Measuring Change in China

Whose Yardstick?

Someone has said that change is the only constant in today’s fast-paced world. In the case of China, social and economic change seem to be pulling the country inexorably forward. To the Western observer, it may appear that the Chinese are becoming “more like us” as cellular phones, business suits and McDonald’s signs proliferate on the crowded streets of China’s cities.

Yet, as China’s leaders cautiously navigate their way down an uncharted path of reform, political change is—to the Western mind—all too slow in coming. Penetrate beneath the effervescent surface of Chinese society and it soon becomes evident that many things haven’t changed.

Since we tend to measure change in terms of that with which we are familiar, we may find ourselves caught between two conceptual poles: the Western ideal of a free society with a high degree of individual autonomy and the haunting paragon of a totalitarian society, exemplified by the former Soviet Union. Neither model fits today’s China. As Dr. Carol Hamrin suggests in her cover article, those seeking to understand China would do well to view China within the context of its Asian environment rather than attempting comparisons with either Western liberal democratic or Soviet models. Yes, China is changing, but perhaps not in the way we expect.

Looking at the church in China, there is a similar danger in equating positive change with conformity to Western Christian ideals. How many times have foreign visitors ventured warily into one of China’s large urban churches, visions of “Potemkin Village” dancing in their heads, only to emerge an hour later remarking that the service was “just like anything you’d experience in a church in America” (or Singapore, or Canada ….)? Of course there are similarities, but to conclude that Chinese Christians are becoming “more like us,” as if we were somehow the yardstick by which Christians in other cultures should be measured, is to miss the extraordinary work of God in China during the last five decades. Through the often painful experiences of Chinese Christians, God has been carefully crafting a church that is in many ways very different from its Western counterparts. Rather than desiring that our Chinese brothers and sisters become “more like us,” should we not instead rejoice in these differences, which have so much to teach us about how God deals with His children and, specifically, His plan for the church in China?

The Lord of history is intimately involved in changing China, but He is not necessarily interested in the kinds of change which we instinctively view as positive. By all accounts the Tiananmen Square incident of nearly ten years ago was a step backward for China, but out of this tragedy came one of the most remarkable Christ-ward movements of intellectuals in Chinese history.

Lasting change in China is not measured by McDonald’s or cell phones or Western-style worship, but by lives transformed by the unchanging truth and love of Jesus Christ.

Image credit: Joann Pittman

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio