View From the Wall

China’s Christian Education Today

View from the Wall

Currently, Christian education is booming in China’s churches. How many church-run schools are there? How many students are currently leaving public school to attend them? There has been no published data. Although nationwide coalitions of these educational institutions exist, because they are not legally licensed and many do not join national coalitions, securing statistical data is difficult. However, we do see churches in the north, northeast, southeastern coastal area, southern area and even in the central region starting schools. In the large cities and throughout the provinces of Zhejiang and Henan, churches are running Christian schools.

Unlike the church-run schools in China before 1949, the emerging Christian schools share the backdrop of the home school movement with its roots in dissatisfaction with mainstream public education and the fear of being eliminated.[i] These factors precipitated the initiative to launch another educational pathway.

China’s homeschool movement began in the 1990s with the national education system’s revival of classical literature. Soon private schools and homeschools appeared in various forms emphasizing a variety of subjects including the traditional classics, traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts, etc.  Some well-educated parents, seeing the frustration of their children in the public schools, also began to teach their children at home. Gradually, homeschooling expanded as more students left the national education system.

In 2011, the Beijing 21st Century Education Research Institute organized “The First National Home School Seminar.” Since then several national homeschool seminars have been held. In November 2013, Chinese house churches publicly held the “2013 Christian Education Network Forum,” and China’s Christian education movement began to emerge. Today, this movement is booming and growing both in scope and scale. It is developing on the periphery of China’s educational policy with an attempt to change and enrich China’s public education. The driving forces of this movement are its promotion by the church and the urging of parents.

Promotion by the Church

Christian education in Western Christian countries has its own traditions. Homeschooling, public education and private education have coexisted as three separate, legal, educational systems. In the United States, there are hundreds of homeschooling systems and Christian homeschools (A Beka, Sonlight, Accelerated Christian Education and others).

The Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) homeschool program came to China in the 80s, beginning as an international school and only recruiting foreign students. Since 2000, ACE has begun extensive training of local, Chinese teachers, and their schools have been springing up in various cities. Each year, ACE offers training for principals and school teachers at different levels to help them develop more school sites in China. This has encouraged Chinese house churches and introduced English Christian education to church-run schools. With the gradual increase of overseas students and expatriates in China, many additional Christian education systems have sprung up such as Alpha Omega, Wise English, The Potter’s School (TPS) and classical curriculums.

In Shenzhen, since 2000, the Hong Kong Institute of Christian education has begun speaking on the Christian philosophy of education as a way to promote Christian education. Various mainland house churches have been sending people to its yearly meeting. This institute has been recognized and has both diploma and master’s degree programs. Its structured Christian education has led mainland churches to recognize the importance of training up a child in Christ, which, in turn, has impacted the rise of Christian education in the Sunday school and the home. However, the issue of having one school system across the churches has generated much doctrinal controversy and is frustrated by varying school operational requirements. Therefore, the adoption of this model is relatively slow.

The Reformed Church (in China since the 80s) with its emphasis on Christian education has greatly impacted and helped church families. Currently, the Mainland Reformed Church College is teaming up with the Veritas Press Scholars Academy(VPSA)to promote a classic Christian education curriculum as well as to develop localized curriculum.

In mainland China, Christian education coalitions have been initiated largely by individual enthusiasts. These organizations are not affiliated with any one denomination; rather, they are independent underground organizations desiring to do cross-church ministries. They are similar to social organizations which rely on trading principles in their operations, production and circulation of goods. Compared with Western religious social organizations, they are less likely to receive donations.

Urging by Parents

Parents who have very young children are usually the ones moved by the church to seek Christian education. Chinese emphasize the importance of children’s education since, in an unequal society, education is the key to upward mobility. Parents seek quality education even though not necessarily Christian. Once the church began extolling Christian education—training up a child spiritually, intellectually, physically and morally—Christian parents began to embrace it. This has been especially true for infants. Church-sponsored nursery schools attract many Christian parents since teachers in these schools show more love and patience with their students than do the public and private kindergarten teachers. There is also more parent-teacher interaction, and trust is developed. Furthermore, the Christian curriculum is effective in building the child’s character as well as providing spiritual knowledge. All these enhance the appeal of church-run nursery schools over other nursery schools.

Early childhood education is not compulsory. Regardless of where parents send their children, they must pay tuition and church-run kindergarten tuition is not necessarily higher than that of other nursery schools. However, once a child starts primary school, the number of parents who continue sending their children to a church-run school will drop greatly as they will begin to have concerns over the unregistered school facilities and teacher quality which may be lower than that in public schools. In addition, since China does not recognize the legitimacy of these schools, often parents will not consider them for their children. We found that poor-performing students who had been eliminated from public schools and children of migrant workers living in cities currently make up the main student body of church-run schools.

In China, fierce performance competition begins in elementary school. Yearly rankings for elimination create tremendous stress for both students and parents. For the sake of their future, some parents will re-enroll in church-run schools their children who have been eliminated as poor performers from public schools. However, these students are typically in upper elementary or junior and senior high school. Children of transient migrant workers, who want to enroll in the local public school, are required to pay a sponsorship fee to the education bureau. In addition, these children would be rejected by city-dwelling students and become psychologically scarred. Thus, their parents prefer the unregistered, church-run schools for them.

Of course, there are also urban, Christian parents who seek better education for their children in Christian schools. Most often, these children will eventually seek overseas Christian education. Parents who prefer good Christian education will choose local schools that adopt an overseas teaching model, such as using ACE curriculum. This type of school is an elite Christian school, is expensive and not what ordinary Christian parents can afford. Today there are an increasing number of these schools found especially in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and others. Like public or private schools, they offer programs preparing their students to go overseas, mainly to the United States.

The Trend of Market Choices Education

The Origin of Policy

One of the consequences of market choices in education is that education becomes a commodity that can be purchased. This way of thinking has become a forceful, integral part of people’s lives in China. The opening of China’s education to markets has its roots in neoliberal economic reforms. After the 1980s, reforms in China opened up opportunities for foreign capital to flow into the country. David Harvey wrote: “Although still under the supervision of the Party, all of China is open to market forces and foreign capitals,”[ii] while “with the increasing power and eminence of the market, the entire economy is moving into a neoliberal structure.”[iii]

In 1993, “China’s Education Reform and Development Program” emphasized the subordinate position and role of education in serving economic development which is the main thrust in China’s education reform. While defining the role of education as serving economic development, the state began to shrink the territory of public education and encourage social forces to enter the sphere of education and develop this industry.

In June 1992, in the “Decision of the State Council on Accelerating the Development of Tertiary Industry,” education was classified as having the same status as a primary or secondary industry. It was given the definition of a “tertiary industry,” being an important component of the economy. This means that education can be the same as all other industries in accordance with the principles of market law; it can manufacture, circulate and exchange its products. Industrialization policies eventually established education as a commodity with all its basic properties.

Education as a Product and Commodity

Today, the education market in China has become the industry with the largest market potential for profit. With full liberalization over the past two decades, the industrialization of education was finally established as a commodity. This has created a market for education thus turning education into a product. Education is equivalent to a business; educational activities are embedded in capitalistic operations. Education has become a means of generating capital; it is a purchasable commodity. It is the new national “economic growth point.”

This outlook has resulted in a flood of tutoring classes—for primary, secondary and intermediate schooling—springing up across the nation in both urban and remote villages along with a large group of agents associated with study abroad programs.

According to statistics, the domestic market for training young children is more than thirty billion people with an annual growth rate of more than thirty percent. Statistics from “China’s Education and Training Industry Research Report” (2012 edition), indicated that China had more than 50,000 English training institutions. At the end of 2010, the total market value of all publicly traded educational entities in China was more than 9.2 billion U.S. dollars.

The Study Abroad Trend

The total number of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 reached 28.47 million. According to Ministry of Education data, ninety-three percent of these students were studying abroad at their own expense. Self-supported, overseas education has become the main mode of studying.

Meanwhile, the upward trend in this mode of study has been accompanied by changes in the age of students studying abroad as they become younger and younger. The “Long-term Education Reform and Development Program” (2010-2020) encouraged all types of schools, at all levels, to cooperate with and engage in international exchange programs. It pushed for improvement of teaching skills and fostering the internationalization of education. Under this policy, various entities have forged cooperation with internationally renowned schools and have created international high school curricula.  

Since government policy has allowed the development of high school abroad preparatory education by institutions, the number of students at the high school level continues to rise. According to 2013 statistics, the total number of students studying abroad exceeded 450,000. Among them, those studying for a master’s degree were about sixty-two percent while high school and undergraduate students were approximately seven and twenty-nine percent respectively. There are reports predicting that in 2014 the number of study abroad students will continue to grow rapidly at fifteen to twenty percent.[iv]

The drawing power for Chinese students to study abroad comes from the recruitment of Chinese high school students initiated by developed Western countries. The U.S. Department of Commerce pointed out that growth in the number of international students has a significant impact on the U.S. economy. International students’ tuition and living expenses contribute more than $21 billion[v] annually to the U.S. economy of which $6.5 billion is from Chinese students.[vi] Additionally, the subsequent retaining of foreign talent within the country, following their higher education, brings wealth to the host country.[vii] These governments also save money by not having to provide the basic education for these workers.

Commercialization of Christian Education

Christian schools are registered private schools in Western countries. Tuition and fees are not cheap—even for the country’s citizens. In the United States, for example, generally the annual tuition is $10,000 or more. An international student’s tuition is three times more. This together with living expenses is a great deal of money. However, this has not deterred Chinese parents and their children from their enthusiasm to study abroad.

Challenges of Chinese Christian Education

Legal Constraints

The current Christian education system does not have legal permission and protection in China; thus, students in unregistered church-run schools cannot legally obtain accreditation. Short of a breakthrough in this constraint, the scope and standards of Chinese Christian education simply cannot progress.

Immature Indigenous Education System

The rapid growth of Chinese Christian education took place in less than five years. Now, I believe, it will continue to widen its base due to the acceleration of capitalization in China. Despite the growing number of various schools and the increase in number of students, so far a mature, indigenous, Christian education system has not been developed.

Uncertain Future

The present predicament for church-run schools lies in an uncertain future for its high school graduates. The quality of their teachers and the academic performance of the graduates are not competitive with those from the best public high schools. This is evident in the college entrance exams. These schools have fallen short of their primary objective. Because of this, many leaders in the field desire to start Christian universities in China. A very bold idea, this would provide for direct transition into higher education. However, in a country where the state controls resources, such universities would be underground and illegal.

 Many parents want their high school graduates to go to a Western country to attend a Christian college. Some send their children even before they reach senior high school. The fees for this kind of schooling are not inexpensive. Sixty or seventy thousand yuan(approximately 11,200 USD) a year for tuition and fees, plus $7000-$15000 in room and board, is not affordable for low-income families. What most parents do not realize is that Christian colleges in the West have, for the most part, lost the subsidies and financial backing of their churches. Most have become high tuition, private universities. Furthermore, college enrollment still requires entrance examinations.

Currently, schools and universities in the United States and other Western countries are increasingly stepping up their annual recruitment efforts in China. Various Christian high school exchange programs have become known and accepted across China. The impetus for the recruitment effort is due mainly to China’s study abroad trend and secondly, from overseas schools’ inclination for financial gain.

This is an era of unbridled, advancing global capitalism. The rise of Chinese Christian education is facilitated by this global capitalism and, inevitably, this same force will swallow it up. Christian parents and students will face a test. Who will determine their choices, their actions and their future path? Christ or the world?


[i] In China today, parents are reacting against an exam-based education system in which, beginning as early as kindergarten, students are moved through an increasingly narrow channel that results in relatively few students being admitted to university. The rest are left with having learned how to take tests but without the practical skills that enable them to succeed in the real world. Even many who graduate from university are unable to find jobs, as university doesn’t prepare them with the skills needed in an increasingly competitive global workplace that values innovation and teamwork. Parents see this and are looking for alternatives.–Ed.

[ii] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-liberalism, Shanghai translation Publishing House, 2010. pp.143.

[iii] David Harvey cited D. Hale and L. Hale, “China Takes Off” in Foreign Affairs, 82/6 (2003, 36-53).

[iv] “Zhongguo liuxue renshu mingnian you wang chuang xin gao” 中国留学人数明年有望创新高 [The number of Chinese studying abroad is expected to reach record highs next year], People’s Daily Overseas Edition 人民日报海外版, December 16, 2013.

[v] “Zhongguo zai mei liuxuesheng renshu po 15 wan—ju ge guo liuxuesheng shouwei” 中国在美留学生人数破15万—居各国留学生首位 [Number of students in the US from China tops 150,000—the most from any country], 中国新闻网, December 2, 2011,

[vi] Xia Jia 夏嘉, “Zijin jinzhang jidai huanjie—meiguo shequ xueyuan re pan zhongguo liuxuesheng yuan” 資金緊張亟待緩解—美國社區學院熱盼中國留學生源 [US community colleges pin hopes on students from China to alleviate urgent financial problems], 中国新闻网, December 9, 2011,

[vii] Liu Keke 刘可可, “Liuxue jingji, yi ge ri jian sheng wen de xin redian” 留学经济,一个日渐升温的新热点 [The economics of overseas study—a hot issue that’s getting hotter], Higher Education & Economy 高教与经济 2001, no. 4; “ ‘Shi wan qiang jihua’ dajian mei zhong jiaoliu xin qiangliang” “十万强计划”搭建美中交流新桥梁 [The “100,000 Strong Initiative” erects a new bridge for US-China exchanges], People’s Daily 人民日报, June 21, 2011, 21.

Image Credit: Joann Pittman 

Share to Social Media

John Cheng

John Cheng, PhD, has been committed to Christian education practice and research since 2007 and works to promote Chinese Christian education.View Full Bio