Peoples of China

Peoples of the Cities

She was a rich woman driving a silver BMW. They were a peasant and his wife atop a rickety tractor loaded with market-bound spring onions. Their lives were a universe apart until a sack of scallions got tangled with the side-view mirror of the luxury car.

The outraged BMW driver, witnesses say, leaped out, punching and kicking the farm couple and screaming, “How can you afford to scratch my car?” A crowd gathered to watch. The woman got back into her BMW and ploughed into the bystanders, killing the farmer’s wife and injuring 12 others.

China’s most famous traffic accident happened last October in the city of Harbin, in the country’s remote north-eastern industrial rust belt. Few people outside the immediate area would have heard about it if it were not for the court judgment issued last month against the driver, Su Xiuwen—a two-year sentence with a three-year suspension, suggesting that she may not spend a day in jail.

In a country where the smallest legal infringement can merit harsh punishment, many Chinese saw the ruling as a slap in the face. The country’s increasingly vocal court of public opinion, incensed that a well-off defendant appeared to be above the law, exploded on the internet. A week or so ago local officials finally bowed to the pressure and vowed to reinvestigate the case for judicial improprieties.

To the people at the scene, it looked as if Su, in a fit of rage, deliberately mowed down the onion peddler. She said she had meant to reverse. The only thing the public found credible was the rumor that Su, 45, the wife of a wealthy businessman, was also related to a high-ranking provincial leader. No one seemed to believe official denials of any connection.1

This incident, perhaps as no other in recent history, underscores the diversity of people within the cities of China. Between the extremes represented by the wealthy woman in the BMW and the poor onion farmer lie dozens of other kinds of people, every one of them precious in God’s sight.

Take a walk with me through the streets of Beijing. Just past the sharply- dressed young businessman talking on his cell phone, we see workmen mixing cement by hand as they lay the foundation for yet another new building. Just around the corner from the internet café, where students are surfing the internet, is a noodle stand manned by a cook who looks as if he just stepped off the bus from the countryside.

Watch your step as we cross the street, or our walk may be cut short by one of those aggressive taxi drivers. Ah yes, the taxi drivers—a group all their own. Step back—here comes a military van, filled with soldiers. Let’s get off this busy street. I know God loves all these people, but they’re getting on my nerves!

Yes, this is better. A quiet, broad, tree-lined street with a more reason- able number of cars and bicycles.

Grandmothers pushing strollers… old men playing mah-jong on the sidewalk… look at all the high-rise apartment buildings—there must be thousands of families living on this street. Where are they all?

We don’t have to wait long to find out. As night descends upon the city, the streets fill with busses, more taxis and bicycles, and the sidewalks fill with pedestrians as students and teachers make their way home from school, while business and professional men and women return from their offices and government workers escape from their bureaucratic routines for a few hours.

Here’s an interesting alley; let’s check it out. Interesting—these people aren’t Chinese; they look more like mid- easterners—and they’re living right on the street! There’s a bed, a kitchen table, a cook stove—all right outside. What is this? These are Hui Muslims, a friend explains. They’re migrant workers, living here temporarily while they provide cheap labor for a building project nearby.

A policeman comes by and hustles us out of the alley demanding our passports. “What are you doing here?” he wants to know.

“We’re just tourists, out seeing the sights.”

“Well, move on, and don’t take any pictures around here.”

Who will reach these people with the gospel, we wonder? And what about all the other groups we saw to- day? Everyone we saw represented a different people group, some distinguished from others by ethnicity but most by socio-economic differences.

There are 13 million plus people in Beijing. Most have never heard the name of Jesus. There are perhaps half a million Christians here (many, many more than in most cities of China), but they tend to be concentrated in certain strata of society. How can all these different groups we have been exposed to today—and hundreds more like them —be reached with the gospel? How many different kinds of churches will be needed to enable people from all these different groups to worship God without having to cross cultural barriers to do so?

These are important questions, focusing our attention on issues that are often overlooked—perhaps not even considered—as Christians halfway around the world develop plans for their China ministry. A great deal of effort has been expended over the past twenty years to identify the unreached peoples of China. However, most of this effort has been focused upon identifying different ethno-linguistic peoples. Very little has been done to identify the sociological barriers to the spread of the gospel in the huge cities of China.

If we take seriously the command of Christ to make disciples of all peoples, we must give careful attention to this task. The church in China today exists primarily within certain strata of society. Church planting movements have been and are springing up within those strata, but it will take intentional effort to see church planting movements begin in strata, which the church has not yet penetrated.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has recognized this need for some time now. In 1991, a People’s Daily article, summarizing a speech by Jiang Zemin, stated, “Party members coming from workers, farmers, intellectuals, servicemen and cadres are the most fundamental components and back- bone force of the Party ranks, at the same time, it is necessary to draw into the Party the outstanding elements from other social sectors….”2

While it is highly unlikely that the CCP is going to succeed in achieving the goal Jiang enunciated in this speech, it is certain that someone or something IS going to capture the hearts and minds of the peoples of China’s cities. Will it be the message of Christ or some false “ism” or god?


  1. Excerpted from an article in the Los Angeles Times, January 18, 2004. (www. 1074360636509.html)
  2. http:/ 200108/28/eng20010828_78614.html
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Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio