Anyone interested in China should pay attention to what China says.
In the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, the nightly news and other media were filled with reviews of the progress of the New Era across every province and sector of society. Listening to the reports of the Party Congress and the ongoing follow up, my impression was one of continuity—continuity in themes, emphases, and trends. The outlines and goals of the New Era are already set.
The story of what God is doing in the Chinese church does not show up in the evening news and, like a mustard seed, is hard to see at times. I have seen churches closed during the New Era, and yet within a few months, more, but smaller churches, are opened. Rising standards of living have not erased the hunger to know the purpose of life. The external environment has not gotten easier for Chinese brothers and sisters, but the wind of the Spirit blows where God wills. My blank sheets of paper from 2014 have some new notes and additions about the New Era as highlighted in this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly. I have learned a lot working with the various writers. I hope that your own understanding and interest in what God is doing in China is increased as a result of reading their thoughts and perspectives.
- Party Congresses occur every five years. The 20th Party Congress was held in Beijing, October 16–22, 2022.
- See 1 Chronicles 12:32.
- “党政军民学，东西南北中，党是领导一切的。” Communist Party Constitution, revised 2017. Accessed October 11, 2022. https://www.12371.cn/special/zggcdzc/zggcdzcqw/.
- Joann Pittman. “Goodbye, SARA.” ChinaSource Blog, April 2, 2018. Accessed November 9, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/goodbye-sara/. See also Joann Pittman, “A ‘New’ New Normal?” ChinaSource Blog, May 28, 2018. Accessed November 9, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/a-new-new-normal/.
- Marcel Angliviel de la Beaumelle. “The United Front Work Department: ‘Magic Weapon’ at Home and Abroad.” The Jamestown Foundation, July 6, 2017. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://jamestown.org/program/united-front-work-department-magic-weapon-home-abroad/.
- Jackson Wu. “7 Reasons Why Sinicization Is Not Rhetoric This Time.” ChinaSource Blog, May 1, 2019. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/7-reasons-why-sinicization-is-not-rhetoric-this-time/.
- Katja Drinhausen and Helena Legarda. “‘Comprehensive National Security’ Unleashed: How Xi’s approach Shapes China’s Policies at Home and Abroad.” Merics, September 15, 2022. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://merics.org/en/report/comprehensive-national-security-unleashed-how-xis-approach-shapes-chinas-policies-home-and. This concept covers sixteen security areas deemed essential to China’s development.
- Emily Feng. “’Surveillance State’ explores China’s tech and social media control systems.” NPR, September 7, 2022. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/09/07/1118105165/surveillance-state-explores-chinas-tech-and-social-media-control-systems.
- Joann Pittman. “Digital Leninism.” ChinaSource Blog, November 27, 2017. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/digital-leninism/.
- BRI = Belt and Road Initiative; GDI = Global Development Initiative; GSI = Global Security Initiative; SCO = Shanghai Cooperative Organization.
- Chris Buckley. “‘The East Is Rising’: Xi Maps Out China’s Post-Covid Ascent.” New York Times, March 3, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/world/asia/xi-china-congress.html.
- Edward Cunningham, Tony Saich, and Jesse Turiel. “Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time.” Ash Center, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2020. Accessed November 10, 2022. https://ash.harvard.edu/files/ash/files/final_policy_brief_7.6.2020.pdf.
- Laura Silver, Christine Huang, and Laura Clancy. “Negative Views of China Tied to Critical Views of Its Policies on Human Rights.” Pew Research Center, June 29, 2022. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/06/29/negative-views-of-china-tied-to-critical-views-of-its-policies-on-human-rights/.