Since China opened its doors and began reforms in the late 1970s, foreign influence has been visible and social change undeniable. The visitor to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Shenzhen, seeing the numerous skyscrapers, private cars, traffic jams, McDonalds, blue jeans, busy airports and night clubs, may forget there is still a big cultural gap between China and the Western world. The reality is that China is experiencing the process of Westernization.
Indeed, this is true in many ways. China joined the WTO and implemented a market economy. Now, even its educational system is geared toward satisfying market demand. English is gradually replacing pinyin. Millions of Chinese travel overseas each year. Western nations and companies have increased their investments in China annually.
However, when we shift our focus to the Chinese political system, we notice that political reform has not kept pace with market reform. Western influence is obvious in the economic realm, and the Chinese government encourages people to embrace such influences calling this “connecting with the world.” Nevertheless, in the political realm, China stubbornly resists any Western influence. The Communist Party still has a tight grip on power. If any changes occur within the political realm, they come very slowly. Sometimes, the Party needs to appear as if it is making progress in political reform, but its approach is generally passive. For example, direct elections are still limited to village and township levels. As a whole, the Party’s resistance to Western influence in the area of political reform has been successful.
A Spiritual Vacuum
One unique but subtle social change occurring in China today is that of ideology—people’s spiritual beliefs. Even though the government has lessened its tight control over the grassroots working class level, it nevertheless hangs on tightly hoping to win the ideology battle. The government is still in control of the mass media. Religion is still viewed as a “negative element” of society that requires tight control. After the 1999 Falungong incident, the government formed “Office 610” to combat the spread of “evil cults.” It began to pay a lot of attention to all religions.
Despite the fact that the government has not let up its tight grip over people’s ideology and spiritual beliefs, the Chinese people have all but given up on Communism. They have endured fifty years of communist propaganda and have grown tired of hearing the same line over and over. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block nations, coupled with China’s own economic boom, further convinced the Chinese people that Communist and Socialist ideology are hopeless and irrelevant. They recognize that the hope they put in Communist ideology in the past is merely a mirage today. Nowadays, what troubles people is what should replace communism as the core ideology or spiritual belief of the Chinese people.
Some people have thought Confucianism should be brought back. They proposed combining Confucian ideology with capitalism to fill the spiritual void. However, this approach would soon be proven unrealistic. Confucianism teaches loyalty to your rulers and emphasizes different levels of social class. These concepts will never be accepted by today’s people whose thinking is more scientific and democratic. It is impossible to ask people to return to a society that existed two thousand years ago. Today’s Chinese live in a vibrant market economy. Materialism, not religion, fills their minds.
At the same time, various religious beliefs were able to experience unprecedented growth despite the government’s efforts to curtail them. The fastest growing religion by far is Christianity. Many people turned to Christianity because they were thoroughly disappointed with classic Marxism, and they were looking for something to fill that spiritual void. On the other hand, the rapid spread of Christianity can also be attributed to strong evangelistic efforts by Chinese Christians, overseas Chinese Christians and foreign Christian workers. It is difficult to determine how many Christians there currently are in China, but even the most conservative estimate would place the number in the tens of millions.
Why is Christianity the fastest growing religion in China? Is it possible for other religions to surpass Christianity? The answers are very clear. Christianity will continue to be the fastest growing religion in China in the next one hundred years. No other religion can surpass Christianity in number of believers. Although Buddhism and Daoism are regarded as having a part in China’s culture and history, and while Buddhism is popular in southern China, neither religion carries the evangelistic fervor that Christianity does. They are not popular among the intellectuals or the political elite. Furthermore, most professed Buddhists and Daoists do not have a good grasp of their own doctrinal teachings because they are difficult to understand. Very few people delve deeply into the teachings of these two religions. Most of their followers put their emphasis on external forms and functions of worship. The relationships and fellowship among followers of Buddhism and Daoism are also loose and unconnected. All these factors make it difficult for them to catch up with Christianity.
Islam is organized and has experienced clergy to teach Islamic doctrines. However, the spread of Islam is limited to certain minority people groups in China. Very few people among the Han majority (90 percent of China’s population) are Muslims. From these perspectives, it appears that no religion in China today is in a position to meet the needs of the Chinese people more than Christianity.
Historically, the Chinese people have always had reverence toward “heaven.” In contrast, Marxism’s popularity in China lasted no more than fifty plus years. Personal stress and conflicts resulting from rapid social transformation argue for a greater role for religion. Many people seek spiritual shelter in an ever competitive society. In the past, Communism provided a sense of belonging for people in addition to its ideology. However, as corruption has become a fast spreading cancer of the Communist party, people no longer feel a sense of belonging by joining the Party. As personal income and living standards continue to rise, a lack of peace, joy and purpose in life are prevalent among many Chinese. A crisis regarding what life is all about plagues people from all levels of society
No Longer a Foreign Religion
Christianity in China before 1949 looked very much like a foreign religion. However, after 1949 when China shut its doors to the outside world, there were virtually no foreign missionaries in China anymore. Yet, even in the midst of many political movements—especially the Cultural Revolution—the number of Christians grew despite the absence of foreign missionaries. The Christian faith also became more indigenous. Today, when you visit a church in China, whether it is a house church or a TSPM church, you can no longer say that Christianity is a foreign religion. The churches are led by Chinese. You see Chinese Bibles. You hear Chinese worship songs. You experience a Chinese style of worship. The church looks and feels Chinese. Christianity in China has taken a form that is indigenous and contextualized. These things testify to the fact that Christianity has finally taken root in Shenzhou—in China, the land of God.
Another important fact about Christianity in China is that more and more movers and shakers of society are becoming Christians. In the past, people tended to picture Christians as rural, female and uneducated. Today, you can find Christian fellowship in almost any university. Christians commonly include professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers and managers. You can even find believers among government officials. During the Christmas season, books with Bible stories tend to be the hottest sellers in bookstores. No longer are voices heard in society attacking Christianity. Regardless of the government’s attitude toward Christianity, people usually have the impression that Christians are kind, ethical and law abiding citizens.
What kind of influence are Christians having on society? It may still be too early to tell. This is because Christians do not have a voice in the state controlled mass media. The government still does not allow purely civilian newspapers, TV stations and publishers. Everything in the media must be approved by the government. Therefore, there has not been any reporting on how Christians are impacting society.
On a personal level, Christians do contribute greatly in shaping changes in values and worldview. The Christian idea of “love” touches many hearts. Unfortunately, the concept of repentance is lacking in Chinese culture. This poses a challenge for individual salvation. From this angle, it seems that the road to full acceptance of the Christian worldview is still long and winding. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the foundation for Christianity to spread in China is in place. While most Chinese no longer hold hostile attitudes towards Christians, by and large they have not recognized the need for repentance. Individual Christians may be the light and salt at home and in the workplace, but the church as a whole still does not have permission to enter the center stage of society.
Despite these limitations, Christianity’s impact on society cannot be underestimated. It has provided truth, salvation and hope. These are the issues in some of life’s deepest quests. What kind of hope are people looking for? That is, without an authentic faith, without an absolute moral standard, without reverence from a repentant heart, without a sacrificial calling, a person will never experience all he or she is created to be and, as a nation, China will never be truly strong. When the truth of God is hidden in people’s hearts, it will, one day, be expressed in an unpredictable and powerful way.
Although the Chinese people have not accepted Christianity entirely, neither have they rejected it. The door is wide open. The question is how to enable millions of people to hear the Gospel. Although currently evangelism is done one-by-one on a personal basis, in time it will confront and challenge Chinese society publicly.
China is on the road to becoming a world power. The question is not if it will, but rather what kind of influence it will exert on the world scene. What path will the nation take? In fifty years China will be a world superpower possessing a large population and destructive weapons; it will rival the U.S. and other world superpowers. It is clear that international criticism, slander, or so called “containment” do not help China or the rest of the world. Only a change in the ideology and spiritual beliefs of the Chinese people will ultimately help a powerful China to become a responsible and reliable world power.