Lead Article

Answering China’s Influencers

Opinion Leaders and the Gospel


As China has changed dramatically in the past two decades, there are a number of new dynamics in China’s social transformation. As the party recedes into the background of political and social life, other groups are taking a larger role in shaping Chinese culture, society and worldviews. In spite of a long campaign against religion within these influential groups, however, there remains an openness to the claims of Jesus Christ.

These groups have sociological and missiological significance because of their unique role in society in both setting a public agenda and as gatekeepers to the society. Agenda setting refers to the role of these sectors in establishing social, political and cultural issues, building public sentiment towards issues, and ultimately creating a context in which political leaders must respond. For example, Chinese media have become increasingly important in setting an agenda for political leaders, regardless of the fact that, officially, the media are under the control of the government. News media responses to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. forced the government to provide more information, and quicker, than they otherwise would have done. Gate-keeping, on the other hand, refers to the role of the knowledge class in “opening” or “closing” the door for new ideas, policies, attitudes and beliefs, thus legitimating or de-legitimating social movements. An example has been the way in which China’s media have been deployed by the Party to undermine legitimacy for the Falungong movement. When the media continually criticize one’s beliefs, it is harder to maintain them.

In the history of the church, there has often been focused ministry directed towards the opinion leaders. For example, Paul’s early ministry in Athens was directed towards the marketplace, representing the mainstream of society (Acts 17:17). Members of the educated elite, the philosophers, redirected him to the Areopagus, the place where new ideas were discussed, evaluated and either embraced or rejected, and where Paul led several to faith in Christ. Thus, there is missiological, theological, and historical grounding for focusing ministry on these groups.

These groups are represented in China’s urban centers among the educated, globalized elite who are now beginning to make a more direct impact on Chinese society.  A recent analysis by TimeAsia magazine argues that China’s future rests in its new middle class[1] (addressed in this issue by Carol Hamrin and Cindy Lail). Political theorists have long argued that this class drives political reform and revolution in developing countries, in that access to higher education, rising incomes, and higher aspirations for self-governance create pressures from below for political reform. However, the middle class represents a variety of occupations, outlooks, and lifestyles. Is there a better way to segment this population of opinion leaders so that we might fully understand their influence?

In fact, there are four distinct elements of China’s knowledge class that are strategic bridges for the gospel. Ministry that takes a long term view of both personal conversion and social transformation should be directed towards focused and strategic considerations of these four significant groups.

The First Element: China’s Media and Arts Community

China’s media professionals are rapidly adopting the outlook, as well as the professional standards, of their global counterparts. Although the government is not entirely happy that the media no longer dutifully “correctly guide public opinion” in line with party policy, there is little the government can do about the transformation of China’s media, particularly among the new generations of journalists and media personnel. One of China’s top universities has begun a program in journalism and communication that is explicitly designed to enhance media independence, professionalism in media practice and media responsiveness to the public. It is explicitly avoiding the model of journalistic education prominent in the past in which the media are viewed as tools of the state. In addition, the media have become more important to government officials in terms of understanding what China’s population wants, as online news forums are regularly monitored to understand how China’s citizens are thinking. Because of this increasing professionalism and transparency in China’s media, it is likely to grow more influential, rather than less, as Chinese citizens will begin to trust it for more honest reporting.

Although their outlook concerning their role in society has changed, China’s media personnel are still actively searching for solutions to the endemic problems facing China including corruption, rampant materialism and environmental degradation. I recently had a conversation with a top editor, who served for twenty years at an influential Chinese magazine, in which he urged more government concern about the growth of religious belief in China. Now a Christian and small group leader, he seeks to incorporate implicit biblical values into every article he publishes in a national magazine.

It is important to include within this group professionals shaping China’s popular culture, including the worlds of literature, television and music. China’s artists are attempting to reestablish their role as cultural critics, and their influence is not insignificant. These artists often have the same sort of influence as their counterparts in the Western world, using their art to present thoughtful commentary on society.

The Second Element: The Academy

Around the world, universities have always had a privileged position in terms of social influence. Not only is it the one sector of society where more critical and independent thought is most highly valued, it is also the one common experience of a nation’s leaders, as university education is considered a prerequisite for leadership in politics, business or cultural activities. This has been evident in China for decades, as English teachers have sought to reach its students for Christ. Often overlooked in this strategy, however, are the faculty—the teachers, researchers and administrators who set the curriculum, who can typically deconstruct and de-legitimate religious faith. Generations of Chinese students have been led to conclude that atheism is the only viable worldview, typically through ill-conceived presumptions and questions raised by their professors.

However, among many of China’s academics, there is a genuine openness to honest consideration of Christianity, at least as a social force if not as an alternative worldview. In fact, China’s university faculty is more genuinely open to Christianity than most Western academics who treat religious faith with disdain. These professors, if presented with intellectually credible presentations of the gospel, then have a critical role in legitimating an approach to life grounded in Christianity. Even if they themselves never open their lives to Christ, their honest appreciation of the legitimacy of conversion can have an important role in establishing the credibility of the gospel in Chinese society.

The Third Element: The Globalized Professionals

With economic modernization and China’s open door policy, a new group of globalized business and managerial professionals has become a factor in Chinese society. The members of this group think in cosmopolitan rather than national terms, have high skill and educational levels, travel internationally and are more secure in their jobs due to their abilities. Samuel Huntington calls this group the “Davos culture,” and they reflect the aspirations, values and skill sets that evidence their value in the international economy.

The globalized professionals, currently in their twenties, thirties and forties, are often at the vanguard of a number of other social and cultural movements in China, including fashion, music and other elements of popular culture. They are more likely to drink coffee at Starbucks and have little difficulty in appropriating life-styles, fashions or desires from the West. They have normally attained their status by virtue of hard work and talent and are much more likely to influence the future shape of Chinese institutions, such as governmental bureaucracies, corporations and universities. They often have studied abroad, and many “returned students” are now moving into influential positions within Chinese society. In fact, it is this group of individuals that is at the heart of the “Three Represents” strategy of Jiang Zemin. Their significance for China’s future is illustrated well by Jiang’s attempt to incorporate them into the ruling party.

Although they might have less appreciation or understanding of traditional Chinese culture than the intellectuals, the globalized professionals are more apt to adopt superficial symbols of Christianity or Western culture, such as celebrating Christmas, than others within China. China’s globalized professionals are more likely to evaluate the gospel on pragmatic, rather than cultural grounds, and in many ways are the vanguard of global change, and particularly, cultural change in China. When they come to Christ, they often find little help within traditional Chinese Christian churches and their resources as these rarely reflect the worldview of the globalized elites.

The Fourth Element: The Government Technocrats

Although the focus of China’s reform process has been on economics rather than politics, there has been a marked shift in the nature of governance in China. Although the traditional dictum of the Party as the vanguard of social change has not been dismissed, the ruling apparatus has undergone a marked transformation in recent years as the government has sought to become more technocratic and professional, rather than political. As part of this effort, more professional training and standards have been emphasized, often at the expense of political correctness. A new generation of leaders, often educated abroad, has been brought in to help professionalize China’s government. At the same time, lower and mid-level officials are often sent abroad, to places such as Singapore, to get mid-career training in governance, policy and bureaucratic techniques. In addition, throughout China’s bureaucracies including the judiciary, the police and the military, globalization is inducing a set of professional networks with foreign counterparts, which are likely to provide greater opportunities for access to these key groups.

This foreign exposure, along with the more professional and technical focus that accompanies it, is fundamentally altering the relationship of the government to the people. In a number of ways, the government is truly attempting to be more responsive to the people rather than imposing a political will on the population. This is the group that will ultimately shape the laws regulating religion, freedom of association and the civil society that, in turn, will define the contours of Chinese society.

In one of the ironies of history, Beijing’s civil administration college was built on the site of the land that had been given by imperial decree to the Jesuits as a church and grave for missionary, Matteo Ricci, and foreign visitors today can visit Ricci’s grave at the college on the west side of the city. Ricci’s tomb, set among the buildings that house the primary governmental/ bureaucratic training center in Beijing, serves as a silent testimony to the critical importance of reaching China’s bureaucratic and governmental elite for the expansion of God’s kingdom in China, much as Ricci himself sought to do.

Reaching China’s Influencers

If these broad groupings reflect the new realities of cultural and social change in China, then long-term ministries in China should begin to understand the most appropriate ministry forms for these groups, and this is likely to differ significantly from what is effective in rural areas. For example, Christians in these groups often find worship within the government approved churches boring and irrelevant, and they have little in common with the believers in many of the house churches. In some of China’s major cities, they have thus either joined fellowships of foreign Christians or begun to form their own churches, which are headed by pastors with full time jobs in secular positions. Leaders in these churches are calling themselves the “third wave” leaders, as they see themselves as distinct from both the officially approved churches and the house churches.

Perhaps most importantly, the implications of the gospel must be presented in such a way as to provide answers to the issues with which influencers grapple, including materialism, temptations to corruption and fragmenting personal lives. The gospel must be seen as authentic, and discipleship must be modeled by Christians who illustrate the compatibility of faith in God with professional and intellectual achievement. It must be apologetically grounded and practically relevant. The gospel must be seen in its power to deliver lives from the despair that is often one of the most visible outcomes of rapid modernization.

Finally, it is important to note the way in which the influencers approach relations with the government. Because of their status, individuals in these groupings often have privileged positions, in some ways shielding them from the difficulties many others in China face. Whereas previous generations of Chinese Christians have seen themselves as targets of government persecution, and thus see themselves as quite distinct from the official institutions in society, the influencers are much more likely to interpenetrate the official institutions. As media personnel, academics, globalized professionals and members of the official bureaucracy, they have common histories and common interests with government officials, and thus, see few permanent barriers to the expansion of the gospel in Chinese society. Likewise, because these Christian leaders are often highly educated and have roles of social influence, they are less likely to be viewed with suspicion by governmental bodies. The expansion of the gospel among this segment of Chinese society is likely to radically undermine the official hostility towards Christianity within China.

Image credit: Media on the sewall with port by Bruce McKinlay via Flickr.