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China and Her Returning Students and Scholars

Several years ago, Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times columnist, wrote this in the Times: “The most important thing happening in the world today is the rise of China.” In ways that Westerners often cannot fully grasp, the rise of China is commonly said to be the heartbeat of all Chinese. Their hopes and dreams are that Zhong guo–the Middle Kingdom–will regain the glory of days past and take its rightful place in the world. To the Chinese mind, still reverencing the Confucianist respect given education, returning scholars and students will surely play a major role in those dreams. To understand the emotion in the dreams, as well as the burden of hope placed upon the returnees, it might serve us to briefly put China’s recent journey into perspective.

Historical Perspective

China is one fifth of the world’s population, and the distance this nation has traveled since Mao’s revolution in 1949 is stunning. Its journey from an isolationist, desperately poor agrarian country to one whose economy is now the second largest in the world is almost unbelievable. In addition, this transition occurred while the Chinese people were enduring a terrible burden of event after event of painful history. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, an agricultural disaster where 30 million died, and the Cultural Revolution, with thousands more deaths, were devastating. In 1989, the brutal repression at Tiananmen Square inflicted trauma that broke the heart of China’s people. Further, they were humiliated and ashamed that these terrible events had occurred in their country.

However, Chinese were not only ashamed by devastation at the hands of fellow Chinese. In the August, 2008 issue of Newsweek, Orville Schell discussed what drives China. He said, ” the most critical element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s ‘humiliation’ at the hands of foreigners, beginning with its defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century and the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants in America.”

Impact of This History on Scholars and Students

Those of us who work with Chinese scholars and students will not serve them well if we do not understand how humiliated China has felt at the hands of foreigners, as well as its own leaders. I have never met a scholar who was not fully aware of the humiliation China suffered generations earlier when it was forced to accept and pay for opium crops it did not want. Many of us have seen scholars and students respond to what they perceive as national humiliation with a collective identity that demands one join in the rage or be seen as unpatriotic. This allows little room for self-awareness or individual response and often brings more anger and shame. Sadly, scholars know that Chinese government leaders have historically stirred up emotions about humiliation to serve their own political or ideological needs, manipulating their people at will. Chinese friends of mine are very proud of the transformation of their country, yet they have often asked, “Why did so many bad things happen to China?” Some of them have spoken of their sadness and shame that the Chinese people have not stood up for themselves, and some fear that the good things happening in China will not last. As we hear the weight and fear behind these questions, how do we help our friends begin to ask questions that will lead them to the Truth that will never fail them?

A Critical Ministry Tool: Understanding Worldview

One of the most simple, yet fundamental, tools we can offer Chinese students and scholars to prepare them to return home is the understanding that, like everyone else, they have a worldview. They have beliefs and values that form the lenses through which they view the world. Their culture, like every other culture, has a worldview. But, where there has been a totalitarian system, the Communist Party, as well as the Confucian code, with its rules for proper behavior, it is difficult and often takes a long time for scholars to be able to step outside of the old way of thinking long enough to consider new ideas that can lead them to the gospel.

Rev. Edwin Su, publisher of Overseas Campus Journal, has said this: “A worldview change is needed, and to change worldview, you have to face culture’s impact on you. You have to ask questions of your worldview and allow truth to go deeply in. If not, conversion will be shallow, and won’t be transformative.” The tool I have seen work so effectively to help this process is discussion groups where any subject can be pulled apart and looked at culturally. It is critical to not judge one culture against another and to stress that every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. We ask a lot of “Why?” questions and look at biblical culture. Many times I have had scholars tell me those discussions were really the first time they had ever asked “Why” questions of their culture, and now they still do it back home.

Issues Returning Scholars Will Face and Needed Response

Political Anxiety: There is a greater degree of anxiety than usual within the Communist Party government as it deals with the long planned shift in China’s top leadership next year. The Arab Spring and fear of a “jasmine revolution” in China has brought about an escalation of ideological struggles between conservative hardliners and China’s more tolerant liberals. The conservative hardliners view scholars returning from studies in the West with suspicion and mistrust. Scholars are respected for lessons they have learned that can help China grow economically, yet they are mistrusted for possible liberal ideas (democracy) they might have come to value. There is an intense crackdown on dissent and growing Web censorship.

Most returning scholars are able to keep up fairly accurately with what is happening politically in China. While it is fairly disconcerting to be aware of the tightening that is happening, most believe that they are able to negotiate the waters if they work to not draw attention to themselves. Still, many resent having to deal with so much censorship after the freedom of the West. It takes a lot of patience to remember that no one can stop the coming change for long.

Economic and Job Related Concerns: Most believe that China will undoubtedly play a critical global role in economic development. There are many who are seriously concerned about the state of the Chinese economy. China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, calls his nation’s economy “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable” (Time, Oct. 31, 2011). While there is a big improvement in the standard of living of most Chinese, there is still a huge income gap. There is growing unemployment among the middle class and not enough high-level jobs. As of fall of last year, one quarter of 2010 college graduates were still unemployed.

Many returning scholars face fewer problems finding work than folks who stayed homebut not always. Some have dealt with the frustration of not being able to have jobs they had been promised because they were given to less qualified sons and daughters of Party officials. Many scholars have dealt with resentment in their work units and had their work sabotaged. A common problem is what scholars call “pay to play”: advancing in their career requires “gifts” (read bribes). One friend acknowledged that he lost his job because he would not lie about the work of a co-worker. Several scholars said they were told that if they did not rejoin the Party, they did not love their country and lost chances at job advancement. Surviving the workplace under all these conditions takes much patience, wisdom and prayer.

Social and Relationship Issues: China’s population is to hit 1.39 billion over the next five years, posing greater challenges for China’s social development. The aging population and the unbalanced sex ratio as a result of the one child policy bring an almost staggering burden to China’s younger generation. Social systems are undergoing big changes. The Confucian values such as filial pietycaring for parents in old age out of duty and respectare being reexamined. Marriages are failing in unheard of numbers. Social unrest is growing due to the huge economic disparity.

Chinese friends who have returned home have had varying degrees of struggle with social issues, often depending upon the age they were when they left and the age when they returned. The older they were when they left China, the less the impact of the new culture upon them. The reverse is true for the younger scholars. Because of globalization and the Internet, younger scholars are already more open to new ideas, and, as is true with all youth, are less tolerant of long-standing cultural values and norms. Scholars who are embracing Christianity not only have all the social issues to navigate when they return but the national obsession with getting rich and having power as well.

Christianity and Issues Returning Christians Face

The number of Christians in China is exploding. The government says there are 25 million but most say that even a conservative figure is at least 60 million. Some actually believe there are currently more Christians than Communist Party members in China. This is very intimidating to the government, especially in these days of the Arab Spring where government power and authority are being challenged. Christianity has mostly been a private matter for individual believers, and the government has taken some comfort in the fact that Christians are mostly willing to stay within the political system and not challenge the Partyeven though the Party formally forbids religious belief. However, recent events with the Shouwang House Church, started by young professionals in Beijing, many of them returnees, have upped the Party’s anxiety. While acknowledging the government’s need for law and order, the church openly applied for a license to be able to worship together instead of in many small Bible studies. The government has worked against this, keeping many of the leadership under house arrest. The outcome of this struggle will be very significant for returnees because many of them are more at home in that setting rather than either the government sponsored Three-Self Patriotic churches or the house churches that often contain much less educated Chinese.

Some Lessons Learned by Christian Returnees:

  1. Know the boundaries. Do not purposefully challenge Party officials in the workplace. Nevertheless, maintaining total safety at the expense of obeying God’s call to faithfulness slowly kills your spirit. Be wise and trust God.
  2. When you encounter people who are threatened or jealous in the workplace, humility and kindness is critical. Look for ways to encourage others.
  3. Because the culture is obsessed with money and power and morals are in a state of flux, survival depends on daily devotional time and fellowship. Try to find two or three colleagues in the workplace who are Christian and pray with them.
  4. Pray for patience and a lot of wisdom. Pray every day for courage, should God call you to great sacrifice.

We see all that God is doing in China, but we also know of the difficulties Chinese returnees face. When we think of our friends, we take courage from the words of Dietrich Bonhoffer: “Sacrifice is the badge of discipleship.” Beloved brother Wang Ming Dao said: “Many have good beginnings, but few have good endings.” May God bring good endings, for his kingdom’s sake.

Image credit: Two Languages or Three? by Michael Coghlan, on Flickr

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Carolynn Hudson

Carolynn Hudson serves with International Ministries Fellowship and works with Chinese scholars in the Bay Area of California.View Full Bio