John Zhang lives in southern China and over the years has been involved in a variety of Christian ministries. Currently he is an active member of a think tank studying the importance of cultural shift in considering new ministry strategies for missionary training and evangelism.
The past decade (2013–2022) has been filled with changes in China. With the start of President Xi’s term as China’s leader, we had great hopes and were expecting a new normal with a strong anti-corruption focus, One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR) engagement,1 and steps to realize the “China Dream.”2 However, things have changed dramatically. The disengagement between China and the West occurred not only in socio-economic areas, but also in education, religion, social media, and many other areas. Like a ship, China has sailed into uncertain waters. What is happening? Why is it happening? How can we serve Jesus in this New Era?
Certain factors are the result of accumulated impact from the past, such as the one-child policy, positions taken on Taiwan, Xinjiang, and others; some are unique new factors under the rule of President Xi. These factors have been amplified with the recent three-year lockdown due to COVID-19. This article hopes to explore these factors from two perspectives. First, the changes in China are not merely one particular leader’s own agenda. Rather, it is an accumulation of cultural factors over the past forty years. Second, the nature of the lie that is manipulating the nation. For more than seventy years, we have connected China with Communism. Rather, we should recognize that nationalism, possibly being presented in the name of socialism or communism, has become a main ideological thread. I hope the exploration of these factors will provide insights for gospel ministry in the coming decade.
Observations on Recent Developments
The first significant change is the attitude towards the West, particularly the United States. With the introduction of the Overseas NGO Regulations3 and a few other laws, there is little space for internationals, especially Westerners, to operate in China as before. Not just officials, but the entire society has turned against Westerners. People are screening textbooks, from elementary school to university, to eliminate possible “Western influence.” One British photographer complained that he was reported to the police as an “American spy” when he was taking pictures at a public train station; this had never happened to him before during his fifteen years of residence in China. A local Chinese girl wearing a Japanese dress was accused of “being shameless.” Public intellectuals, if they used any speech considered not so “Chinese,” would be labelled as “followers of the West” or sometimes “worshipers of Japanese.” All problems are considered to have an “American root,” no matter whether they deal with Xinjiang, Tibet, or the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The West is depicted as being an alliance against China.
Unfortunately, Christianity is viewed as a tool used by the West to subvert China. No matter what foreign workers claim to do, they are described as hypocritical (with a hidden, second mind or agenda, which is the original meaning of this word). This hostile attitude is not only that of top leaders and diplomats (“wolf warriors”), but also of TikTok, short-video presenters, and retired grandpas. It is hard to believe that all instructions, such as reviewing college textbooks for potential “Western influence,” come directly from President Xi. There are a multitude of supporters or initiators of this attitude in society.
Another viewpoint expressed is that of “the rising of the East (China) and the decline of the West” seen in the economy, in science and technology, and in many other areas. China, as the manufacturer for the whole world, has become of vital importance. It is true that Chinese personnel and influence, both at the national level and in the private sector, are becoming more and more visible. China has also claimed to have eliminated absolute poverty. In Xi Jinping’s journey towards the “Great Revival” (伟大复兴) of the Chinese nation,4 China is invincible. This view has been articulated in public meetings by high officials as well as in family gatherings of ordinary people.
With strong control on social media and surveillance technologies everywhere, news about many social problems only survives a few days, or a few hours, and then is drowned out in the mainstream of positive, victorious, and decisive messages. No opposition voices, even questions, are heard or allowed. Indeed, all messages can be traced back and become a liability.
It seems that, within these past ten years, China has switched to a totally different track—one of nationalism. It is not just the attitudes of high-level officials that have changed but also the expressions of the common people in society.
Reasons for the Changes
Many analysts say that China, under the leadership of President Xi, has turned towards the “Left Wing,” towards more traditional communism. This is seen in the governing role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as well as in the intentional interference, or even suppression, of the private sector in commerce. Compared to the previous two decades, the governing system and its leaders are less tolerant of non-mainstream thoughts or voices.
In a recent official statement, President Xi added the phrase “Chinese excellent traditional culture” into the previous formula of “Marxism plus Chinese context,” a traditional expression used from Mao’s time into the twenty-first century.5 This newly added phrase is the key to explain the changes. Nationalism, in a Chinese ethnocentric fashion, has become the core of today’s ideology.
In this way, it is easy to understand that OBOR takes both a Western colonization approach and the traditional Chinese empire’s demonstration approach. From an economic perspective, it is important to focus on the resources in OBOR; however, giving up business benefits in order to demonstrate the glory and power of the Middle Kingdom is not a failure. At this point, “demonstration” is more important than “colonization” to the leaders.
Similarly, we can also understand why President Xi would concentrate power to himself alone, and why he cannot admit failure in any matter (the COVID-19 lock-down policy and the Xiong’an Special District,6 for example). Traditional Chinese culture is rooted in Confucianism. The Confucian hierarchy determines the nation’s leadership hierarchy, as well as the CCP-only governance structure. There can be no mistake or failure in such a structure. Success (efficiency, acceptance, win, and so on) is the basis of power and authority. Particularly for China with historic failures in living memory, the “Four-Confidences” (Road Confidence, Theory Confidence, Institution Confidence, and Culture Confidence)7 also carry a subtle hint of inferiority by comparison with other parties. Thus, it becomes easy to understand why media control is so strict that bad news, such as the story of a chained trafficked woman,8 is quickly put down—it would bring shame to the hierarchy and make it less glorious in comparison to the West.
Implications for Christian Ministry
It is hard to say whether it is this leader who is initiating the changes, or whether it is the multitude who force the leader into the changes. Nevertheless, we have a whole generation moving in this new direction. This is not the result of just one leader or a small group of elites. Instead, it has taken at least a decade to incubate this nationalistic trend. It would not make a major difference even if the leader were changed. Therefore, we should give our full attention to address this shift in our ministries. It would be naïve to just pray to have a certain official or scholar changed.
Christian churches, agencies, and individuals are not immune from these changes—ultimately believers and non-believers live in the same culture and soil, watch the same news, experience the same struggles. To some extent, the “right” thinking pattern exists in our operations, management, and life. What we observe in society, sooner or later, will be expressed in local ministries, unless it has been specifically addressed with intentional biblical truth.
As China gained economic advantages, Christianity started to be viewed as a threat or opponent like other products from the West. Ironically, the Christian faith was not a Western product in its very beginning. Is it possible to present the gospel without a Western format? The CCP has been calling for “contextualized Christianity”9 for years, although it might have had a different meaning than the standard missiological meaning. Chinese churches usually view this as a threat to authentic theology. But eventually, we will see the results: perhaps a new Bible translation; perhaps a nationalistic, charismatic leader representing churches but accepted or even encouraged by officials. To some extent, the house church movement was already such a contextualized expression in the 1960s and 1970s without much explicit intervention from the outside. Could such a process take place again in this New Era?
The way of understanding church, the way of worship, the way of mission, the way of governance, the way of education—many local leaders are struggling with these, particularly when they face the clash between their Western-style seminary study with their local ministry context.
This will also require Western mission workers to take on a humble attitude when entering such a protective society or community, not necessarily as a helper or teacher, but as a servant (slave) to be used by the host nation while the gospel is being lived out. The traditional evangelical purpose-driven or project- or program-oriented mindset needs to be transformed.
Today in mission mobilization efforts, many speakers, both international and mainland Chinese, are using the same appeal to speak to Chinese churches or agencies: the rise of local Chinese churches both in quantity and in finance, the difficulty for Westerners in some hard places, and so on. You (that is, we) Chinese are the finishers of the great commission task.10 Such logic does not have any biblical foundation at all. Instead, it tries to add honor to Chinese churches in a nationalistic way. Particularly when a sending mission is involved with China’s OBOR initiative, this motivation should be checked in advance—are we trying to borrow the strong influence of the state in order to make our entry or mission work easier?
This also applies to leaders’ formation and transformation. Like secular leaders, many ministry leaders are already taking the same pattern in governance, in succession, in the decision-making process, and in self-protection when facing failure or mistakes. They pursue the same types of success in size, in funding, in fast-paced growth. Watching what is happening at the national level, it gives us an opportunity to see as if we are looking in a mirror.
Many of these thoughts could be traced to evolutionism, to a Cold-War mindset, or to modernism. For example, people believe everything is either black or white, without a third option; people believe it is either win or lose with no win-win scenario; people use very pragmatic approaches to achieve results, without due attention to the process.
It seems that it is not a clash between the East and the West. The majority of the anti-West community has been educated in a Western style and Western content. Indeed, most of them are not very familiar with traditional Chinese culture, at times even less acquainted than some Western mission workers. Their logic, expression, and focal point are the same as Chinese society as a whole and from the same Western educational and cultural root. This happened in the 1920s during the Anti-Christian Movement.11 Both now and a century ago, the clash is not on the essence of gospel, but on the cultural (mis)understanding that Christianity is a tool of Western culture.
We are not in the worst position. God does not promise us our preferred best environment. The turbulence we experience, most often, is uncomfortable enough to wake us up from our own agenda so that we may again look upon the Lord who has chosen us and also sent us. May his kingdom expand!
- When first introduced in 2013 this initiative was called One Belt One Road (OBOR). In Chinese this is 一带一路. Later in 2016, the official English name was changed to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but the Chinese name remained the same. This has been a centerpiece of Chinese foreign policy in the past decade.
- The “China Dream” was used by President Xi just after his appointment in 2012. According to President Xi the “China Dream” is the “great, great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中华民族伟大复兴). Subsequently, it frequently appeared in speeches, public announcements, and education curriculum.
- This law came into effect in January 2017. See Brent Fulton, “Milestones in the Evolution of China’s Overseas NGO Law,” ChinaSource Blog, February 15, 2017, accessed February 2, 2023, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/milestones-in-the-evolution-of-chinas-overseas-ngo-law/.
- See Elizabeth Economy, Introduction to The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, 1-19. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. An excerpt is available on the Council on Foreign Relations website at https://on.cfr.org/3DROu3C, accessed February 23, 2023.
- On the 100th anniversary of the CCP (July 1, 2021), President Xi said that we should insist on integrating the basic principles of Marxism, the Chinese context, and Chinese excellent traditional culture. See习近平. 在庆祝中国共产党成立100周年大会上的讲话” 新华网, July 15, 2021, accessed January 25, 2023, http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2021-07/15/c_1127658385.htm. Original Chinese expression: 坚持把马克思主义基本原理同中国具体实际相结合、同中华优秀传统文化相结合.
- There has been little explanation regarding the change of the COVID-19 lockdown policy since December 2022. Even though almost everyone in society would acknowledge it is a bad policy, the CCP could not admit it was wrong or even had defects. Xiong’an District, located south of Beijing, was announced to be the new administrative center for Beijing. With tens of billions of dollars being invested in this district, the region still stands like a ghost town.
- In 2012, former President Hu stated that there were three confidences: Road Confidence, Theory Confidence, and Institutional Confidence. In 2016, President Xi added Culture Confidence, indicating his emphasis on culture.
- For background on this incident, see Chauncey Jung, “Xuzhou’s Chained Woman Highlights China’s Human Trafficking Problem,” The Diplomat, February 23, 2022, accessed February 7, 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2022/02/xuzhous-chained-woman-highlights-chinas-human-trafficking-problem/.
- This falls under the banner of Sinicization of religion. See “The Sinicization of Religion,” Chinese Church Voices: ChinaSource Blog, December 5, 2017, accessed February 2, 2023, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinese-church-voices/the-sinicization-of-religion/.
- The Back to Jerusalem Movement in the 1980s used this appeal a lot.
- 非基运动，1922–1925. See “Anti-Christian Movement (China),” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified January 30, 2023, accessed February 2, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Christian_Movement_(China).
John Zhang (pseudonym) is a member of a national mission agency in China focusing on partnership development across ministries. John has been involved in mission mobilization, leadership training, and field strategy development with a broad range of ministries for about 20 years. He serves in several agencies at the board …View Full Bio