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Chinese Leadership in the 21st Century

A New Paradigm

China’s record-breaking economic growth has been touted as a miracle. We are now bombarded with daily Chinese economic news. When the Shanghai stock market sneezed in early 2007, the world markets caught a fever! China’s economic phenomenon is seen by many as something new under the sun. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Until the 14th century, China was a world leader in almost every aspect of science, culture and civilization. According to Angus Maddison in World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, from the time of Christ until 1870, China’s economy was consistently the largest in the world. In 1820, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) was 33 percent of the world’s GDP. In comparison, the US GDP in 2004 was 28 percent. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Chinese writing, at least until relatively recently, was more widely in use than alphabetic writing systems, and until the 18th century more than half of the world’s books had been written in Chinese, including works of speculative thought, historical writings of a kind, and novels, along with writings on government and law.[1]

The 5,000-Year Race

If we think of the last 5,000 years as a 5,000 meter race, then we will see that China was in the leading pack for the first 4,800 meters! It was only in the last half-lap, or 200 years, that the nation stumbled and fell behind the rest of the world. What is miraculous is that China has raced back into the forefront in a mere 25 years! Since God is the author and finisher of the human race, what designs may there be in this sudden revival? God may be using the emerging Chinese leadership to bring about a major paradigm shift.

Faith is Personal, but Never Private

The generally held belief that faith is personal and private is probably one of the greatest lies of our generation. The emphasis on personal freedom has eccentrically emphasized the extreme rights of individuals. Now, it is perfectly alright for anyone to believe in anything as long as he or she does not bring it to the public square. However, though faith is a personal decision, it is never meant to be private. Great spiritual leaders of the past have always brought their faith to the public forum or they would never have attained any significance.

Mr. and Mrs. B are entrepreneurs in northeast China. They attended an entrepreneurs’ conference in December 2003. By then, their marriage was on the rocks like most marriages of successful Chinese. However, out of respect for his former classmate who is a Christian, Mr. B agreed to attend this conference. On the opening night, all 50 participants were asked to introduce themselves and to state their expectations for the weekend. Mr. B stood up and said his goal was to become a believer during that weekend. The following day he, his wife and their teenage son accepted Christ. On that Sunday, they were all baptized in the South China Sea.

When they returned home, they called the senior management of their company to a meeting, telling them, “We have good news to tell you.” They shared their new found faith with twenty of their management personnel that afternoon. A mature Christian friend was on hand to explain the gospel to these twenty. Twelve of them accepted Christ.

All across China, Chinese spiritual leaders are publicly proclaiming their faith. They cannot contain their new found joy. They cannot imagine that this is a private matter that should be hidden from public view.

Faith is a Communal, not an Individual Experience

Another expression of individualism is the unhealthy emphasis on the personal enjoyment of our relationship with God—”Jesus is All the World to Me.” Most modern believers go to worship as a congregation of individuals. There is the necessary small talk and greetings; some exchanges of superficial information take place. However, lives are not dynamically related to one another as a cohesive community.

The genius of China’s explosive church growth over the last three decades (from 700,000 Protestant believers to more than 70 milliona growth rate of 100 times!) is accompanied by a return to biblical communal faith. Restrictions have forced most believers to meet in house groups. As entrepreneurs take center stage, a new growth pattern has emerged: factory or company churches.

Mr. L became a Christian in 2000 when his girlfriend told him that she would marry only a believer. They were married, but he lived as a wishy-washy believer for four years. However, his business was failing. As he came before God to repent and to fully accept him, he realized he had to bring the good news to his staff. Over the last three years, he has established a faith community within his company. They start every workday with corporate worship. When they are challenged with difficulties, they pray together. More than half of his staff of 160 has become believers. Factories, restaurants and other communities like this are springing up all across China.

After I shared about this phenomenon with a group of executives in Helsinki in 2004, a local businessman approached me saying, “You are repeating the mistake of Christian Europe by teaching these Chinese CEOs to impose their faith on their employees.” My response to this charge was to tell him that during a lunch meeting with Mr. L and some of his employees, I heard them telling me about the transformations they had seen in one another. Though the potential of another “Rice Christian Syndrome” is real, the majority of these communities are experiencing genuine faith. It is very difficult to fake genuine Christian faith day in and day out with one’s coworkers. Moreover, these Chinese CEOs are not making it a requirement for their employees to believe. They are only making it possible for them as they are part of a community.

Faith is Practical, Not Dichotomized

In the modern world, we like to pigeonhole our life so that we can manage it better. So, part of every Sunday, and a certain part of our finances, are set aside for God. The rest belongs to other aspects of our lives. We have a time for family, and a lot of time for work to make more money, so that we can have more time for other areas of our lives.

Chinese leaders are practical and pragmatic. Many come to faith at their wits’ end. They come to faith in Christ expecting to be different from their old selves. They want their newfound faith to transform all aspects of their lives. The classical Chinese norm is for one to “transform self, manage family, govern the State and bring peace to the world.” Chinese businessmen are using this template for their new lives in Christ. The results are stunning transformations in many aspects of Chinese society.

About a year and a half after Mr. B accepted Christ, he and I were walking along the beach together. Suddenly he looked up at me and said, “I just called my sales manager this morning.” I responded, “What did you tell him?” He replied, “I told him that we shall no longer offer female companions for our customers.” I was both shocked and happy. Another year passed, and he told us that his company had decided not to evade taxes and offer bribes. As a result of this practice, he lost a third of his business within the first year. That translates to US$8 million in sales!

A French diplomat accepted Christ while in Beijing. At her send-off party, she told the audience why she had made that decision. She said that while growing up in France, she experienced religion in a very rigid form. As a result, she lived a dichotomized life with devastating results. Then she came to China and found that her Chinese Christian friends lived a dynamic life of faith. She was initially amused that her Chinese friends would pray at any place and for anything. On one occasion, her friend’s car would not start and her friend bowed over the steering wheel and asked God to start the car. She was intrigued and very impressed. As a result of this dynamic faith, she decided to keep her out-of-wedlock child and is now part of a vibrant home fellowship in France.

Faith is Risky but Rewarding

Most sermons are lopsided. Either we hear that we must suffer for Christ or that Christ would make us very successful if we are close to him. Chinese believers know that sacrifice and suffering are inherent in following Christ. After all, he has made it clear that those who follow him must take up their cross. Yet, they truly look forward to the joy and reward that await them.

Dr. Z is a 40-year old prominent Chinese economist. He came to faith in Christ in 2002 when he was sent to the US for three months to compare the economies of the two countries. His task was to discover the differences between the two and then to make any necessary economic recommendations to his government. He found few economic differences and obvious social and political differences. However, the most influential difference was in the area of morality. He discovered that American capitalism is anchored by a faith while Chinese capitalism is now unbridled. As a result, he wrote a report entitled “The Market-Economy with the Church Versus the Market-Economy without the Church.”

Dr. Z started to attend church, discuss with believers and read the Bible. When he found the incredible fulfillment of biblical predictions while fully aware of economists’ inability to predict even the near future, he surrendered his life to Christ.

In January 2007, he was invited to speak at the UBS Leadership Centre in Wolfsburg, Switzerland. More than 40 Swiss bankers and executives came to listen to his presentation on “China: Economic Changes and More.” He asked and answered two questions. The first question was, “Will the Chinese economy continue to grow at the present blistering rate or will it suddenly implode?” He answered this question convincingly with many statistics and insightful analyses. The second question was, “Will a wealthy and powerful China be a blessing or a curse to the rest of the world?” Before he answered the second question, he announced to them that there is a development in China greater than its economic development. At this pronouncement, everyone in the audience sat up straight, their folded arms fell to their sides, their legs uncrossed and their eyes became fixed on the speaker. He then explained to them that while China has grown economically an incredible ten times over in the last three decades, its Christian population has grown a miraculous 100 times over! He proceeded to tell them that he is one of these millions.

During the question and answer session which followed, a lady asked, “Aren’t you risking your life, at least your career by becoming a Christian?” At that, Dr. Z brilliantly told them, “I see we are all economists here. As economists, we do not look at risks alone. We weigh risks against rewards. In this instance, I have determined that the rewards for being a believer far outweigh the risks!”

The Future of Leadership

China’s leadership in the 21st century seems inevitable. There are signs that this new leadership will be a breath of fresh air that will renew the spiritual climate of the world. The paradigm is shifting, and Chinese leaders are ready to hold a dialogue on a par with the rest of the world. The results will be good.

Image credit: DSC_0142 by Tscherno, on Flickr


  1. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “Writing; Chinese Writing.”
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Chan-Kei Thong

Chan-Kei Thong is the author of Faith of Our Fathers and president of Leadership Development International (LDI). He is a Singaporean who has been residing in China for more than 20 years.View Full Bio