As lifestyles in many Chinese cities increasingly mirror those of China’s Asian neighbors and market forces push the boundaries in areas that were once tightly regulated, it is sometimes easy to forget that China is still under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.
In its effort to promote a strong and prosperous China, the Party has loosened its grip considerably in many areas of society. People have greater freedom than ever in deciding where they will live, what they will do for a living, and how to spend their leisure time. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization has subjected her to international business and legal standards and opened China’s markets to international competition.
While China continues down a course of rapid economic and cultural opening, it seems paradoxical that, in the area of spiritual life, the Party seeks to maintain tight supervision. A few principles are worth keeping in mind for Christians serving in China who desire to make a positive contribution while avoiding entanglement in the 98Party’s tentacles of control.
Learn from history. The party’s suspicion of spiritual activities predates the Party itself. China has a long and colorful history of movements, such as the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s, that succeeded in gathering millions of followers to attempt an overthrow of the regime. The Falungong movement that burst onto the scene in the 1990s was a déja vu experience for Party leaders with a sense of history, and their forceful response was typical of what would have been expected in past dynasties.
Check your politics at the door. In the minds of many Chinese, Christianity is linked historically with the opium trade and the bullying China suffered at the hands of Western imperial powers. It is no wonder, then, that the Party suspects that Christians from abroad come with political motives. To dispel this assumption we need to avoid the appearance of identifying with a particular political cause or group. We should also refrain from discussing topics (such as the relationship between the PRC and Taiwan) that are known to be politically sensitive.
The less said the better. The scope of what you are able to do in China is inversely proportional to your need to talk about it. High-profile publicity about one’s work in China is usually counter-productive, as it raises questions about motives and forces officials who would otherwise not get involved to take a closer look in order to save face and prove that they are doing their jobs. The triumphalism sometimes heard in Christian circles in the West smacks to Chinese ears of cultural arrogance, creating a stumbling block to the message we are trying to convey.
Remember why you’re there. Regardless of who is in power, the fact remains that Christians inside and outside China are called to care for the people of China and to pursue God’s best for the country. If we focus on being a blessing rather than on the political constraints that remain a fact of life in China we will be more likely to leave a positive legacy.
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of... View Full Bio