The Sino-African relationship began as early as the Tang Dynasty and grew during the Ming Dynasty through the voyages of Admiral Zhenghe. Of the seven voyages of Zhenghe, the last four reached sixteen countries and regions in Africa. The initial exchanges were short-lived, however, and did not leave much of an imprint. A long silence prevailed until recently when an influx of a large number of Chinese came to Africa. Media focus has been on how China is changing Africa with its investment in infrastructure building; what has escaped attention is how vibrant African churches are influencing the growing Chinese population at their doorstep.
T graduated with a Master’s degree from a university in China. After his graduation, he worked for a state-owned company before going to country X in Africa in 2016. He went to join his high school sweetheart, M, who had secured a job with an international organization. He went with apprehension as he had heard horror stories about the challenges facing Chinese people in that country, including theft, robbery, carjackings, scams, bribery, and police extortion. His initial encounters with government officials were not helpful; on the contrary, they reinforced his preconceived ideas about the locals. He began to form negative stereotypes and dreaded staying in that country. It was only when he joined a Bible study and church and met some local Christians who demonstrated Christ-likeness and showed genuine love for the Chinese that he began to appreciate his stay in country X.
An increasing number of Chinese, like T, have come to country X to work or start businesses. Like him, a majority of those who come are young graduates in their twenties. This is a more recent phenomenon that is slowly changing the perception that the Chinese in Africa are mostly blue-collar workers and miners who toil at their work site day and night.
This same trend is happening in other African countries as governments all over the continent are increasingly issuing work permits to those who come with skills and substantial investments. In country X, there are more than three hundred Chinese companies. In most of these companies, about eighty percent of the employees are local while about twenty to thirty percent are Chinese. The Chinese staff is generally the management staff or those with engineering and technical skills.
Interestingly, many of the Chinese who go to Africa are like T in that they have no previous knowledge of Christianity. It can be argued that this group is one of the least-reached people groups in Africa. In country X, where we serve, less than one hundred Chinese, among the fifty thousand living there, worship in church on Sunday; even among that number, few are believers.
Reaching Out to the Chinese in Africa
“God has brought a large number of Chinese to our doorstep. Come and help us reach out to them. Please walk with us and do not pass us by.” This has been the plea of some key leaders of African churches. Our organization responded to their plea by sending a team to launch a Chinese diaspora ministry that involves the African churches in country X. Unfortunately, this plea from some key African leaders does not represent the voice of the majority of African Christians. Even as the Chinese are apprehensive of the Africans and do not reach out in friendship to them, many Africans, including Christians, have been slow in reaching out to the Chinese.
Recently, a researcher investigated factors that affect outreach to Chinese in a particular city. Questionnaires were distributed to eighty-two Christians who are active in ministry from four key evangelical churches and one mission organization. All of these were located within a five-kilometer radius of the center of activities of the Chinese community. Ten key leaders from among the four churches were interviewed as well. When asked about perceptions of Chinese, forty-six percent indicated they had a negative perception while forty percent indicated a positive perception. Nine percent of the respondents said they were “unconcerned” about the presence of Chinese in their town, and six percent indicated they were unaware of the Chinese in their midst. For those who had a negative experience with the Chinese as a result of personal encounters, experiences in business, or at the workplace, media reports about the Chinese reinforced their negative perceptions.
A journalist from Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, concluded his article on the Chinese-African relationship with this insight: “If China-Africa’s relationship began because of self-interest, inevitably it shall end because of self-interest. The Chinese in Africa do not seem to bother about the suffering souls of the Africans; on the other hand, the Africans have never been interested to understand the ordeals of the Chinese in Africa.” Between Chinese and Africans, there is little genuine friendship—only business transactions.
It is not known if similar research has been done in other African countries, but from my conversations with church and missions leaders from around the continent, they seem to share the same sentiment that there is a huge gap between Africans and Chinese. In general, African churches tend to be apathetic to the presence of Chinese in their neighborhoods; this is demonstrated by few intentional efforts to reach out to them. Besides this existing gap, diaspora mission is new to African churches that, in this respect, are unlike churches in the West that have been engaging in diaspora mission for the last few decades.
Together Standing in the Gap of Misunderstanding and Prejudice
How can the church stand in the gap and bring to the Chinese in Africa the gospel that will ultimately result in their reconciliation not only with God but also with the Africans? This calls for partnership between African churches and global churches, particularly those in China. Chinese churches can send vocational missionaries and bivocational missionaries to work with the African churches in a genuine partnership that calls both parties to serve and give to one another.
Miss Z is from a city in China. She surrendered her life to Jesus while in college and began serving on staff in her church. At that time, the missionary movement within urban house churches was still in its infancy. She felt called to missions and began to get involved in church-based missions education. Two years ago, she received a graduate degree in intercultural studies and was sent to country X as the first cross-cultural missionary from her church.
J and M responded to God’s call to move to country X to serve as bivocational workers. J works as a professional in a large Chinese company.
All three of these individuals are from churches in China that have been targets for crackdowns and increasing persecution. Even though they have no permanent place of worship, no registration, and no official bank account, they joyfully send out missionaries to the nations.
N is a local Christian in country X. She surrendered her life to Christ while in college and has since grown as a disciple. After her graduation, she joined an indigenous mission organization as an intern. That experience helped to equip her for cross-cultural missions. It was during that time that she sensed God’s call to reach the Chinese in Africa. After graduation, she joined a team partially supported by her friends from the university. She is learning Chinese and at the same time developing a ministry that teaches the local language to Chinese people as an avenue for outreach.
R came from country A, which borders country X. She began to develop an interest in Chinese culture while she was in secondary school during a time when Chinese were still a small minority in that country. After her tertiary education, she signed up for TEFL with a view of engaging in an English teaching ministry in China, but God led her to join a team to minister to the Chinese diaspora in country X.
L joined the first three-month Chinese language and culture training class hosted by a local church and has since been the advocate for this ministry in the church. Being gifted in administration, she has become a key link between the team and the church and is a valuable member of the ministry.
K was born again through the ministry of an African fellowship when she studied in China. Upon her return to country Y, a Chinese company employed her due to her good command of the Chinese language and her knowledge of the Chinese culture. However, it was also during that time that she began to resent the Chinese when she discovered their prejudice against the locals and how they tended to maximize profits by underpaying the locals. Once, when the tension between the Chinese and locals was heightened, due to a Chinese uttering derogatory remarks against the leader of country X, K expressed strong resentment against the Chinese on Facebook. It was a painful journey for her, but God has never given up on her. He keeps stirring her heart to reach out to the Chinese on her doorstep. K’s love for the Chinese was rekindled, and she joined our team for ministry to the Chinese.
Today, Z, J, and M from China along with Africans N, R, L, and K are together in a ministry team that we lead. We work closely to reach out to the Chinese diaspora community and, at the same time, to mobilize, equip, and come alongside local churches to do the same. A multicultural church and a multicultural team that embraces both Chinese and Africans were birthed as a result of this ministry. At a time when the Chinese diaspora community and the Africans are separated by a widening gap of prejudice, misunderstanding, and apathy, this team and the church have demonstrated a new model of relationship between Chinese and Africans, enabled by the power of the gospel that brings reconciliation.
As much as China is changing Africa, will Africa slowly and quietly change China through the growing African and Chinese churches? No fanfare, no powerful resources, no top notch strategist, no shouting or crying out, and no raising of voices in the streets, but simply people called by God to do a new thing with a God who is able to call forth a stream in the wilderness.
In an interesting way, people like Z, J, and M from China and N, R, L, and K from Africa are part of the missionary movement of the majority church that is writing a new model of mission that grows from six continents to six continents. It is a new missionary movement that calls for partnerships across continents, churches, ethnic groups, and mission organizations. It is also a new missionary movement of the majority church that is often persecuted, if not poorer, compared to the people to whom they are ministering. It is a missionary movement of the vulnerable.
In the future, will the partnerships that are birthed in Africa be replicated in the Middle East and North Africa to reach Muslims, and in Europe to reach post-Christian Europe?
Contact between China and Africa during the time of Admiral Zhenghe’s voyages left little imprint on either culture. Today, multitudes of Chinese are in Africa, but their impact is wanting, if not negative. Z, J, and M who are in Africa working alongside N, R, L, and K are painting a new picture of how the church in China and the church in Africa could carve an imprint on both Chinese and Africans far deeper than what others could do. It is an eternal imprint written on hearts by the gospel of Jesus Christ.