Supporting Article

Chinese Students in the West and China’s Future

Ever since China reopened its door under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, a great number of Mainland Chinese have come to the West for academic degrees, training, and research. Many of them have returned to China, and yet more have stayed in the West. Such Chinese studying overseas may be a small group compared to the 1.3 billion people in China, but they are destined by cultural, historical, and contemporary factors to play a disproportionately large role in China’s future. Their influence should not be measured by their academic and professional expertise alone, but also by how they interpret their experiences, especially the new values they encounter in the West, including the Christian message and its outlook on life. As for the church here in the West, how we reach out to these Chinese will also have significant ramifications.

A Cultural Perspective

Confucian values constitute the greatest influence on the mainstream of traditional Chinese culture, and this is especially true in the governing of the state. Confucius put great emphasis on learning even to the point of showing contempt for the unschooled; hence, his saying, “all undertakings are base, learning alone is dignified.” (Wan Ban Jie Xia Pin, Wei You Du Shu Gao.)

Ironically, but consequently, Chinese people as a whole, have aspired to be scholars and have shown great respect for them throughout the ages—with the exception of the Cultural Revolution period under Mao. Chinese rulers have relied on learned scholars in governing the state and included them in their ruling elite, which has, in turn, enhanced the rulers’ credibility in the eyes of the Chinese populace.

The educated and intellectuals have seen themselves as responsible for the well-being of the country, which, in today’s terms, also includes defending China’s interests in international affairs. So, the educated will continue their leadership role in China. Those returning from the West with higher degrees will have obvious advantages over their colleagues who did not get further training in the West.

A Historical Perspective

China is a nation that takes pride in its rich heritage, as most other nations do. But its pride is mostly built on its ancient past—its long history, philosophy, literature, inventions, and so on. In contrast, China’s modern history has been a painful period of humiliation ever since British gunboats literally blew open its door in 1840 and brought China to its knees. That wounded pride has since driven the Chinese nation in its quest to restore its position and glory among the nations.

The Chinese have concluded that they were defeated primarily because of their outdated ideas and technology. So, one of their key strategies has been to send their brightest young people overseas for study so that they can bring home new ideas and the latest technology to build China into a strong nation again.

Many Chinese have gone overseas in waves. Among them were those who later became key government leaders in China: Deng Xiaoping and Zhou EnLai (to France), Li Peng (to Russia), and Zhu De (to Germany) who later became a top Chinese general. They embraced communism—a very popular idea in Europe back then—and with it came the Chinese Communist Party, which has turned China into a radically different country.

When Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 70s at the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, he reopened China’s door to the West by seeking economic reform and sending its students to study overseas again. Thus, hundreds of thousands of students left China in a new wave, and currently there are about 30,000 of them studying or doing research in America alone.

Current Update

Statistics show a steady increase in the number of Chinese students returning to China after their study in the West. With the growth of China’s economy, more mainland Chinese in the West are attracted by the economic opportunities in their home country. At the same time, the Chinese government is trying to upgrade its economy by putting more emphasis on technology rather than cheap labor. That emphasis has stimulated the recruiting of well-educated Chinese graduates or professionals to return to China by offering attractive incentives and preferential treatment.

Chinese who have chosen to stay in the West, tend to work in areas having to do with China (China studies, China ministries, imports and exports, investment, academic and cultural exchanges, and so on.), and in that way their influence is still felt in China.

Returnees are playing an increasingly important role in China’s society today in all walks of life—in Chinese and foreign-owned companies, in profit-making and in nonprofit sectors, in private ventures and in government think tanks. With Western educated Chinese as advisors and researchers, the Chinese government today is becoming much more sophisticated in handling international issues and dealing with foreign governments.

Chinese Students and the Gospel

Today, Chinese students are still very open to the gospel. However, their interest in the gospel peaked in the early 90s following their disillusionment after the bloody end of the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

What is it about Christianity that appeals to the educated Chinese today? It is the observable, practical aspects of Christian life: a caring Christian community, strong Christian families, hospitality, sincerity and Christian character, meaning and joy in Christians’ lives.

What about Christianity turns them off? One factor is its close identification with the West, which is increasingly perceived as aggressive and greedy. Another relates to the God of the Old Testament who is often viewed as angry, cruel and unreasonable. Still another is the perceived conflict between science and Christianity. The way many Christians present the gospel can be seen as “narrowly” focusing on one’s “personal” salvation in the afterlife. This makes the Gospel appear irrelevant to our world and life today, focusing on self-interest with nothing to offer the greater society, China, or mankind as a whole. Also offensive is the evangelical’s exclusive claim of revelation and the view that those without Christ will be tormented in hell for eternity. To these claims the Chinese would typically respond: How about my deceased grandparents? How about people in remote areas who never hear the gospel?

In light of these challenges, Christians in the West first need to figure out the essence of their Christian faith. They need to be more sensitive in their approach and more willing to contextualize the Christian message. They must make a conscious effort to present the Christian worldview as well as to see people saved, and they must be more honest in acknowledging and addressing relevant questions squarely and sincerely.

With China’s growing might and changing geopolitical situations, China has become increasingly assertive in world affairs, running into tensions with Western countries and with the US in particular. One of the issues many Chinese believers face is their double identity—they are both Chinese and Christian. With nationalistic feeling running high among the Chinese in general, what does it mean to be a Chinese Christian? And what does it mean to be a Christian Chinese? How should a Christian properly love his or her country? Should Christians defend their own national interests? How are national interests defined? These are among the real questions that need to be addressed openly and directly.

It is encouraging that many Chinese students have received Christ here in the West and some have returned to China; it can also be discouraging when discipling these new Christians is hard and imparting to them a vision for China is even harder. A good percentage of new believers do not stay in the church for long. Those who choose to stay in America after completing their degrees soon find themselves facing all the demands and expectations of a typical middle class American family—success, raising children, and paying mortgages, car loans and credit card bills.

Churches in the West are not positioned to give these new Chinese Christians a burden for China. In fact, many churches themselves do not have a burden for missions in general. If a church encourages them to return to China, it runs the risk of being misunderstood as saying Mainland Chinese are not welcome in America. The majority of churches seem to be content having these mainland Chinese believers added to their congregations. In fact, many churches have encouraged the Chinese students to find jobs locally and stay in their churches. Churches in the West, perceived as materialistic and with shallow commitments to their faith, have not been good role models for these Chinese believers.

It seems that the best settings for challenging Chinese believers are special conferences and retreats that are normally done by para-church organizations that have a vision and burden for China. To help them catch a vision for China, it takes more than sermons, discipleship materials, Bible study groups or other programs. It requires the touch of God. It needs to come from inspiring role models of men and women who are living a dedicated life serving the Chinese people.


Only God knows what would have happened if the church in Europe had reached out to Chinese students like Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De. Would they have returned to China with something totally different than communism? It seems that in his providence, God has given the church today another chance to impact China for the sake of the gospel. China’s future leaders are right here on our campuses. Will the church miss this opportunity again?

Image credit: fall 2013 hackNY student hackathon by via Flickr.
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Daniel Su

Rev. Daniel B. Su works with international students and is assistant to the president of China Outreach Ministries in Fairfax, VAView Full Bio