The Pacific Ocean is the largest geographical feature in the world. It is 16,000 kilometers wide and covers one third of the earth’s surface area. However, the total land area of the 24,000 islands in the Pacific is only 6.3 percent of the world’s land area, and these islands are scattered over 88 million square kilometers of ocean.
The Pacific Islands are divided into three main groups: Micronesia (small islands) lies above the equator while Melanesia (black islands) and Polynesia (many islands) are south of the equator. The most populous indigenous people in Melanesia are the groups living in the west of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji. In the east are the Polynesians living in Tonga, Samoa, and French Polynesia (Tahiti).
Traditionally, the Pacific Islands were advertised as a holiday paradise—lands with charm, variety, and romance. The reality however is very different. The indigenous people in these islands are struggling to survive, with harsh living conditions, scarcity of land, poverty, and under-development. Some are in danger of losing their homes due to adverse weather conditions, rising sea levels, and the occasional volcanic eruption (as occurred in January 2022 in the Tongan eruption and tsunami).
Over the years, large numbers of Chinese immigrants have come to the islands. Their arrival has greatly impacted the life, culture, and values of the local indigenous people. Earliest Chinese migration to the south Pacific occurred in the 1850s and 60s during the gold rush years in Australia and New Zealand. Chinese also moved to the islands as contract workers in sugarcane and other plantations. Chinese migrating to the islands during the nineteenthand twentieth centuries came mostly as laborers, employed workers, or as illegal immigrants. Others came to escape political turbulence and instability in China. In more recent years, following the economic expansion and growth of China, many Chinese migrants have come to do business or to invest in the islands. Chinese inhabitants in the islands come from very diverse backgrounds, for in addition to those from mainland China, many have also come from other nations in Southeast Asia, and from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Due to the work of early Western missionaries, the indigenous people in the islands were widely evangelized in the nineteenthand twentieth centuries. Christian churches are found everywhere in the islands. However, the situation for most of the Chinese inhabitants is very different. Most recent Chinese immigrants are atheist in outlook and indifferent to religious belief. Many keep at a distance from the Christian faith. Very few Chinese in the islands have become Christians, and their spiritual needs are greatly neglected.
In the 1980s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) implemented its “Reform and Opening 改革開放” policy. Some Chinese church leaders began to feel a burden to reach the increasingly large numbers of Chinese factory workers (over 100,000) going overseas to work in factories of the United States-entrusted islands of the North Pacific such as Guam, the Marshall Islands, Saipan, and also in Fiji. They launched mission programs to preach the gospel among these Chinese communities, mainly targeting factory workers.
In 1998, mission pioneer Rev. Thomas Wang, president of Great Commission Centre International (GCCI), initiated the first “Pacific Islands Chinese Mission Conference” (PICMC) in Guam. This created widespread concern for the physical, social, and spiritual needs of these “neglected kinsmen” in the islands. Chinese Christian leaders all over the world—from the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand—gathered to discuss, pray about, and plan evangelism strategies for the Pacific Islands. Five similar PICMCs were subsequently held: respectively in Fiji (2000), New Zealand (2001), and Australia (2004, 2009, and 2013). Since then, most Chinese mission initiatives and outreach activities in the South Pacific Islands have been connected to or coordinated by the Chinese Christian Mission of Australia (CCMA).
Status of Chinese Ministry in the Pacific Island Nations
Based on data that I compiled in 2005 for each Pacific Island nation, the tables below give an idea of the status of Chinese ministry in each of them. As Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii are culturally and economically very different from the Pacific Islands, they are not included below.
|Island Country||Main Language||Total Population||Chinese Population||Status of Chinese Ministry|
|Fed. States of Micronesia||English||Pohnpei /Yap Total 50K||1000||None|
|US Trust Territory||English||Guam, (200K) Saipan/Tinian(70K)||6000*2 |
*1Because of its geographical proximity to East Asia, mission campaigns in Micronesia have largely involved and been supported by churches in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. There is also support and participation from North American Chinese churches.
*2Due to China’s growing economy, the number of factory workers arriving since the start of the Reform and Opening policy has decreased. This is largely because pay scales in China caught up with pay scales in the islands.
|Island Country||National Language||Population||Chinese Population (City)||Brief status of Chinese Ministry|
|Papua New Guinea (PNG)||English, indigenous dialects||9M||10,000-20,000 (Morsby, Lae, and Rebaul)||A fellowship was formed in the 1990s by a Singaporean; however, due to the lack of stable spiritual leadership, it has struggled.|
|Solomon Islands||English, indigenous dialects||700K||5000 (Honaria) Chinese from mainland China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia||A group of churches started by the Malaysian Methodist Church. Congregations: 20-30|
|Vanuatu||English, French, indigenous dialects||310K||2000 (City: Port Vila) 500 (City: Santo)||Port Vila Chinese Christian Church, formed in 2001, now has a congregation of over 60. In Santo: a small Chinese Christian group.|
|New Caledonian (French Overseas Territory)||French, indigenous dialects||Noumea 280K||700 (Noumea) Cantonese Chinese from Vietnam||Noumea Chinese Christian Church, formed in 2002, has a congregation now maintained at 20-30.|
|Fiji||English, indigenous dialects, Indian (38% of population)||900K||6,000 (Suva, Lautoka-Nandi) From Guangdong province with different dialects.||A Chinese church in Suva (without a pastor). A Chinese church in Nandi-Lautoka area organized by WEC. There is also a Christian group led by businesspeople from Wenzhou in China.|
**Melanesia has the greatest proportion of Chinese but little attention has been given to their spiritual needs. After the first PICMC, Chinese Christian Mission Australia (CCMA) began to coordinate and send short-term mission teams to preach the gospel among the Chinese in the islands. Subsequently, two missionary couples were commissioned and sent from NZ (in 2001 and 2002) to Vanuatu and New Caledonia to help disciple believers and to build up the two existing Chinese churches there.
|Island Country||National Language||Total Population||Chinese Population||Brief status of Chinese Ministry|
|Tonga||English, indigenous dialects||100K||Present: 3000 Because of sales of the Tonga passport, the number has once gone up to > 6,000.||The local Victory Church has a Chinese congregation with a pastor from Singapore. At one time it had over 100 Chinese attending.|
|Samoa (formerly under NZ administration)||English, indigenous dialects||200K||>20K*** (Apia) claim Chinese ancestry. Samoa/Chinese intermarriage is common. Cantonese speaking descendants >100.||Samoa has a close relationship with NZ. After World War I, up until 1962, Western Samoa was governed by NZ. Currently, most of descendants of Chinese have integrated into local Samoan churches.|
|French Polynesia (Tahiti), French Overseas Territories (French administered territories)||French, indigenous dialects||280K||>20K*** (Papeete) claim Chinese ancestry. Chinese are mostly Hakka. Small number of Cantonese/Mandarin business traders.||There have been two Chinese speaking Hakka/French churches. However, after the old pastor retired, there has been a shrinking of membership due to the lack of spiritual leadership in the two churches. Currently, most “Tahiti Chinese” join and are integrated into the local Tahitian churches.|
***Samoa/Chinese and Tahiti/Chinese intermarriage is common in the islands which accounts for over 10–20% of the population claiming to have Chinese ancestry.
Possible Future Trends and Ministry Concerns
The future of ministry amongst the Chinese in the Islands of the Pacific is likely to be impacted by, among others, the following three factors.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
Over the past several years, all Chinese missionaries and pastors serving in Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Tahiti either retired or left the islands. Furthermore, during the past two years or more, other leaders in the Solomons, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga have been unable to return to the islands due to COVID-19 related border closures. It has not been possible to arrange for visiting pastors or short-term mission teams. As a result, a spiritual vacuum has been created within the Chinese churches. CCMA is trying hard to keep contact with churches and groups and provides them with whatever support is possible. Mostly through the internet, they have sought to provide literature, sermon and training videos, spiritual encouragement, and nourishment. All these online resources and contacts are valuable, but they are no substitute for the intimate on-site, in-situ pastoring and teaching needed.
Relationships among Chinese immigrants have become more complicated, and there have been increasing tensions between Chinese and local indigenous people. Chinese living in the islands come from many different parts of China. The old immigrants (老僑) are either of Hakka descent or they are from Guangdong and speak Cantonese. On the other hand, the new immigrants (新僑) are mainly from other parts of China and speak Mandarin. The number of new immigrants (新僑) has increased to the point where they are numerically predominant. This has resulted in a gradual shift from the use of Cantonese in church services to that of Mandarin. The fact that these “old” and “new” immigrants come from different backgrounds and sub-cultures, have different values, and even opposing political views has considerably complicated pastoral work and has affected the growth and development of the churches.
The economic success of the Chinese and their increasing domination of economic activities in the islands has also created growing tensions between the Chinese and the indigenous people. There are serious divisions among the Chinese with some being pro-PRC and others who are anti-PRC.
Geopolitical Tension in the Region
Traditionally, Australia, New Zealand, and the US have played major roles in providing financial, infrastructure, and military aid for the development of the Pacific region. For several years now, China has also been expanding her political and military influence in the region. A recent security deal between the PRC and Solomon Islands1 has caused great concern and has been seen by many other nations in the Pacific as upsetting the political and security stability of the region.
The growing influence of China in the region is also expected to affect ministry to the diverse Chinese groups in the islands.
The three political forces in the region are:
- Australia/NZ/US: Solomon, PNG, and Fiji—traditionally aid and support are from the so-called Five Eyes (FVEY).2
- France: three overseas territories of New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis, and Futuna.
- China PRC: her expansion and establishment of diplomatic ties with Vanuatu, PNG, and newly with the Solomon Islands.
The island nations of the Pacific may be small and isolated, but they are of strategic importance, not least in relation to the expansion of China’s influence globally. This article has focused on Chinese people living and working in the Pacific—a small but growing minority. There is a great need for gospel outreach among these Chinese people and for mature, stable leadership for the Chinese churches. Let us pray for the Chinese churches and let us also pray for the majority peoples of these scattered islands. In nations such as Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu, the Christian church has long been dominant, and the majority of local indigenous people claim to be Christian. Sadly, however, many are Christian in name only and there is a great need for a spiritual renewal, for more biblical preaching, and more effective evangelism and discipleship. What role might China and Chinese people play in the developing geo-political, social, and economic climate of the region? And what role might Chinese believers play in relation to the “Mission of God” (missio Dei) and the growth of his kingdom?
Useful Reference Material
Chinese Christian Mission Australia (CCM Australia) website: https://ccma.org.au.
Island material: A Handbook of Chinese Christian Mission in Pacific Islands by Joseph Fung, 2005 (written in Chinese): https://josephhkfung.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/islandmaterial.pdf. Accessed May 17, 2022.
- The Solomon Islands switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. The controversial security deal between the Solomons and China, signed in March 2022, would give China ready access to the South Pacific region, and possibly allow China to establish a naval base in the Solomons.
- The Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US.