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Working with Sea Turtles

A Snapshot of Sea Turtles

What topic returns 47 million Chinese entries on Google search, more than half as much as the Olympic gold medalist Liu Xiang (known as the “king of hurdles” in China)? The answer, surprisingly, is “haigui,” or “sea turtle.” The popularity of the topic on the Internet, however, does not indicate a new concern for the environment or endangered species. Instead, haigui refers, in current Chinese slang, to overseas returnees, especially to the thousands of Chinese students who have completed studies overseas, gained some practical work experience, and are now returning home. The Chinese characters for “turtle” and “returnee” are different, but both sound the same”gui.” With a little play on word, “haigui” was quickly accepted as the label for overseas returnees. Since 2005, the numbers and influence of haigui in China have been steadily rising.

Since China opened her doors in 1979, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of students and scholars going overseas each year. Starting with less than 2,000 in 1979, 284,000 went abroad in 2010. The total number who studied abroad in the period from 1979 to 2010 is estimated at 1.91 million. Out of this large population, about 1/3, over 636,000, have returned so far to join the ranks of the haigui. However, the movement to return is accelerating. Starting with just a handful in the 80s, the annual flow of returnees picked up in the late 90s and has since grown at a steady pace of 13% each year. By 2010, the number of haigui who returned to China in that year (almost 140,000) exceeded, for the first time, the number of those leaving for overseas study (just over 130,000). Most of these haigui are settling in China where the jobs areBeijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. As a result, between 2004 and 2006, the rate of return to these three cities grew 30% annually.

Some haigui are returning to China for economic or personal reasons. Others are returning when their host country does not allow them to stay after they finish their training.

There have been literally hundreds of churches and agencies involved in sharing Christ with Chinese students and scholars in the West. Some have estimated that as many as 10% of students from China have come to Christ while studying overseas. Even children of top leaders have opened their hearts to Christ but take a deliberately low-profile approach in any public confession. Assuming that the 10% conversion rate is correct, there should be at least 63,000 haigui Christians in China as of 2010.

With such a large number, haigui Christians should be having a significant impact on the Chinese church and Chinese society. Especially given their level of education and their high socio-economic status, one would expect that their influence would be amplified. However, when we look for the impact of haigui Christians, we are reminded of Barzan’s memorable phrase, “The silence is deafening.” One can find little evidence of the existence, not to mention the social impact, of the 63,000. The only indication that some are still alive appears to be the recent development of the haigui fellowships discussed later in this article.

Why is it that so many promising haigui Christians seem to have left their faith overseas? How can we understand their disappearance and apparent lack of ministry involvement after their return? Even more importantly, what can we do to encourage their faith and help them to realize their potential?

Historically, part of the difficulty in assessing the scope of the returnee problem or finding solutions has been due to a lack of coordination among the churches and agencies that evangelize Chinese students. There has not been a good mechanism for tracking or following up on haigui Christians. In the early 1990s, some agencies were beginning to gather evidence that many, if not most, of haigui Christians were not continuing on in their faith. Most were simply “lost” or unaccounted for after returning. This led to many independent, piecemeal efforts aimed at fixing the problem. It was only after the repeated failure of these efforts that many were ready to join together in a coordinated effort. Needless to say, making progress in this direction has taken some time.

This issue of the ChinaSource journal will focus on the impact of haigui Christians and how to effectively support them. This article will retrace the development of ministry among haigui historically and draw out some of the lessons learned from it.

Development of Haigui Ministry in the West

Over the past 15 years, there have been several discussions on how to develop a follow-up model among haigui Christians. These discussions started as impromptu meetings whenever leaders of China ministry agencies gathered at conferences convened for other purposes. Later on, the discussions began to be conducted formally during China consultation conferences. It was recognized early on that the task required a close connection between ministries in the West (involved in evangelism and discipleship) and ministries in China (involved in follow-up after return). There were at least two serious attempts, in the US and UK respectively, to set up projects to coordinate a follow-up referral network. These early efforts were along two major lines:

  1. Constructing a network of referral to connect returnees with expatriate Christian workers in China.
  2. Planting special returnee fellowship groups for haigui to meet regularly to encourage each other in the faith.

In 2006, an inter-agency Returnee Summit was held. A follow-up committee was appointed to guide the ensuing discussion. Committee members considered how to better prepare Chinese students for returning to China. As a result, special retreats for potential haigui were organized in North America by different agencies. Interviews were conducted with haigui in China which aided in understanding the reasons behind the dropout rate and in developing training and literature to enable haigui to continue in their walk with Christ. Returnee Summits were held every year between 2007 and 2010, each one building on the knowledge and experience gained from previous years.

In the midst of these summits, more and more Chinese leaders began to be drawn into the discussion. This started with overseas Chinese. Later more national church leaders were invited to join the Summit. The overseas Chinese played a key role in bridging Western leaders with their counterparts in China. In the early years, most of the participants in the Summits were Westerners. Now most are ethnic Chinese. The language used in the Summit changed from English to bilingual to Chinese in the space of 5 years.

In 2010, the committee which planned the Summits reached the conclusion that the scope and breadth of returnee ministry required a new structure that will facilitate expansion and growth of haigui ministries, both in China and around the world. It was clear that, in order to fulfill this calling, there need to be two major areas of focus: Preparing returnees before they return to China, and connecting them with other haigui Christians after they return.

Development of Haigui Ministry in China

Among the current wave of haigui Christians, the first one known to succeed as a ministry leader was in the mid-90s. Like Ezra and Nehemiah, he had impressive credentials. He earned a Ph.D. in applied science and also completed his theological education in the West. He returned to China with a goal to build up the local church. And he did. He took a job based on his professional background, planted a church and was responsible for establishing a fellowship network among house church leaders in his city. All this he did within five years after returning.

Around the same time, some expatriate tentmakers in China were made aware of the desperate need for Christians to follow up on haigui. A few decided to stop their other worthwhile ministries and focus their attention exclusively on haigui ministry. Out of this was born the first haigui fellowship.

The planting of haigui fellowships has grown in the intervening years, often by the multiplication of groups in accordance with cell church models. Today, there are haigui fellowships and networks all over China, not only in the top-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Xiamen, but also in many second-tier cities stretching from Chengdu to Nanjing to Xian. A few of these haigui fellowships are led by expatriates. Most are initiated and led by the haigui themselves. Yet others were started by national churches, including both official and house churches.

There are also haigui Christians who sense a special call to return for the sole purpose of engaging in haigui ministry. They are not returning for economic or family reasons; rather, they choose to become haigui for a missional purpose. Although their numbers are relatively small, they are making an impact.

While all of this is encouraging, the fact remains that the vast majority of haigui Christians are still not connected to any kind of Christian fellowship. The effort to plant haigui fellowships to reach out to them is only in its infancy. Much more support and cooperation among churches and agencies inside and outside of China are essential to have any hope of meeting the need.

Key Lessons from Experience in Haigui Ministry

Timing: By God’s grace, several key agencies in the West came to the point of readiness to engage in haigui ministry at the same time after many years of discussion. This created the much needed critical mass for the ministry to gather momentum.

Partnership: The task can only be tackled with close cooperation and partnership among agencies. Even the biggest or the most experienced of the China ministry agencies do not have enough resources and networks to cover the vast number of Chinese students in the West and the geographical spread of the haigui in China. However, partnering is proving to be a challenge. In the words of Phill Butler, the partnership guru, “Effective partnerships don’t come free. Just participating in the exploration, planning, launch, and ongoing coordination takes time and money. Deeper commitment may require still greater investment.”

Cross-Cultural Partnership: Another difficulty haigui ministry faces is one of cross-cultural partnership. There were challenges when the Summit switched from English speaking to Chinese speaking similar to Acts 6:1. Again, words of Phil Butler illustrate this: “Even among people living together under the same roof, understanding and sharing the responsibilities of life and the goals you’ve agreed on can be challenging. Add other communication challenges such as vast distances and different languages, and you immediately see what we are up against!”

Cultural Bridges: Overseas Chinese leaders played a key role in the formation of the partnership, in bridging East and West, and in integrating national leaders into the discussion. Without such Overseas Chinese involvement, it would be difficult to imagine how haigui ministry cooperation between China and the West could have started.

Resources: Partnership takes time; cross-cultural partnership takes more time. Partnership takes patience; cross-cultural partnership more so. Partnership takes money; cross-cultural partnership even more. So far, haigui ministry has gone along by shoe-string resources. In order for haigui to reach their full potential, significant support must be committed by ministries.

Personnel: One of the most critical needs for haigui ministry is for leaders to emerge who are called to this ministry. At least two levels of leaders are needed: first, people to work full-time to mobilize and coordinate ministries in all of the countries where Chinese young people go to study, and second, people to work full-time to organize haigui fellowships in China. More people are needed who will focus their full attention on thisby saying “no” to other worthwhile China ministry activities.

Haigui: A Glance into the Future

Some haigui Christians have left their mark on China’s history. Sun Yat-Sen, for example, studied in Hawaii, led the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and founded the Republic 100 years ago. John Sung earned a Ph.D. from Ohio State University, but he served God full-time as an evangelist after his return in 1927. Thousands came to Christ through his ministry. Will there be another Sun or Sung among the haigui of this generation? Or will they be lost among those who disappear after returning to China, never having received the support and encouragement they needed?

The authors, I. Kam and H. Bo, have been involved in haigui ministry since the formative years of the current movement. They can be reached at: rtcp@psmail.net

Image Credit: Beijing capital international airport BCIA 北京首都国际机场 by Chris, on Flickr
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