Looking at the development of Chinese Christian nonprofits, as well as all Chinese nonprofits, there are two dates that stand out—the years 2008 and 2016. These two important milestones separate the recent development of nonprofits into three periods.
Sadly, historically nonprofits were not popular in Chinese society because the concept of a nonprofit was very unfamiliar in Chinese culture. In China, before 2008, many nonprofit organizations such as the Red Cross were state-owned.1 Private nonprofits were few and far between. Ordinary Chinese thought that nonprofits did things that the government should do. The general attitude toward nonprofits in Chinese society, including the Christian mindset, was one of indifference.
From 2008 to 2016
There is a general consensus that the Chinese nonprofit sector took off after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Shocked by the magnitude of the devastation, thousands of Chinese Christians around the country rapidly mobilized and rushed to the center of the earthquake zone to assist. This massive response was unprecedented and was the beginning of many Chinese Christian nonprofits.
Facing this massive natural disaster and the start of the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government needed help and resources. Mobilizing the entire nation to handle this huge social crisis was the only solution. For the first time in Chinese history, the government accepted help from all social sectors. This change in approach was the big push that not only promoted the significance of nonprofits but set Chinese nonprofits onto a fast development track.
In addition, challenging social problems, the result of thirty years of rapid economic growth, began to emerge. Acknowledging the power and impact of nonprofits during the 2008 earthquake reconstruction, the government gradually adopted a positive posture to encourage the development of private nonprofits. A big wave of nonprofit registrations, including Christian nonprofits, arrived!
Then, from 2008 to 2016, the nonprofit sector experienced a short “honeymoon” with the government.
From 2016 until the Present
The winds started to shift in 2014 with the government’s increasing control of ideology and increasing suspicions regarding the motivations and intentions of nonprofits. Christian nonprofits and foreign nonprofit organizations with operations in China were particularly suspect. In 2016, two very important laws affecting the nonprofit sector were promulgated: the Charity Law2 and the Overseas NGO Law.3 The Charity Law was designed to control domestic nonprofits while the Overseas NGO Law was designed to control foreign nonprofits.4 The primary concern about overseas nonprofit organizations was the suspicion that foreign ideology would invade China through these programs and foreign funding of Chinese nonprofits.
The Charity Law combined with the Overseas NGO Law put numerous Chinese Christian nonprofits in danger since many were funded directly by foreign churches or supported by overseas funding.5 The Overseas NGO Law allowed the Chinese government to apply strict controls on foreign nonprofits and cut their financial ties with local nonprofits. Many foreign nonprofits subsequently decided to close heir operations, some of which had existed in China for a long time.6
Another serious impact to Christian nonprofits was that the Charity Law prohibited sharing information about religion. Any nonprofit in violation could be ordered to shut down. Consequently, Christian nonprofits sought answers to the question: Without mentioning the gospel, could a Christian nonprofit continue its ministry? This discussion continues among Christian nonprofits and churches today. Churches insist that a Christian nonprofit must present the gospel as a clear, evangelical message; most Christian nonprofits question whether explicitly presenting the gospel is the only way to witness for God in their work and service.
Since the 2016 implementation of these two laws, the government has also tightened the registration requirements of new nonprofits, and the growth in the number of new Christian nonprofits has slowed considerably.
How Chinese Christians React to Nonprofits
Historically, the relationship between nonprofits and the majority of Chinese Christians has resembled parallel lines that do not intersect. Recently however, this pattern has changed, driven by internal and external forces.
Traditionally, most Chinese Christians have a deep theological conviction that a real Christian must engage in evangelistic activities. The definition of evangelism among the majority of Chinese churches is to vocally speak the name of Jesus in front of nonbelievers and bring them to church to baptize them. These three “indicators” have always been given the highest priority in our faith. It is normal for our pastors to check on how many people we shared the gospel with and brought to church. However, pastors seldom encourage or organize their congregations to serve their community or help people in need. Most pastors think helping others is good but cannot be counted as evangelism. A senior church elder, who is also one of my mentors, told me that helping the community does not make you a good Christian and is not part of evangelism.
The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was a resounding bell that awakened many Chinese Christians to consider whether our faith could be proclaimed by helping others and how we could glorify God in the presence of people in need.
Another remarkable movement in the Chinese Christian world that occurred during the years 2008 to 2016 must be mentioned since it slowly changed the theological views of many Chinese Christians. During those years, God mobilized a huge missions movement in China. Courses such as “Perspectives”7 and “Kairos”8 were introduced in China. I was in the first “Perspectives” training cohort in 2012 in Shanghai. From those efforts, many Chinese Christians’ theological ideas were transformed. One result was that more Christians realized the need to look at our faith more holistically and to serve the community and society as salt and light. I am not sure if it was merely a coincidence that the registration of Christian nonprofits in that period hit a record high. I do think transformed theology certainly helped many Chinese Christians open their minds and realize that serving the community is also a mission to fulfill.
When the revised Regulations of Religion Activities arrived in 2017, governmental suppression affected many Chinese house churches. The regulations required that all churches must register, or public gatherings would not be allowed. Pastors of any churches that violated this regulation would bear legal responsibility. Since many pastors worried about losing their freedom to preach if the government took over the church, lots of house churches decided to stop church activities and break congregations into home groups or move around renting places for Sunday services.
Surprisingly, despite the suppression of the Regulation of Religion Activities in 2017, more and more house church pastors expressed their willingness to find opportunities to serve the community or help people in need such as disabled children, orphans, and so on. We received many requests for information about how to register a nonprofit. Personally, I think the ongoing transformation of theological viewpoints was the key factor rather than the suppression caused by the revised regulations.
Looking back at how nonprofits developed among Chinese Christians, we see it reflects the way Chinese Christian theological perspectives have developed over time, and the breakthroughs in the holistic understanding and significance of being a Christian.
Continuous Transformation: Even though lots of Chinese Christians now see the value of nonprofits, there are still many Chinese Christians who argue that doing good things (what nonprofits do) and sharing the gospel with nonbelievers are totally different activities. Therefore, the need to address theological views in order to transform perspectives on what it means to live as a Christian still exists so that we can agree that what nonprofits are doing is a way to witness and glorify our God.
Capacity Building: With the increasing requirements for professionalism, nonprofits must focus on how to improve their skills in order to operate with more wisdom and achieve high effectiveness. Christian nonprofits need to pursue excellence not only because of higher standards of transparency, credibility, and professionalism, and in order to seek needed wisdom to be able to survive amid governmental suspicion, but also because service quality from Christian nonprofits glorifies God in the presence of their targeted service groups. From surveys we conducted among Chinese Christian nonprofits in 2016, 2017, and 2020, the number one challenge was the lack of skills to operate their ministries. Therefore, if nonprofits are to play a critical role in helping Chinese Christians live out their faith and honor God, capacity building is an extremely important step to improve ministry effectiveness.
As Christians, we are living in a spiritual battle to restore the peace and glory created by our Lord. Every Christian is a soldier on the field. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). “To visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27) is the calling from the Lord—not a choice. We hope more and more Chinese Christians will fulfill this calling to be salt and light, to light up the darkness, and to heal the brokenness in our society.
- China has a category of non-profits known as GONGOs (government organized non-governmental organizations). The Red Cross is one example of this type of Chinese NGO.
- For an English translation of the Charity Law (and a reference to the Chinese original), see Twelfth National People’s Congress, “2016 Charity Law,” China Law Translate, March 16, 2016. Accessed October 10, 2022. https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/2016-charity-law/. The United Nations Development Programme office in China has also produced Chinese and English handbooks of the Charity Law. See “Handbook of Charity Law of the People’s Republic of China.” UNDP, August 27, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2022. https://www.undp.org/china/publications/handbook-charity-law-people%E2%80%99s-republic-china.
- Formally “The Law on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in Mainland China.” See “English Translation of China’s New Law on Overseas NGOs,” China Development Brief, March 5, 2016. Accessed October 10, 2022. https://chinadevelopmentbrief.org/reports/the-peoples-republic-of-chinas-law-on-the-management-of-the-activities-of-overseas-ngos-within-mainland-china/.
- The government department overseeing the Charity Law is the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The government department overseeing the Overseas NGO Law is the Ministry of Public Security. In the original drafts of the Overseas NGO Law, the governing authority was changed from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Ministry of Public Security reflecting concerns about the activities of overseas NGOs.
- Overseas funding is specifically addressed in the Overseas NGO Law such as:
● Article 5: “Furthermore overseas NGOs that conduct activities in mainland China must not engage in or fund for-profit activities or political activities. They must also not illegally conduct or fund religious activities.”
● Article 32: “Units or individuals in China shall not be hired by, accept financial support from, or represent or covertly represent overseas NGOs that have not legally registered a representative office or filed temporary activities within China.”
● Article 46: “An overseas NGO without a registered representative office or without a filing of its temporary activity commissions or funds units and individuals within China to carry out activities within China”
- Estimates of overseas NGOs active in China prior to the enactment of the Overseas NGO Law range as high as more than 7,000. (See “The Foreign NGO Law and Its Implementation—Legal Path for Foreign NGOs in China.” Dentons, March 4, 2021. Accessed October 10, 2022. https://www.dentons.com/en/insights/articles/2021/march/4/the-foreign-ngo-law-and-its-implementation.) In the first four years after the enactment of the Overseas NGO Law, the number of registered organizations dropped to 576 with almost half of these being trade or business associations.
- “Mobilizing God’s People for God’s Global Purpose.” Perspectives, Accessed October 10, 2022. https://www.perspectives.org/.
- “Kairos Course.” Simply Mobilizing USA. Accessed November 11, 2022. https://simplymobilizing.us/kairos-course/ and “Kairos Course.” Mairangi Bay Community Church. Accessed November 11, 2022. https://www.mairangichurch.org/copy-of-alpha-course.
Caleb Ai (pseudonym) is the leader of a Chinese nonprofit that empowers Chinese Christian nonprofits by providing capacity building programs and motivates and propels Chinese Christians to practice their faith by participating in solving social problems via nonprofits. Caleb earned his bachelor’s degree in China and master’s degree in the …View Full Bio