At a recent gathering of more than 100 China ministry professionals, I was struck by how many of the attendees operated with the assumption that the era of expatriates living and ministering within China’s borders was over. Only a handful of those in attendance had any plans to live and work in China while most of the conference focused on ministering from a distance. While there is real value to serving the Chinese church remotely, is it the case that expatriate Christians can no longer live and minister within China?
Where Are We Now?
There is no denying that nearly all aspects of expatriate ministry within China have become significantly more difficult since Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012.
First, a series of new and revised regulations have effectively shrunk the space for acceptable foreign activity within China.
- A new law in January 2017 governing, and dramatically constraining, the operation of overseas NGOs within China.1
- A February 2018 revision and tightening—especially with respect to overseas religious organizations and activities—of China’s regulations on religious affairs.2
- Beginning in late January 2020, the myriad of restrictions on public gatherings and travel associated with maintaining the zero-COVID policy within China.3
- The July 2021 Double Reduction Policy that effectively closed private tutoring services across the nation.4
- The March 2022 Internet Religious Information regulations, intended to eliminate unwanted online religious activity.5
This evolving regulatory environment effectively constricts the sectors of society where expatriates can work and interact with Chinese people—particularly Chinese youth, historically a key area of employment and ministry for many expatriates living and working in China.
Second, attitudes within both official and unofficial China have changed as well. The perceived success of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing combined with China’s relative stability during the 2007–2008 global financial crisis to convince Chinese people, and especially leaders within the Chinese Communist Party, that China was on the ascendancy and the collapse of the West was all but certain. This newfound confidence found expression in the adoption (with tacit support from Xi Jinping) of “wolf warrior diplomacy” by many of China’s senior diplomats and government officials.6 An explicit rejection of the long-standing Chinese policy from Deng Xiaoping of “hiding our strength and biding our time,” the overall effect of this more aggressive posture on the global stage has been a deterioration in nearly all of China’s international relations—seen most notably in heightened tensions over Taiwan.7 With more and more nations growing disillusioned by the burdensome debt created by China’s Belt and Road Initiative and alarmed by China’s projection of force in the South China Sea and the Taiwanese Strait, China has squandered decades of hard-earned good will leaving the nation with only a small and uninspiring list of allies.8
Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has countered these setbacks overseas by heightening nationalist messaging at home, resulting in increased official suspicion of all foreigners in China—particularly Westerners. This can be seen not only in the chill that now accompanies so many expatriate interactions with Chinese officials, but also in the renewed emphasis on domestic counter-espionage and political thought control (抵制境外宗教极端思想渗透, i.e. resist infiltration of foreign extremist religious ideas) and the heightened government screening and review of all foreign activities within China.9 One of the more alarming expressions of this determination to resist foreign influences occurred in 2018 during a series of apparently coordinated crackdowns on overseas religious organizations that led to the expulsion of some expatriate mission workers and the subsequent departure of large numbers of expatriate ministry workers from China. Altogether, this now pervasive nationalist messaging means that for a growing number of the Chinese public, it is once again considered risky and dangerous to associate with foreigners.
One simple way to view these developments is through two trends in China that have been gaining momentum under the rule of Xi Jinping: politicization and securitization.
Politicization refers to the reversal of the post-Cultural Revolution trend driven by Deng Xiaoping to create separation between the Chinese Communist Party and the state and to allow Chinese citizens some areas of life that were not directly monitored and supervised by the Party. Since Xi’s 2012 promotion, the Party has reinserted itself into all areas of life—most visibly through the return of political study sessions, the growing influence of hyper-local block committees on all aspects of life, and the renewed emphasis on political thought control throughout the education system. Religious activity is similarly being supervised much more closely by the Party as security forces persist in closing unregistered fellowships and intimidating religious practitioners across the country. Naturally, this determination to eliminate all allegiances or worldviews that are hostile to the continuing rule of the CCP is also very suspicious of all expatriates.
Securitization refers to the vast expansion of China’s domestic security apparatus—increasing not only the number of security personnel and their budgets, but also their remit to monitor more and more aspects of life in China. Under Xi Jinping, approval from security officials has been (re)inserted as a key step in a growing range of bureaucratic procedures, while seemingly every inch of China’s territory has been blanketed by a multifaceted suite of surveillance technologies. From required retina scans on workplace time-punch clocks and real name contact tracing on all cellphones, to the AI-powered facial recognition software behind China’s network of ubiquitous security cameras, Xi’s China has become a panopticon state, where the Party can observe and thus potentially interfere in all aspects of life within China’s borders. COVID-19 and its resultant personal and national isolation has only accelerated both these trends, resulting in a China today that is significantly less open to foreigners than the China of ten or more years ago.
All of this has come at a price: China is losing foreign experts and becoming less attractive to foreign investors; there are fewer expatriates studying or teaching in China and far fewer exchanges between China and other countries; China’s approval ratings are plummeting in nations around the world; most significantly, the Chinese economy is no longer growing at the dramatic rate it has enjoyed for the past few decades. So far, China’s government seems willing to pay this price for increased domestic security and control. But with growing discontent over youth unemployment, the brutal education system, regulatory attacks on private industry, ongoing restrictions on travel, the crumbling housing market, and the inhumanity of China’s zero-COVID policies, how long will Xi and his Party continue to stay the course?
What Does This Mean?
It is important to recognize that China today is not closed to expatriates. On the contrary, China still needs, and indeed welcomes, foreigners to work in many sectors of Chinese society. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has, however, adjusted its regulatory processes and shaped the worldview of its officials in order to ensure that only the “right” kinds of expatriates are allowed to reside in China. Practically, this means requiring much higher professional qualifications and experience from would-be foreign workers while, at the same time, increasing regulations and scrutiny in sectors of the economy where the Party is particularly nervous of foreign infiltration (e.g., education and NGO or social services). This will make it especially difficult for younger people to live and work in China, shrinking the pool of potential expatriate China workers with real experience. Meanwhile, for those qualified candidates seeking employment in areas where China wishes to increase foreign participation (biotech, Olympic and professional sports, semiconductor manufacturing, AI, and so on), the immigration process has never been more streamlined.
Heightened professional requirements and expectations means fewer expatriates in China as many are already being turned away from the sectors of society that have traditionally been more conducive to Christian witness (education, youth work, social services, poverty alleviation, and other areas). At the same time, the politicization and securitization of Chinese society leaves fewer opportunities for expatriates to engage in ministry outside of their daily life and work routines without compromising their long-term China residency. Finally, seemingly inescapable surveillance means gathering with local sisters and brothers is now much more difficult than even a few years ago, while regular travel for anything other than tourism or work reasons is no longer sustainable (one of the key lessons of 2018). So, for the foreseeable future, expatriate ministry within China will be smaller in numbers and scope.
In general, the shrinking expatriate Christian community that remains will no longer set up new ministries or run existing ones and, over time, will likely even find it difficult to work within Chinese ministries. Instead, China-based expatriates will shift to the role of observing their Chinese sisters and brothers push ahead in ministries of their own. Expatriates will still provide support on the ground, but that support will become increasingly practical, personal, and pastoral. It will include things such as a safe listening ear, help with maintaining healthy ministry families, practical advice on daily living and ministry operations, a model of endurance and faith in the face of hostility and fear, a daily physical reminder that our Chinese sisters and brothers are not alone. This kind of ministry certainly feels smaller, but it is also deeper and much more intimate.
This smaller ministry will also be much more costly—both financially and psychologically. The professional burdens placed upon would-be expatriate workers are only going to increase, compounded by the stresses of living under unpredictable covid restrictions and heightened official scrutiny and suspicion. Expatriates may be tempted to sacrifice integrity in order to gain certain kinds of ministry opportunities, perhaps reverting to some of the habits and “007” practices of China ministry from the early years of Opening and Reform. While we certainly need to develop appropriate security practices for this new and challenging environment, it is vital to remember that a witness founded upon dishonesty is ultimately an untrustworthy witness.10
Is It Worth It?
While a straightforward cost-benefit analysis suggests that this work is not worth the trouble, cross-cultural ministry has always at its core been about planting tiny mustard seeds and then hoping that by God’s grace they will grow into something that gives him glory. Instead of viewing ministry through strategic eyes, we need to see through kingdom eyes.11 Faithfulness and true biblical fruitfulness should be our measure of success, rather than “return on investment” or the number of notches on our spiritual belts. Often in ministry less is actually more as we live out the gospel irony of seeing ourselves and our ministry decrease so that he may increase.12
God never “finishes” with anyone or any place. The real danger at present is that God’s people will decide to give up on China because we think it is too difficult or too unpopular. But just because something is hard does not mean God no longer wishes us to do it. For centuries, women, men, and children have been inspired to follow God to the ends of the earth by reading biographies of Christian missionaries from around the world. One of the things that makes these biographies so compelling is the simple fact that when things got difficult the missionaries stayed.13 It is precisely their endurance in the face of suffering that so profoundly demonstrates the power and truthfulness of their Christian faith.
- The National People’s Congress Standing Committee. “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China, 中华人民共和国境外非政府组织境内活动管理法.” The China NGO Project.Accessed November 7, 2022.https://www.chinafile.com/ngo/laws-regulations/law-of-peoples-republic-of-china-administration-of-activities-of-overseas.
- “Religious Affairs Regulations 2017.” China Law Translate, September 7, 2017. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/religious-affairs-regulations-2017/.
- “Chinese Government Response to COVID-19.” Wikipedia. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_government_response_to_COVID-19#Zero-COVID_policy.
- “Opinions on Further Reducing the Burden on Students in the Compulsory Education State from Homework and Extracurricular Training.” China Law Translate, November 3, 2021. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/two-burdens/. And “China Releases ‘Double Reduction’ Policy in Education Sector.” JDSUPRA, August 24, 2021. Accessed November 7, 2022.https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/china-releases-double-reduction-policy-1019987/.
- “Measures on the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services.” China Law Translate, December 20, 2021. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/internet-religious-information/.
- “Understanding Chinese ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.’” The National Bureau of Asian Research, October 22, 2021. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.nbr.org/publication/understanding-chinese-wolf-warrior-diplomacy/.
- Tobin Harshaw. “Emperor Xi’s China Is Done Biding Its Time.” Bloomberg, March 3, 2018. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-03-03/emperor-xi-s-china-is-done-biding-its-time. And Kurt M. Campbell and Mira Rapp-Hooper. “China Is Done Biding Its Time: The End of Beijing’s Foreign Policy Restraint?” Foreign Affairs, July 15, 2020. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-07-15/china-done-biding-its-time.
- Laura Silver, Christine Huang, and Laura Clancy. “How Global Public Opinion of China Has Shifted in the Xi Era.” Pew Research Center, September 28, 2022. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/09/28/how-global-public-opinion-of-china-has-shifted-in-the-xi-era/.
- “抵御境外宗教极端思想渗透与新疆意识形态安全建设,” 搜狐 Sohu.com, July, 30, 2021. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.sohu.com/a/480360196_121124715. And “Provisions on Efforts on Counter-espionage Security Precautions 反间谍安全防范工作规定.” China Law Translate, April 26, 2021. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/counterespionage-precautions/.
- 1 Peter 2:12; 2 Corinthians 4:2.
- Brent Fulton. “What if Christianity Is No Longer Successful?” ChinaSource Blog, August 22, 2022. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/what-if-christianity-is-no-longer-successful/.
- Amy Young. “When I Say Fruitful, You Think What?” ChinaSource Blog, September 12, 2022. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/when-i-say-fruitful-you-think-what/. And Andrew Kaiser. “Less Is More: Discipling Believers in a Cross-Cultural Setting.” ChinaSource Blog, March 22, 2009. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/less-is-more-discipling-believers-in-a-cross-cultural-setting/.
- Swells in the Middle Kingdom. “Can I Leave Now?” ChinaSource Blog, April 8, 2020. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/can-i-leave-now/.