Supporting Article

Chinese Christianity and Global Mission


We have witnessed the emergence of China, the focus of today's global attention, which has almost doubled its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since 1997 with a sustained growth of more than seven percent per year. In contrast, the rest of the world grew by much less than half this rate.

China's trade surplus with the U.S. has increased about four times since 1997 to the current figure of USD 200 billion. China received the largest amount of Foreign Direct Investment (USD 68 billion) in 2005. Such aggregation of wealth has translated into rapid development as can easily be felt from the increased price in the international market of raw materials such as steel, oil and aluminum as China imports huge quantities to feed its development boom.

The presence of China's economic influence can easily be noticed on shelves of supermarkets and retail stores in the U.S. and other nations as increasing amounts of "Made in China" goods are available, from clothing to housewares and from toys to electronic goods. Now China outpaces Japan as the second largest producer of electronic goods in the world, after the U.S. China is also the world's largest producer of clothing, luggage, shoes, television sets, watches, mobile phones and disposable lighters. Its coastal provinces have literally become the "Factory of the World" manufacturing commodities for a global market.

Chinese students are becoming a significant block of foreign students in major international universities as they constitute half of all foreign students in Japanese universities and the largest single block of foreign students in universities in the U.K., Australia and Canada. They make up the second largest group of foreign students on U.S. campuses. At the same time, foreign students going to China are on the increase with countries sending their scholars to China mainly for language studies. The largest group is Korean with 35,000 students in China followed by Japan with 13,000 students. Even small countries send significant numbers of students to China: Vietnam with 2,300, Thailand with 1,800, Nepal with 1,300 and Mongolia with 1,000. Indonesia, which until recently banned the Chinese language, sent 2,900 students.[1] The increase of Chinese language students from other countries reflects the growing importance of the Chinese languagehence Chinain global activities of the future.

Since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, the international political scene has changed from bipolarity to multipolarity with China being the emerging power challenging the leadership of the former superpowers. Now, China practically sets the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agenda by being the largest trading partner with ASEAN nations. China initiated the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO or better known as the Shanghai Summit) in June 2001[2] which gradually created a special trading zone headed by China with Russia and four other Central Asian Republics bordering China. China, being a permanent member of the Security Council in the United Nations (UN), has effectively influenced the UN decision of using more political rather than military means in international affairs. China has also sent peacekeeping forces to many countries, such as Haiti, under the flag of the UN.[3]

As one reflects on contemporary world history, one notices that the British dominated world events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, followed by U.S. in the twentieth century. Currently, China is reasserting herself as a significant member of the international community, be it as a new ambitious empire as feared by some observers[4] or as a peaceful power as suggested by China's leadership.[5] Is it not reasonable to speculate that China may follow in the footsteps of Britain and the U.S. in this new century—a century of the dragon?

Chinese Christianity: Missionary Exporter of Tomorrow?

With the enthusiasm of China's global ambition and the rapid growth of the Chinese Christian communityone of the fastest growing churches in modern times with unofficial figures ranging from 35 million to 80 millionone may easily speculate on a merging of these two elements into a new missiological movement. This phenomenon is similar to the religious awakening in the nineteenth century which, coupled with the global market expansion of the Western nations, resulted in the largest mission movement in history undertaken by Christians in the Western countries during the period of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. This article attempts to highlight three emerging issues of Chinese Christianity which may have a bearing on contemporary global mission: the diasporic Chinese community, Chinese Christian merchantsthe Wenzhou Christians, and the Back to Jerusalem Movement (BTJ).

  1. Diasporic Chinese Communities. Chinese populations outside of Mainland China are increasingly making their presence felt as the total number of Chinese in diaspora increased from 22 million in 1985 to 33 million by the end of the last centuryand the number is on the rise. The majority of these new overseas Chinese are from Mainland China as China opened its doors for Chinese citizens to emigrate in the early 1980s. These new Chinese migrants now live in virtually every country of the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe (even in the People's Democratic Republic of Korea as Chinese have substantial commercial activities in that country that is often off-limits to other nationalities). Many work as merchants or operate restaurants while others open factories or run farms. There are also large numbers of irregular Chinese migrants, but their actual strength is not possible to ascertain.

    The Christian communities of Chinese in diaspora outside the Greater China Circle (such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao) are on the increase, paralleling the growth of their counterparts in Mainland China. Traditionally, there are Chinese Christian communities in areas where there are large populations of Chinese such as the U.S., Australia, Canada, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. As more Mainland Chinese settle overseas, they are often targets of various mission agencies. The conversion rate among overseas Mainland Chinese is very high as increasing numbers of Chinese congregations, mainly for Mainland Chinese, are established in the above mentioned nations. Recently, there are also records of sustainable Chinese Christian communities in other countries, many without any prior record of a Chinese church, such as Mongolia, most nations of the former Soviet Republic, most Eastern European countries, many Polynesian nations, all European Union nations, many Middle East countries, half of all South American countries and a dozen African countries. In countries such as Italy, the Chinese Christian churches number in the dozens, and they have formed their own national association of Chinese churches.

    Chinese language seminaries/Bible schools have been established in the U.K., the U.S., Panama, Australia, Canada, Korea, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and South Africa to serve the growing demand of these Chinese churches in diaspora. We have already seen examples of the more established Chinese churches in diaspora, such as the Chinese Malaysian (or Chinese-Indonesian or Chinese-Filipino) churches, rendering strong support to the local or national churches. Will the continued development of Chinese churches in diasporic communities become a blessing to their respective host societies as they expand beyond their ethnic and linguistic boundaries?

  2. Wenzhou Christian Merchants. Wenzhou is a municipality within the Zhejiang Province with a population of about seven million. The Wenzhounese speak a unique dialect that few outside this region can comprehend. They are entrepreneurs by tradition and led the economic reform policy of China by establishing the first batch of private enterprises in China in the late 1970s. They have, perhaps, the highest per capita income in China and surely the highest percentage of merchants in their population. More than ninety-five percent of Wenzhou's GDP is from the private sector whereas the national average is merely around fifty to sixty percent. Further, Wenzhounese take their age-old tradition as itinerant merchants wherever there are business opportunities, and they are currently setting up businesses in at least one hundred countries. They form the largest regional group of Chinese migrants in Europe. They are called the "Chinese Jews"! Above all, they have the highest percentage of Christians among all municipalities in China with official estimates ranging from 700,000 to one million (ten percent to fifteen percent of the population) and unofficial claims of at least 1.5 million (twenty percent). Visitors to this region can find churches literally in every village.

    At any given time, there are at least 1.5 million Wenzhounese living as internal migrants in China and half a million as migrants overseas doing business. They can be found in major cities or remote towns, from the rich Chinese coastal provinces such as Jiangsu to harsh plateaus like Tibet. They set up shops from Morocco[6] to Montenegro.[7] Many of them are Christians, and they often establish Christian gatherings among themselves in new places where previously there was not any Christian presence. For example, Wenzhou Christians formed, perhaps, the first government-sanctioned Christian meeting point in Lhasa, Tibet. Today, about a thousand gather each Sunday. They often share the gospel with the local inhabitants where no missionary has ever been before. Many Wenzhounese merge their businesses with their missiological zeal, sharing the gospel in places where they have business ventures, especially in newly developed markets in remote places.[8] They are also the founders of many new Chinese congregations in Europe such as one in Bucharest, Romania.

    With the increase of global Wenzhou merchant-migrants, numbering about half a million with at least fifteen percent who are Christians, there are perhaps 75,000 Wenzhou Christian merchant-cum-missionaries currently carrying the good news of cheap Chinese products as well as the Good News of Christianity to all corners of the world. This includes those countries which forbid any missionary activity or missionaries to enter, or are inconvenient for missionaries from the West to operate from. These Wenzhou Christians, unlike their Western brethren, are free to travel to these hard-to-access areas. Will they, through their global commercial activities and their strong evangelical zeal, be a natural army of missionaries to evangelize in places hard to access by conventional mission channels?

  3. Back To Jerusalem Movement. In the late 1940s, there was a movement among Chinese Christians to initiate evangelistic campaigns in remote regions of China, mainly the northwest and southwest regions. A few of them attempted to spread the Christian faith from the northwestern part of China (Xinjiang) through Central Asia to Jerusalem. One of these small bands was called "Spreading the Gospel All Over the PlacePinzhuan Fuyin Tuan" and was translated into English as "The Back to Jerusalem Band" by an English missionary. The farthest they traveled was Kashgar, and none was able to travel beyond the borders of China.[9]

    Such a legacy, or serendipity, gave rise to the name "Back to Jerusalem" (BTJ) movement, and was later claimed by some Chinese church leaders who felt the calling to continue this venture which is currently popularized by hymns, books, websites and discussions in mission conferences.[10] The current BTJ movement calls for the mobilization of 100,000 Chinese missionaries to launch into Islamic-dominated Central Asia and the Middle East regions eventually spreading the gospel to Jerusalem to be ready for the second coming of Christa proactive millenarianism. This project regards this mission by the Chinese as the last baton of global mission movements when the gospel traveled from the West to East through Western missionaries and should now be carried back by Chinese missionaries to where it had originated in order to complete the mission mandate of preaching the gospel to the whole world.

    This movement has several arguments favoring Chinese missionaries as the carriers of the supposed last baton of global mission. First, China has no major political enemy. China can do business with both Cuba and the U.S.A., with Iraq and Iran, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, Libya and the U.K., North Korea and South Korea. Being from a politically nonthreatening country, Chinese can enter places where Westerners have difficulty gaining access, especially Islamic dominated countries. Second, Christians in China have experience in clandestine forms of religious activities suitable to mission work in countries where mission activity is prohibited. Third, Christians in China practice a simple form of Christianitythe house church. Such an ecclesial form is simple to operate and flexible to establish. Fourth, there is virtually an endless supply of missionaries drawn from the vast pool of several tens of millions of Chinese believers. Fifth, the frugal living style of Chinese as compared to Western missionaries' living standard is cost effective. Sixth, Chinese Christians know and accept suffering as part of the Christian reality, and they are ready to be martyred for Christ without hesitation.

Conclusion

China is undoubtedly emerging as a major economic and political power within the international community. The centrality of Christianity is moving away from the traditional European and North American bases into Latin America, Africa and Asia. The emergence of the Chinese Christian community, be it in Mainland China or overseas, is but part of this general trend of the development of global Christendom. This article is intended to bring attention to such a trend along with eliciting from Chinese Christians some possible contributions on global mission vis--vis the changing dynamics of the global order and global Christendom. Critical studies with quality field datanot just enthusiastic mission visions or self-centered researchare needed to discern the divine plan of the Great Commission. Perhaps now may be the time for Christians in China, together with other non-Western Christians, to be the main authors in writing the next chapter of world Christendom.

Notes

  1. ^ Figures on Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are from China's 2003 Annual on Education. See www.moe.gov.cn/edoas/website18 /info8021.htm; for other figures, see David Murphy, "Softening at the Edge," in FEER, November 4, 2004, p. 34.
  2. ^ "Shanghai Summit FMs Meet in Beijing to Tackle Terrorism," China Daily, January 7, 2002.
  3. ^ "Chinese Police on Haiti UN Duty," BBC News, October 18, 2004. At http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/3751814.stm
  4. ^ See Ross Terrill's The New Chinese Empire, (New York, Basic Books) 2003.
  5. ^ Jiang Xiyuan and Xia Liping, Peaceful Rise of China (Beijing, CASS) 2004.
  6. ^ See "Attention, les Chinois debarquent!" in Aujourd'hui Le Maroc, 15 September 2004.
  7. ^ This writer traveled to Kotor, a small medieval town in Montenegro in August, 2004 and saw a Wenzhounese who operated a shop in the local market!
  8. ^ See Kim-kwong Chan, Tetsunio Yamamori: Holistic Entrepreneurship in China (Pasadena, California: William Carey International University Press), 2002, Chapter 6, pp. 65-72.
  9. ^ Personal interview with Grace Ho (He Enzhen) in Kashgar, August, 2002. Ms. Ho and her husband, Mecca Zhao, felt the call to travel westward with no particular destination in mind. During that interview, Ms. Ho suggested that in 1949-1950, they had planned to travel to Afghanistan but did not do so. Personal interviews with another Band member, Revd Huang Ziqing in August 2002, August 2003 and April 2004.
  10. ^ See www.backtojerusalem.com, or Paul Hattaway's Back to Jerusalem: Called to Complete the Great Commission (Carlisle: Piquant, 2003).

Kim-kwong Chan

The Rev. Kim-kwong Chan, PhD, DTh, is the Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council. View Full Bio