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Greater China’s Great Transformation

In October 1978, I first visited China just before Deng Xiaoping returned to power and the U.S. and China resumed diplomatic relations. Two memories are etched in my mind. First was arriving at the Beijing airport in the only plane on the whole field. It taxied right up to the only door into the terminal, and I walked down the stairs from the plane under a bright spotlight and a giant statue of Chairman Mao. Second was traveling in a car with a driver between two cities in Yunnan for a glimpse of the countryside. We passed a crossroads with a dozen farmers seated on the ground with their produce, and the driver whispered to me, “That’s a market, but it’s illegal.”

Would I have predicted the amazing events that followed over the next 13 years–including the market reforms and Special Economic Zones (SEZs), the 1988 political reform agenda, the 1989 Democracy Movement followed by June Fourth, and then the collapse of European communism by 1991? So, I am kept humble in the face of my task–sharing some thoughts about the next 13 years in China until 2020.

Counter-intuitively–or perhaps just cowardly–I am launching into this article about China’s future with some reflections on China’s past, motivated by the historian’s perennial hope that we might learn something from history that can guide our future steps.

China in the Shadow of Deng Xiaoping

The mindset and timetable that shapes the planning of China’s leaders remains Deng Xiaoping’s 70-year program of January 1980. Deng reversed the utopian priority on class struggle, instead putting top priority on economic development to build up a base for later attaining China’s other goals of unification and defense (of China’s interests against hegemony).

Current government policy should be seen as adaptation and implementation of Deng’s strategy, which he himself reaffirmed in early 1992. At that time, the beleaguered leadership debated what to do in the wake of post-June Fourth sanctions against China and the collapse of European communism. Deng made sure that China did not “pick up the baton” of leadership in the cause of world communism against the U.S. but stuck to his nationalist agenda.

Goal by 2000: quadruple China’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 20 years (accomplished early), along with the recovery of Hong Kong (HK) in 1997 and Macau in 1999 plus continuing economic integration and political-social assimilation of the Far West.

Goal by 2020: quadruple China’s GDP again (also accomplished early), move China into the ranks of “middle income” countries providing a “comfortable” life (xiaokang) for the Chinese people, celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) founding (1921). This is the timeframe we are currently considering, and again China seems to be ahead of schedule.

Goal by 2050: ensure full unification with Taiwan, HK, Macau (and the Far West); recover China’s historical status as a great world civilization–in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949). It is not accidental that HK and Macau were granted Special Administrative Region (SAR) status for “fifty years,” not in perpetuity.

Deng Xiaoping personally chose Hu Jintao to become successor to Jiang Zemin, who was a compromise candidate reflecting Deng’s loss of face in 1989. Hu Jintao, as he consolidates power this fall, will still be operating under the shadow of Deng’s program for strengthening the CCP’s rule through state capitalism and reform of the bureaucracy. The next set of leaders affirmed in 2012 will include those with greater international experience who may be prepared to make greater departures from the CCP’s reform program.

China in the Shadow of Mao Zedong

Some of the challenges facing China are shared by other societies thrust into the intensive globalization underway. The neoliberal focus on market liberalization has exacerbated inequities in society while weakening the authority of the state and hollowing out redistributive programs for helping the poor. The resulting mixed economy has fueled opportunities for corruption.

However, many of the obstacles to China’s achievement of world-class stature are those typical of former communist countries.

  • State domination of the economy, media and education works against the goal of world-class innovation required to compete in the global economy.
  • Rapid industrialization left a legacy of environmental devastation and resource inefficiencies.
  • Leninist control by the party over society through a monopoly of social organizations stifles development of voluntary associations in the Third Sector.
  • A low trust culture still reflects the black and white world view and resort to power struggle tactics. This fuels the pervasive corruption and abuse of bureaucratic power.

China in the Shadow of the Cross

Reviewing Chinese and church history from 1900-1949 for a recent book project, I have noticed some interesting parallels between 1900-1925 and our contemporary 2000-2025 period. Both timeframes were periods of economic globalization, technological advance, social progress and greater openness to Christianity, both in China and elsewhere. 

Commentator Fareed Zakaria also saw a parallel between the 1920s and the world today–a prosperous world without a clear political direction. With Britain in decline and America isolationist, “eventually protectionism, nationalism, xenophobia and war engulfed it.” I mention these parallels not to predict the same for us today, but to make the point that much of what happened in China came in response to changes on the outside over which China had little influence (much less control)–changes that took Western missionaries and Chinese Christians by surprise.

China’s Future

Based on China’s modern history, let me offer some of my own predictions toward 2020.

  1. The next five years, 2007-2012, will be an important period for shaping the future cultural and political identity of the Chinese people for a post-industrial, post-communist era, as well as relations with the West. Christians need to be players in the cultural realm. (For key dates as catalysts for change see box.)
  2. Whatever the name of the ruling partyCommunist, Democratic Socialist or Christian Democraticin 2020 China will still be a unitary rather than federal state, authoritarian and elitist, with state intervention in the economy and society and some sort of state-endorsed national belief system.
  3. Yet, there will also be more openness to allowing diversity and autonomy from the statefor social organizations, including faith institutions; for cultural pluralism; and for a confederation with China’s outlying areas.
  4. Between now and 2020, China will experience some level of national social and political turbulence; the severity will depend mainly on the health of the global economy and northeast Asian politics. This may include:
    1. rapid growth of political radicalism fueled by local abuses of power;
    2. an undercurrent of anti-foreign nationalism with outbreaks targeting Christians directly or indirectly;
    3. Chinese political, even military intervention to protect access to/control over key resources or territorial claims.
  5. Christians may be called on to play a role out of proportion to their numbers in the event of a crisis and transition of political power as has been true in many countries. Evangelical Protestant culture of voluntary association and active citizenship tends to equip Christians to play a democratizing role.
  6. Finally, let me suggest the Singapore Model as the best-case scenario for China in 2020. In fact, Deng Xiaoping’s long-term program, which turned away from the European communist model, was an attempt to replicate the economic takeoff that allowed Asia’s “tiger” economies to break through the barrier between underdeveloped and developed worlds, and by closing the gap, to reincorporate Taiwan and Hong Kong-Macau. Jiang Zemin in turn was enamored of the Singapore model under Lee Kuan Yew’s benevolent autocracy.

The public face of the model will be state capitalism and mercantilism, authoritarian government, and “Asian values” (a term more acceptable than “Confucian” in Asia’s multi-ethnic context) imparted through “moral education” in the schools to complement the growth of a “Research and Development” culture.

A number of these themes are echoed in China under Hu Jintao:

  • populist slogans calling on officials to serve the public benefit
  • a strategy of balanced development to stem growing inequality
  • slogans calling for a “green, scientific, and people’s Olympics”
  • calls for a harmonious society
  • anti-corruption campaigns and Hu’s moralistic “8 dos and don’ts”
  • creating “world class” universities to fuel innovation for high-tech industry
  • government sponsored Confucius Institutes around the world to spread Chinese “soft power.”

A recent CCTV special on the “rise of great powers” highlighted science and technology accomplishments rather than social-political institutions or moral values. Apparently, “Chinese style socialism” is now nationalism, plus science and technology, plus Confucian values.

Behind the scenes, however, Singapore’s success actually reflects a very strong evangelical Christian influence, with forty percent of parliamentarians being Christian (compared to less than ten percent in society as a whole). These individuals reflect an expanding and influential Asian Christian network that includes Hong Kong and Taiwan Christians.

Key Issues for Serving in China

Looking to the future, in light of the past, what are some key issues for serving in China?

  1. Political and economic trends worldwide greatly affect China. In the 1920s and 1930s, China missionaries and Chinese Christians were not prepared for the swing toward radical politics and military violence as warlords battled for territory and the elite turned away from the “Christian” West in disappointment over its inaction in the face of Japanese aggression. Dependency on mission funds, policy direction and institutional management made Chinese Christians vulnerable to criticism and suspicion that they were “traitors,” not patriots. They had neither the confidence nor the vision to transform society.
  2. Underlying currents of nationalism, ambivalence toward the West and anti-Christian biases will become a greater problem for two reasons. Hyper-nationalism is emerging among today’s youth, who are finding their personal identity in the cause of a “rising China.” These pampered single children, unlike their parents or older siblings, have been isolated from China’s internal poverty and repression growing up in the bubble of coastal affluence.Populist and socialist concerns for the poor are aroused by the neo-liberal approach to globalization which is fostering the perception that it causes growing inequities and corruption. Some Chinese will be joining the worldwide anti-globalization movement. To what extent are Christian institutions identified with the winners or with the losers in the global market?

    It is important to separate out biblical principles from the “American way,” move faster to get out of the driver’s seat and focus our efforts on supporting and training indigenous leaders for indigenous projects. There is an urgent need for mainland Chinese Christians now overseas to get leadership experience in all fields.

    We need to work closely with the Asian Christian identity and networks. In God’s providence, much of the early modern educated Chinese Christian middle class ended up overseas and is now shaping the growth of the church in China.

  3. The whole cultural realm is our field to plow. We cannot just focus narrowly on “religious work” in Chinaevangelism and discipleship, church-planting, pastoral trainingassuming that this will automatically influence society in a positive direction. We need to be thinking: Who is the competition? Who are our allies?The Chinese church as an institution is likely to remain vulnerable and marginalized, even as believers and their families and networks grow in influence. Several factors inhibit the church’s influence: the old-fashioned official church; suppression of the house church; the intellectual elite’s aversion to church. Exploration of new models for the church are much needed.

    As we work in the context of cultural globalization, we will realize the importance of the affective ties of relationships across borders. When we apply business models to doing or funding ministry, we may gain accountability and efficiency but may also be shifting the orientation to goal achievement and impersonal relations.


Christians in China are called to be salt and light in the larger society suffering from spiritual poverty in the midst of material prosperity. “Chinese people want a better life but feel lost in a cold, utilitarian society.” Corruption is endemic; how do we help our brothers and sisters address this need?

The first step would be to pray for continuing miracles of God’s mercy as He preserves China for His purposes. We can all join the “One Million Intercessors by 2007” movement (see www.prayforchina.com). Most immediately, we can pray for God to raise up godly leaders through the promotions underway for the next five year Party and People’s Congresses this fall and next spring. In addition, we can pray for the growth of the Kingdom through the Olympics events.

Note: For further reading, the Global China Center website (www.globalchinacenter.org) has a short list of good articles and books spotlighting the “rise of China.”

This article is adapted from a paper delivered at the China 2020: Future Scenarios conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Asian Research and ChinaSource in February 2007.

Image credit: Aknaalused ehitustöölised / Construction workers by my window by Tauno Tõhk / 陶诺, on Flickr

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Carol Hamrin

Carol Lee Hamrin, Ph.D., serves as a research professor at George Mason University and a senior associate with the Global China Center. She served under five U.S. administrations as the senior China research specialist in the U.S. Department of State and in 2003 received the Center for Public Justice Leadership …View Full Bio