Since the beginning of Chinese migration overseas, there has been much interest from the diaspora Chinese community in its motherland. In the history of modern China, diaspora Chinese have played a very important role. They contributed significantly towards the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the new Republic—so much so that Dr. Sun Yat-Sen labeled them “the mother of the revolution.” Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen, the “father of China’s aerospace program” and “king of rockets,” returned to China from the US in 1955 in the height of McCarthyism after he cofounded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
More recently, significant investments have been made in China by the diaspora Chinese community. The greater Shanghai area is now home to over 300,000 Taiwanese businessmen and their families. Close by, Singapore investors joined the Suzhou municipal government to establish a Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994. Hong Kong has over 60,000 companies operating in the Pearl River Delta, employing an estimated 11 million people.
Among the Christian community of the diaspora Chinese, there has also been significant interest towards ministry in China. A Christian book fair was openly organized in Guangzhou and sponsored by all the major Christian publishers in Hong Kong. Christian radio programs to China are almost exclusively produced by diaspora Chinese from all over the world, including Southeast Asia and North America. The diaspora Chinese community in Hong Kong, the US, Canada and the UK produce most of the Christian literature for China ministry, both evangelistic and discipleship. It is estimated that fifty percent of the churches in Hong Kong have had some form of ministry in China since sovereignty was returned to China in 1997.
This article will examine the various models of China ministry that diaspora Chinese are involved in. There will also be comparison and contrast with the rest of the China ministry community, mostly Westerners with some second and third generation foreign-born Chinese. Possible areas of cooperation will be discussed.
Western and Diaspora Chinese Ministry Models
In general, Westerners are more involved in teaching, professional services, and business. They tend to concentrate more on the major cities in the coastal area. The International Fellowship in Beijing gathers over 1,000 foreign expatriates for its Sunday worship while several hundred meet in Shanghai. Much smaller groups (typically less than 20 people) are teaching in most of the major universities in the interior of China in cities with populations in the millions. By and large, most of these expatriates have to learn Chinese after arrival in China. While English teaching in universities remains the most popular avenue for service, teachers in other subjects and at other levels of schooling are also welcomed by China. Professional services cover not just the medical field but also other areas of community development and business. Since the first reentry of Westerners into China in 1979, there has been evidence of much fruit from their service.
Diaspora Chinese, however, are involved in China based on a very different set of contextual factors, including connections, skills and gift mix. First of all, most diaspora Chinese have a kinship network with their ancestral village or province. Thus, real estate tycoon Li Ka-Shing contributed over US $250 million to the university in his native district of Shantou. Christians in Hong Kong concentrate most of their China ministries in Guangdong Province, their ancestral province.
Secondly, diaspora Chinese speak Chinese as their mother tongue. They are not a visibly distinguishable group in China. This makes direct ministry among house churches viable. House church leadership training programs receive much more input from diaspora Chinese Christian workers than from their Western counterparts.
Thirdly, as Hong Kong has become part of China, China involvement for the Christians in Hong Kong is becoming a natural outgrowth of their social responsibility. Certainly, the very vocal stand of Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen towards China has added much fuel. Evangelical churches in Hong Kong are advocating China ministry as “walking on two legs”—Christian witness and social involvement.” Many are in church with full disclosure of their church name and Christian identity. There are also advantages of living thirty minutes from China. Short-term ministry to China from Hong Kong now means leaving on Friday and returning by Sunday. Ministry can occur almost anywhere within an eight-hour one-way commute. Churches in Hong Kong can afford to send teams to China every other weekend—the ministry scope is almost equivalent to having a full time presence in China.
There is also a more formal exchange between diaspora Chinese churches and the Three Self churches. Exchanges have taken place on the seminary level in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. In addition, exchanges between Three Self churches and diaspora Chinese pastors are growing. Such exchanges involve not only mainline denominational churches (as is the case in the exchange with most Western countries), but also evangelical churches. Among the estimated 600 Hong Kong churches involved in China, many choose to work directly with a local Three Self church providing training and ministry resources. This is in sharp contrast to the situation just before 1997 when churches in Hong Kong heatedly debated how to relate to the Three Self churches.
On another front, diaspora Chinese seminaries are offering training opportunities to Christian leaders from China who come from house churches as well as Three Self churches. Some of these seminaries are taking applicants with formal student visas while others are taking students with just a tourist or visitor’s visa. Many such schools are doing all they can to help their students, waiving school fees and offering special scholarships.
Diaspora Chinese Christian businessmen are using business platforms for service in China. They set up factories, light manufacturing companies and consulting firms. Some of these businesses provide employment for the local believers—as well as opportunities for in-depth training and study. Others are set up to help house churches get a footing in cities with mass migration induced by rapid urbanization.
Ministry Characteristics of Diaspora Chinese Models
This section will discuss some of the characteristics of diaspora Chinese ministries in China. It will be followed by a discussion of possible points of convergence between the diaspora Chinese and Western sector.
First, diaspora Chinese do not necessarily see China ministry as their response to the Great Commission; rather, many choose to work in their ancestral village. Among the diaspora Chinese there is a lack of cross-cultural vision and little discussion of unreached peoples. Thus, Cantonese believers from Hong Kong will not invest time to learn Mandarin to reach non-Cantonese peoples. While many are involved in urban ministry, few see the unreached Muslim Hui communities in the same city. By far, most of the ministries are reaching Han people.
However, the lack in strategy and vision is compensated for by volume, frequency and effectiveness. One small denomination in Hong Kong sends in teams by chartered tourist buses. Diaspora Chinese churches from North America send their pastors into China several times a year. While there are still subtle cultural differences between China and the culture of the diaspora Chinese, the latter can, by and large, function with little adjustment and cultural shock.
Most diaspora Chinese involvement is on an independent small-scale operations basis. There is usually not much coordination and networking with other ministries. This may hamper any benefit of synergy. Yet, they are all low profile and do not attract unnecessary scrutiny.
Finally, diaspora Chinese carry the traditional Chinese pragmatic spirit, enabling them to understand the fuzziness of Chinese culture. Different interpretations and implementations of a central policy in varying localities and contexts do not surprise them. They are ingenious in finding alternate ways to resolve a problem. While outsiders are not allowed to preach in Three Self churches, many diaspora Chinese have shared for fifty minutes followed by a ten minute sermon from the local Three Self pastor. Although many still have unresolved fear of the atheist government from their firsthand experience of escaping from China in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they are still zealous in their commitment towards ministry in China.
Towards Synergy between East and West
There have not been many established partnerships between diaspora Chinese and Westerners in China ministry. Most Western-hosted conferences on China are not well attended by diaspora Chinese. However, that does not mean there is no room for partnership.
Diaspora Chinese can benefit from the strong cross-cultural emphasis of Western models. They should be challenged to reach beyond the Han Chinese. At the same time, diaspora Chinese can also help international agencies orient their ministry towards China. They can certainly serve as consultants and give significant insight into shaping China ministries in these agencies.
Certainly, the great multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” in Revelation 7:9 should include both diaspora Chinese and Caucasians. If we are to join forces in eternal worship one day, we should start practicing today in ministry for China.