Supporting Article

Striving toward the Chinese Century

World famous historian Arnold Toynbee said that the 21st century would be the Chinese century. That was not a prophecy, but a conclusion based on his life-long research of world history and cultural changes. At the time he said this, there seemed to be no supporting evidence, but recent developments indicate that these words of Toynbee will indeed become reality.

The Glorious Past

China was a strong country throughout history, calling itself the “Middle” Kingdom. From an economic point of view, China was the world’s major economy during the Middle Ages. It is estimated that on the eve of the Industrial Revolution China’s output reached as high as half of the world’s total and its per capita income was the world’s highest. As the Industrial Revolution brought prosperity to Britain and other European nations, China’s portion of the world’s production shrank. Still, China’s output accounted for one third of the world’s total.

During the time between the late Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic, under the pressure of domestic problems and foreign conflicts, China went through a series of upheavals. Even so, by the eve of World War I, China’s economic output was still 8% of the world’s total.[1]

During the wartorn Republican period, the national economy was still able to maintain growth. Before the Sino-Japanese war, China’s industry grew at an average annual rate of almost 10%. The success of the Northern Expedition brought China a period of stability; the decade of 1927 to 1936 saw the laying of China’s national economic foundation.[2]

During these ten years of construction, the Chinese church had greater progress than previously. Church leaders launched a series of revivals echoing the national construction movement. One of these revival efforts was called the “Five Year Endeavor,” short for the Five Year Evangelical Endeavor. This endeavor was a nation-wide spiritual revival effort with the purposes of rekindling the faith of the existing believers and doubling the number of believers during a five-year period, and was undertaken by a church that was expressing its ideal of saving the nation and its people. During this period, the government had shown new vitality, and reforms in the areas of politics and economy were carried out. The Chinese church, realizing its influence and strength, felt responsible to assist the government and was eager to contribute. Its leaders hoped, through the “Five Year Endeavor,” to touch the hearts of people, create a new morality in them, increase the number of moral citizens in the nation, and directly assist the government’s construction programs.[3]

In the meantime, another type of revival phenomenon was emerging within the Chinese church. These revivals, occurring at different times and locations, were led by various individuals; there was no communication between revival groups, neither was there any careful planning. These phenomena are called “spontaneous” revivals. It is, without doubt, the work of the Holy Spirit that accomplished these. God raised up church leaders such as Andrew Gih, John Sung, Wang Mingdao, Timothy Dzao, Watchman Nee, Chia Yu-ming and Leland Wang. Though these leaders had different personalities and styles, they were all pure in faith and doctrine. Andrew Gih, John Sung and Wang Mingdao, especially, saw themselves as part of the big picture of the fate of the nation and devoted their hearts to evangelistic work as a way of fulfilling their duties to the nation. The devotional spirit of these forefathers sets an example for us today. Their contributions and achievements are a part of the glorious history of China and will have a deep impact on future generations.[4]

The Grand Future

China has had an admirable past and the 21st century will see an even greater future. It is predicted that the 21st century’s biggest change will be the reshaping of the world economic order. During the past century, the world economy has been almost completely dominated by the more advanced European and American nations. It is predicted that in 25 years, the countries that, at present, have been left behind, will turn the tide. The major element for this economic reshaping is the rise of the Southeast Asian countries. The Four Little Asian Dragons that have maintained a high economic growth for the last 30 years are the strongest evidence of this trend. The Asian economic crisis, in my view, is a short-term setback in the long-term perspective. The rise of China, compared with these Four Little Asian Dragons, is truly like a giant dinosaur. During the past 10 to 20 years, China enjoyed an annual average economic growth rate of about 10%. According to the World Bank’s estimate (using purchasing power to value production), China ranks number three among the 15 most powerful economies in the world, next only to the U.S. and Japan. By the year 2020, China will be the number one economy in the world, followed by the U.S. and Japan—with a large margin in between! If China maintains an annual growth rate of 6% – 7% (experience shows that this is a conservative estimate), average personal income in China will be $13,000; it is not surprising, then, that by 2150 China’s per capita income could surpass that of the U.S. and Japan.[5]

The emergence of a middle class with strong buying power has been the major reason for the economic take-off of Southeast Asia. Consumers’ needs range from cars and refrigerators to telephones. Consumption stimulates production, production increases income; therefore, a cycle of sustained economic growth and increased buying power exists. For example, Western aircraft manufacturers confirm that China is their biggest market. It is estimated that by the year 2000 there will be over 1000 aircraft per year sold to China. China’s buying power is already enormous, while its potential buying power is beyond imagination. Another example is telephone service. China currently has 12 million lines, averaging one line per 100 persons, while in nearby Hong Kong the ratio is one for every two persons. This shows the amazing potential of the undeveloped market in China.

The economic power of the overseas Chinese is even more impressive. The overseas Chinese have been great contributors to today’s economic growth in mainland China. It is estimated that 80% of the 40 billion dollars of annual foreign investment to China is overseas Chinese capital. It is no wonder then that some people say China’s economic development is a result of the 5% of Chinese who live overseas supporting the 95% who live in China.[6] This overseas Chinese capital concentrates in Southeast Asian countries where it has a monopoly over local economies and where the majority of billionaires are of Chinese origin. Surveying the changing faces of the world economic powers, the Chinese economic rim is an unavoidable force. The World Bank estimates total production (using purchasing power to estimate production) of the “Chinese economic area” (including mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) will catch up with or even surpass U.S. production by the year 2002,[7] and, in the near future, Chinese economic power will replace the Japanese economic monopoly in Asia.[8]

The past fifty years also saw considerable progress by the Chinese church. Fifty years ago China had one to two million Christians. Today, there are various estimates of the current number of Christians: the conservative estimate suggests 20 to 30 million; it may be 60 million, and it is possible the number could even be higher. Based on the above estimates the average annual rate of increase has been close to 7% for the last 50 years although growth has not been steady during this period. If the rate of increase is maintained at 7%, 25 years later the total number of Chinese Christians might reach 300 to 400 million. This is not just dreaming or guessing, but rather a conclusion based on evidence. The number of Chinese Christians will then surpass the number of Christians in any other ethnic group and China will be the country with the greatest number of Christians.

Today there are few ethnic Chinese missionaries, but, in the future, Chinese Christians may contribute the largest and strongest missionary force. Besides providing human resources, Chinese Christians may also be the major financial source for world evangelism due to China’s economic prosperity, its number one economic power status and the growth of personal income and increase in the standard of living.

Studying the overall trend of world history, we see that industrial development and economic growth have often been accompanied by church revival and the rise of Christian civilization. It is a historical fact that, whenever the number of Christians with a world vision has increased, worldwide evangelistic work has expanded and missionaries have been sent to foreign countries. This happened in 18th and 19th century Britain and Europe, and in 20th century U.S. and Canada. (Japan is not an example because of its recent and relatively brief rising and declining period. Japan’s rise has been a phenomenon of the past 20 years only; it may fade in 20 years.) It should not come as a surprise that mainland China will take its turn in the 21st century. It will soon be a reality that China is the number one economic power with the world’s biggest Christian population and the strongest mission resources. We should be looking forward to the coming of this great day and be encouraged to join in ministries to fulfill Christ’s great commission.

Difficult Challenges Ahead

God is Lord of history. The development of world history is part of His plan. He is the King of kings, the  Lord reigning over the fate of each nation. As Psalm 103:19 says, “The LORD hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.” China’s history, its fate and future are all in the hands of God. It is God’s miraculous plan for China to become the number one economic power and have the biggest Christian population in the world. Someone put it humorously that “For God so loved the Chinese, He created a great many of them!” If you give further thought to this comment, you may see the deep spiritual meaning behind the humor. The deeds of the Lord of history are shown. In surveying trends in mainland China, not only should we have unshakable faith in the Lord of the history, but also the historical viewpoint to see the miraculous deeds of God.[9]

God has done miraculous things in mainland China, starting with Mao Zedong who tried to unify the language and eliminate cultural obstacles. Unexpectedly, Mao made straight the way for the wide dissemination of the Gospel. With the launching of economic reform, the religious policy of Deng Xiaoping’s era benefited church growth. Some house church leaders believe that despite persecution, the church had been “free” enough to spread the Gospel. They believe it has been one of the most “ideal” environments because the church, after going through long trials, has grown through painful experiences; believers became enthusiastic for evangelism and carried the gospel to remote and rural areas.  The church grew rapidly. If there had been no persecution, then there would not be this kind of harvest. However, if the persecution had been too severe, the Gospel would not have been spread and the church would have stopped growing. Some have said that God used Deng Xiaoping to accomplish revival in China.[10]

Another miracle has been the emergence of “Culture Christians.” Chinese intellectuals have historically been against the Christian faith; the expressions of their opposition have ranged from rejection to all-out attack. They even took action to eliminate any foreign religions. Since the 1980s, a group of researchers on Christianity has started to emerge from among mainland Chinese intellectuals. Among these scholars of Christianity, a large number are scholars of philosophy due to the fact that philosophy and religion have much in common in their research focus and analytical constructs. After years of research on Christian literature and theological works, and under the impact of Christian “spiritual civilization,” some of these have expressed their desire to accept the Christian belief and have become Christians. They are called “Culture Christians.”

We cannot be sure of the authenticity of the faith of this group of people. They tend to embrace the European theological ideas that have academic emphasis, which makes them dangerously vulnerable to being derailed from fundamental theological tracks. They may bring harmful influences to the church in the future. This is an undeniable, hidden problem; however, the positive influence of this group of people has been quite evident. Through years of research, the publications of the scholars in mainland

China’s cultural circles have corrected some mistakes on religious theory and destroyed the mistaken notion of “religion as the opiate of the people.” This was a revolutionary and foundational theoretical change. It should be considered a significant contribution of the “Culture Christians.” Through   translating and introducing Christian literature via the history and works of theology in the 20th century, the “Culture Christians” provided contemporary research materials on world religions and cultivated interest in, and favor for, Christianity among many scholars and intellectuals.[11] We deeply believe God will use these cultural elite in harmoniously penetrating the Chinese culture with Christian truth to accomplish the Christianization of the Chinese culture and make a way for Christian truth to rebuild the political, social and economic foundations of the country.

It is also God’s plan that the Chinese elite are found all over the world. Currently, there are about 600,000 Chinese scholars and students abroad, scattered in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and the rest of Europe. About half of them are in the U.S. and are very open to the gospel.  Evidence shows that about 10% of them have accepted Christ as their Savior, and many of these believers, who have committed themselves to full-time ministry, are receiving training in theological seminaries. This is a late-twentieth century miracle. When these students return to China after their training, along with the elite in China, they will be a powerful army for the Christianization of 21st century China.

The “miracle” before us constitutes these difficult challenges: First, 21st century China will have the biggest Christian population in the world. At the same time, the Chinese still constitute the world’s largest concentration of unevangelized people. Twenty-five or fifty years from now, their numbers will be amazingly large. The challenge is for the gospel to penetrate all of China.

Secondly, 21st century China will be  the world’s number one economic power, but today’s China is still a society of distorted values that need to be straightened out. Individualism, pragmatism and utilitarianism are the mainstream of current Chinese society. People care only for their own interests and financial gain. They seek only material enjoyment and possessions; China has lost a clear sense of values. To look at China from a spiritual viewpoint, it is an empty and lost society. Yuan Zhiming, one of the writers of the popular Chinese television series River Elegy, said, “…if these problems remain undealt with, the Chinese will become a species of people with a distorted and horrifying face. The relationships between their people will be like those of wolves. Then, . . . the Chinese as an ethnic group will lose a real chance to rise among the world’s peoples. What difference will it make even if China has half of the world’s fortune? Everyone will have lost his consciousness and morality, living like a wolf, destroying and being destroyed by one another.”

China has experienced two “liberations” during the past 50 years. The communist Party overthrew the Nationalist Party and “liberated” China in 1949. The 40 years of planned economic development that followed in which they attempted to utilize resources and stimulate production and market distribution did not make the communist ideal a reality. Deng Xiaoping’s policies of reform and liberalization constituted the “re-liberation,”—the liberation from the control of the communist system. Now, China has stepped into the post-communist era and, though the economy is growing and private enterprise and foreign investment are increasing dramatically, China still needs a real “liberation” to bring forth democracy and freedom, human rights and the restoration of human dignity. This is the challenge of the spiritual and moral restoration.[12]

Thirdly, the mainland Chinese Christians have gone through decades of trials; they are equipped with worthy spiritual traits and rich experience in personal evangelism. China is the world’s biggest mission field, but, at the same time, its church probably represents a tremendous missionary reserve army. With the re-opening of China to the outside world, non-Chinese churches and agencies rushed into this Chinese mission field. Their lack of knowledge of the mainland church has often caused setbacks and difficulties in their work. The overseas Chinese church should understand clearly the strength and potential of the mainland church and view it as a partner in evangelism while, at the same time, it strengthens itself and prepares for effective cooperation.

Let’s look back at history. During the 1911 revolution, the overseas Chinese made a great contribution. During the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese government was running a constant deficit; overseas Chinese provided generous donations. Today, China’s economic development owes a great deal to this investment from overseas Chinese. For the gospel to be heard in every corner of China, overseas Chinese will also have to have appropriate involvement. Right now, professionals are able to work in the fields of education and health care while having a low profile witness. Overseas Christians need to have a comprehensive plan ready to put into action when the opportunity presents itself. Overseas Chinese mission agencies need to do long-term planning to train workers for China and to be prepared to shoulder the task of world evangelism. This is a challenge for overseas Chinese.

Finally, of the mainland Chinese scholars and students that are scattered all over the world, half are in the U.S. Former Time magazine Beijing bureau chief David Aikman said that reaching out to students from the People’s Republic of China in the West is simply the most strategically important Christian missionary endeavor anywhere in the world.[13] Christians in North America have a unique opportunity which we Chinese, especially, need to seize in order to see our blood brothers and sisters come to know Christ. When these students finish their studies and return to China, they will have extensive influence within the elite class and will be able to help the Christian faith take root and grow within the lives of Chinese people. This is a special challenge for Chinese believers in North America!


Dr. Philip Teng talked about xiangchou, a Chinese word which has no English equivalent, but which he described as “a kind of deep feeling, an intense sense of loneliness which reveals a root in our hearts. This root binds us tightly to the motherland. When that root is tugging at our heart strings, the result is xiangchou.” So, within our hearts, there comes naturally a kind of “China call.”[14] May we be empowered by God through this “root” within us to effectively answer the above challenges. 


  1. ^ The Economist, “A Survey of Global Economy,” October 1, 1994.
  2. ^ John K. Chang, Industrial Development in Pre-Communist China, Aldine, Chicago, 1969.
  3. ^ Rong-Hong Lin, Too Highbrow to be Popular: Ze-Chen Chao’s Biography and Theology, Hong Kong,China Graduate School of Theology, 1994, p. 161.
  4. ^ Rong-Hong Lin, Chinese Theology for Fifty Years, 1900-1949.
  5. ^ John K. Chang, “World Economic Perspective in the 21st Century,” Proclaim, Nov/Dec, 1996, pp. 21, 22.
  6. ^ Sterling Seagrave, Lord of the Rim: The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese, London, 1995.
  7. ^ The Economist, Ibid.
  8. ^ John Naisbitt, Megatrends Asia, London, 1995.
  9. ^ Philip Teng, “Christians’ China Mission,” Proclaim, May/June, 1997, p.19.
  10. ^ Alex Buchan, “Deng Xiaoping: An Instrument of Revival,” Challenger, June/July, 1995, p.5.
  11. ^ Cun-Fu Chen & Zhi-Wei Xu, “The Reflection and Comprehension of Culture Christian Phenomenon,” Regent Chinese Journal, Vol. IV, No. 1, 1996, pp. 21-22.
  12. ^ Zhi-Ming Yuan & Wan-Feng Su, “Spiritual Current: Discussion on Christian Faith and theFuture of China,” Overseas Campus, Vol. 5, No. 4, Aug. 1997, p.21.
  13. ^ Institute for Chinese Studies, Wheaton College, “China Facing the 21st Century,” Conference,Washington D.C., Oct. 30, 1996.
  14. ^ Philip Teng, “Christians’ China Mission,” Proclaim, May/June, 1997.
Image credit:  SHANGHAI by canduela via Flickr.
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John Chang

Dr. John Chang, formerly with the Asian Development Bank, is Associate General Director of GO International, a Chinese missionary sending agency based in San Francisco.View Full Bio