View From the Wall

Between Riches and Poverty: Chinese Christian Business People


Christians in business are quite common. In Western countries, any Christian may work in any industry or field, and what he or she believes is considered private; it has nothing to do with what that person does for a living. In China, however, being a Christian and doing business at the same time have different connotations. This is because, over several thousand years of feudal society, China has always despised business people. In the ranking of social positionsgentry, farmers, workers, people of businessthe highest rank belongs to scholars while people of business are at the bottom. Since Mao successfully led the revolution in 1949, tremendous changes have taken place in the social fabric of society. Workers and farmers have now become “leaders” of society; intellectuals have lost their superiority. Nevertheless, business people are still at the bottom of the new list: workers, farmers, soldiers, intellectuals, and business people. For several thousand years, the Chinese have made negative comments about business people. “Every business person is deceitful; a person who is not deceitful cannot operate a business.” A business person can be very rich, but he or she has no social standing. It does not matter whether the business is large or small”crafty business person” is the label given by the society to all engaged in business.

However, over the past twenty years, China has, for the first time in her history, developed a “campaign to emphasize business”that is, the so-called “economic reforms” and “market economy.” China began an unprecedented large scale “every citizen a business person” campaign. Commercial activity has become one of the most popular jobs, and the number of business people continues to increase as the campaign of “openness and activism” is thoroughly developed. The popular saying: “With every nine out of ten people being business people, the remaining one is a solo trader,” vividly reflects the thinking of the Chinese people todaythey want to become rich and wealthy by doing business.

The rapid development of the economy and the emergence of private enterprise and individually-owned businesses have also impacted the fast-growing community of Christians in China. Among these Chinese Christians, there are a large number of “Christian business people.” The most famous area among them is Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province. In Wenzhou, individually-owned business and private enterprise first started in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For more than twenty years, the economy in this area has maintained a robust vitality. This is also the fastest growing area for Christianity in China. Many Wenzhou Christians are very famous and successful in the Chinese business world. Products from small businesses in Wenzhou are well-known nationally. Footprints of Wenzhou Christian business people are throughout China.

In addition, during the last twenty plus years of reform, many Chinese Christian entrepreneurs and business people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States and Europe have returned to China to invest, to conduct business and other trading activities. Under their influence, some people, who in the past did not know about Christianity, have become Christians. There are also Chinese who, while studying or working abroad, have become Christians. When they return to China, they become part of the Chinese Christian people of business community.

However, in general, Christian business people are still a tiny portion of the total Chinese Christian population. Although the number of people currently doing business is the highest in the history of China, only a small number of business people are Christian. (By contrast, the most popular religion among business people in China is Buddhism, especially in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian.) The majority of Christians in China are farmers, intellectuals, employees of international corporations, housewives, retired people, and those who have connections overseas.

Positive Social Impact

Although the number of Christian business people in China is not so great, business people still have a degree of influence in society. Their impact can be seen from several aspects.

First of all, in business and commercial activities, open proclamation of Christian beliefs and messages can be done legally and publicly. For instance, some companies have names that are obviously ChristianAmazing Grace Restaurant, Holy Mana School and Living Water Culture Company are some examples. Some companies use art and works based primarily on Christian culture to decorate their office. Other enterprises have openly declared that their company’s values are based on Christian principles. Some companies use Christian symbols on their websites. All these are grass-root efforts to legitimize Christianity in China.

Second, many Christian entrepreneurs actively sponsor the publication of Christian stationary, magazines and books (such as picture books of churches). They also support Christian performances and shows such as Christmas celebration performances and Christian concerts.

Third, they are involved in major charitable donations and social events. Whenever there are floods, earthquakes, epidemics or other natural disasters, Christian business people from all over China make donations and contributions. At the same time, many Christian business people have helped local governments in education and medical facilities within the confines of government regulations. The government omits the religious background of the donor and publishes only the donor’s name or the corporate identity. This does not hinder people from understanding the donor’s belief. This is the area where Christian business people in China can make an important contribution to society under current regulations. It is also the most “lenient” area of current government policy towards Christianity. No consideration is given to the donor’s belief. All donations to society are good

Currently, China is not open towards NGOs (non-governmental organizations). There is not a culture of citizen-societal participation as mature as in Western countries. The country does not have the support of a sufficient benevolent practice. In light of these factors, Christian business people do make a very positive contribution in their community and the business world when they can donate toward charity. It not only shows that “some rich people have consciences and are kind-hearted,” but also reflects the moral values and social responsibility of Christianity among Chinese business people. It links faith and love together, creating a far-reaching impact in the society.

The Dynamics

Although many Christian business people and entrepreneurs strive to create a positive image of Christianity in China by making donations and contributions to the communities, believers who are in business face an extremely challenging situation. In China, doing business is hard; living a Christian life is even harder; doing business while maintaining Christian faith is the hardest of all.

Why is this? To understand the reason, we need to go back to the history of the development of Chinese society. Chinese culture has been based on Confucian ethics for the past millennium. Although lately three religions, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, have been merging together, Confucianism, labeled by Lu Xun as “feudal ethics,” has never been forgotten and still has a profound ideological and cultural influence on the Chinese people’s behavior. After 1949, Mao Zedong replaced Confucianism with Marxism, Communism and socialism as the official religion. All religious ideology was eliminated as he was an idealist. After Mao, Deng Xiaoping reformed the economic system and opened the door of China to the world. With the development of a market economy, Mao Zedong and Marxism are gradually fading from Chinese society. People will not pursue communism fanatically and believe blindly in Marxism anymore. However, a society cannot exist without an ideological belief system. The spiritual belief system of the Chinese community has become void and has not been replenished for a long time. As the government tries to maintain an ideological facade of communism and socialism, the Chinese are plunged into an unprecedented crisis of no ideological belief system.

At the same time, the economy in China is developing very rapidly and people’s desires for material things and wealth is approaching madness. The fundamental moral standards in society are changing. People are in the pursuit of wealthand of showing it off. “Shame on poverty but not on prostitution” is widely accepted. Counterfeiting is everywhere, in every industry and business. “Producing counterfeits” and “tracing down the counterfeits” have become daily topics in the news and on TV. As society is being transformed, people are getting used to all kinds of societal evils and malpractice, especially corruption of all levels of government officials. Chinese society has now seen unprecedented growth and prosperity in material things on the outside but also unprecedented emptiness and darkness in spirituality. Serious literary works and the arts have disappeared. They have been replaced by thoughtless “farce,” a tasteless “fast-food culture” geared towards the populace. (This is directly related to the government not allowing freedom of speech, a strict media censorship and news control system.)

Challenges and Temptations

This moral situation in the society is very critical. In such a situation, a person of business, in order to survive, to attain success or to win in a competitive environment will inevitably face many enormously difficult decisions that challenge traditional moral values: morality or money? Between corrupt government officials and administrative agencies (especially those dealing with business people directly in areas such as commerce, taxation and banking) and businesses, it is very difficult to find a piece of “unspoiled ground.” For an ordinary person with a moral conscience, it is not easy to maintain integrity in the current corrupted social and moral environment. How difficult it is for a Christian business person who wants to do business in accord with biblical principles! The reality is that all Christian business people have to face struggles and take risks because of their beliefs. As the sinfulness of humanity is fully exposed, Christian business people with true faith are like professional boxers in the ring, fighting the front line battle against the devil.

At present, China does not allow people freedom to establish their own civic organizations. It is impossible for Christian business people to have their own organizations similar to the associations for Christian business people in the United States. People from other professions or walks of life judge them not by their ethics but by their wealth, and eye them as successful individuals with envy. However, this is a total “misunderstanding.”

To avoid such misunderstanding and embarrassment, some Christian business people have begun to set up their “own” churches. (In Beijing there are house churches organized by Wenzhou business people.) In these churches, all the members can share personal experiences with each other, understand one another and encourage each other because they have similar experiences and backgrounds.

However, Christian business people have little spiritual influence within the social fabric of China. Christian principles have not been officially recognized for stimulating and developing entrepreneurial thinking in business. The community recognizes Christian business people by their donations and contributions based on their “love” to society. People can rarely hear how Christian faith helps these business people personally or to achieve business success. Christian business people face challenges in their personal and spiritual livesmore so than government restrictions on expression of their religious belief.

God’s entry into China is a painful process. Chinese business people accepting God is an important part of this process. Their long struggle and suffering is impossible for others to comprehend. The root of the suffering is that although they know the truth, the ethical and moral standards, they are powerless to follow such standards. For example, a “law abiding” business that does not bow to government commerce and taxation departments, that does not engage in “public relations” activities, that does not engage in unfair competition, cannot possibly survive in China, a society with no rule of law. Perhaps a business person may occasionally be forced to sacrifice his ethical principle in certain special circumstances. If this compromise, however, becomes a regular practice in business, or even becomes a necessity for survival, then it is inevitable that integrity will be lost. Corruption and hypocrisy will spread together with profit. Profit-making with no regard to the means will take first place and will become the goal of the business person’s life.

Of course, no matter how difficult the situation, there are still many devout Christian business people doing business not only for money. Some business people have changed the way they do business after becoming Christians. However, the problem is that business people who can maintain the principles of their belief are few and far between. In a society without a tradition of Christian culture and a weak rule of law, “business ethics” that are popular in Western societies and based on Christian moral standards but without a foundation of a personal faith can hardly become the norm of the society. What Christian business people need to change is not just their individual activities but the culture and morality of the whole society.

Purification of society depends on the process of each individual; the purity of soul of an ordinary business person depends on the freedom of his personal beliefs and the legal protection of religious freedom. Until he has such freedom and protection, the Chinese Christian business person will continue to struggle between conscience and temptation. From this perspective, Chinese Christian business people may be wealthy materially, but they are thirsting for spiritual wealth; they need much spiritual support and a very strong faith to face the challenges.

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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio