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Anticipating Urban China

From the series Looking Back

As ChinaSource celebrates 20 years of service we are digging into our archives for articles chronicling the myriad far-reaching changes in China during the past two decades.

The current selection is the lead article from the summer 2000 issue of the ChinaSource journal (later retitled ChinaSource Quarterly), entitled “China’s Burgeoning Cities.” Written by John Swem, publisher of the Intercessors for China Prayer Calendar, the article anticipates the economic, social, and cultural shifts that would result from China’s massive urbanization.

Of particular note is the observation that unregistered churches in the cities seem to have a harder time than those in the countryside, suggesting that China’s urban “house churches” would need to lay low and remain small if they were going to avoid interference from authorities. While the legal issues facing unregistered churches at the turn of the millennium remain unresolved, these congregations would nonetheless experience an era of unprecedented growth, visibility, and influence as a new type of church emerged in China’s cities.

Here is the article in its entirety:

China’s Burgeoning Cities.

Urbanization in China is occurring at an accelerated pace. According to statistics from a survey taken last year, more than 40 percent of the Chinese population will live in cities and towns within the next decade. Some of these are mega-cities with populations in the several millions; more than 30 have a population of over one million—and when migrants and other agricultural residents are included in these populations, there are over 150 such cities.

Although China’s current “period of reform” began in 1978, its visible impact on China’s cities did not become significant until the ’90s. The results have been immense changes in the physical and social environments of China’s cities, and changes to a lesser extent in the spiritual environment. While there are significant differences between coastal cities and inland cities, northern cities and southern cities, mega-cities like Shanghai and Beijing and the others, nevertheless, there are some common elements that are observable across the entire country. This article will provide observations about the changes in the physical, social and spiritual environments in China’s cities in the last two decades. The hope is that the church, both inside and outside China, will take a deeper look at how to minister to this rapidly growing urban population.

Physical Environment

Although China has an ancient culture and extensive history, far too little of it has been preserved. Apart from a few scattered exceptions such as Beijing’s Forbidden City, warfare and natural disasters have combined to leave surprisingly little of her ancient cities intact. Modernization has added one more element to this destructive tendency as city planners all too often let the old go to make space for the new.

Infrastructure and Transportation

As late as the ’80s, city roads tended to be two-lane streets filled mostly with busses and bicycles. The main streets have now been widened to four lanes and cloverleaf or overpass exchanges have been built at major intersections to keep traffic moving. Bikes and busses still clog the roads, but now taxis, motorcycles and even private cars have joined them to create one massive and seemingly never-ending traffic jam. Various regulations have been enacted to reduce the number of vehicles in the cities at any one time. One city’s plan keeps trucks of certain sizes out of town during daylight hours. Another plan allows taxis or private cars on the streets only on certain days in accordance with the last digit of the license plate. One plan allowing taxis to operate only on odd or even days was abandoned after a general strike by the taxi drivers brought the city to a standstill during an important convention of security personnel.

Changes in the skylines of China’s cities have been even more dramatic than the road improvements. Buildings more than ten stories tall were rare in the ’80s; now, even smaller cities strive to have at least one 25-story tower as the signature building in their downtown areas. Entire city blocks are being torn down to make room for new office and apartment buildings. Residents displaced by these projects are often given only promises of new housing, inadequate compensation, or are moved to remote suburbs with few of the conveniences of urban life. Stories are increasing of citizens suing developers or city officials or organizing demonstrations due to failure to make new and affordable housing available.


Westerners since at least the time of Marco Polo have been amazed at the sheer number of people in China’s cities. Today, millions continue to head for the city in search of jobs and with hopes of a better life. While China was only 15 percent urban in 1980, urbanization estimates now range from 35 percent upward. The draconian registration system designed to keep peasants down on the farm is not enforced with the same strictness as previously. Newly affluent urbanites look to migrants to handle menial jobs such as construction work and domestic tasks.

Yet, while the overall numbers grow, the age of the urban population has risen as one age group has declined—the urban children.  As a result of the One Child Policy, sixty million of China’s three hundred million children age fourteen and under are “only” children. Since peasants continue to have two or more children, it is the urban child population that has shrunk most dramatically.

Consumer Goods

China’s new urban consumers have come to look, smell, eat and live like their counterparts in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. Older people are still dressed in their blue or gray Mao-style clothing as they congregate in the parks in the morning—but their children and grandchildren are not. For young women especially, urbanization has been accompanied by a fashion revolution. The latest styles in clothing, makeup and hair can be seen everywhere. Beauty parlors can be found on every street corner. Hair bleached orange or even yellow is not uncommon. Commercials on television and in magazines beckon China’s young to find their meaning by using the right toothpaste, deodorant, or shampoo.

China’s new urbanites not only look very modern, but their eating habits are also changing rapidly. McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants seem to be packed all day long. Street peddlers dispense Coke and Sprite for a few cents a cup. China’s planners worry about the rapid disappearance of local brands as international companies use market savvy to grab large chunks of the consumer’s yuan, with prices often much higher than those of local brands. The old peddlers of fried dough treats are still there, but one wonders for how much longer.

The urban upper and middle class are no longer content to live in tiny one- or two-room apartments with bare concrete floors, drab furnishings, and a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling in each room. Homes are now smartly styled with parquet floors, patterned wall paper, elaborate light fixtures and the latest in karaoke sound and DVD systems. Windows are covered with iron bars, and massive security doors protect each apartment entrance as a reminder that China has quickly become a land of haves and have nots rather than the egalitarian worker’s paradise touted by Mao Zedong.


A downside to these many improvements is the residue left behind in the form of pollution. For many years China’s cities have had air pollution problems due to the extensive use of soft coal. The government recently issued a report noting that the air in 137 cities—nearly 40 per cent of China’s total—was so foul that it exceeded medium-range government targets, and that there was a serious shortage of sewage treatment facilities as well. Additionally, in recent years the landscape has also become blighted by the widespread use of non-biodegradable plastic containers. To improve the environment, some urban areas are using sod to build up “instant” green areas and are also making significant use of trees and shrubs to make up for years of neglect. Yet the lack of funds invested in basic environmental protection is sure to result in problems that get much worse before they get better.

Social Environment

Fear and Mistrust

China’s fifty-year experiment with Communism has left one overwhelming scar upon her soul: a climate of fear and mistrust. In traditional Chinese culture, trust was based on relationships, above all, the relationships within the family. The Communist Party attempted to build a new society based on class warfare, and the struggle sessions that were a feature of Chinese society for so many years pitted one group against another in a brutal survival of the fittest. Bonds of trust between teacher and student, parent and child were torn apart. These bonds were replaced by shackles of fear and mistrust, chains that wait to be broken by the love of Jesus Christ.

While the fear and mistrust may not be as palpable as they were during the Cultural Revolution or in the years immediately after Tiananmen, they are still there, just below the surface of relationships. In office buildings, if conversations have important content, people will meet in hallways or outdoors to talk. The Falungong organizers made extensive use of cell phones and the internet, but the security organs are working overtime to master ways of controlling and monitoring these advanced means of communication. This type of atmosphere is exceptionally difficult for Westerners, who have not lived under communism, to appreciate. Most have no concept of how pervasively a totalitarian society controls the lives of its citizens. The dream of many Chinese parents in urban areas is that their child will not have to live under such chilling restrictions, and these parents will work long hours in the attempt to give their child the talent or wealth to leave the country.

The One Child Policy

The impact of China’s “One Child Policy,” implemented after Mao Zedong’s death, is becoming more apparent in China’s cities. Recent studies have indicated that this policy has been far more strictly observed in the cities than in the countryside. Few Chinese urban youth under twenty have a brother or a sister. Concern over the impact of this policy on future care for the elderly has led to a law that permits a couple in which each is an “only” child to have two children. It remains to be seen whether or not the sixty million who have no brothers and sisters will exercise this choice after a generation of population control propaganda that has emphasized the allegedly terrible financial burden of raising children and the joy of being able to devote parental affection to only one child.

A Chinese woman who learns that she is pregnant must face a set of concerns not faced by women in the West. If she already has a child, she knows that there is virtually no way for her to avoid a trip to the hospital for an abortion. Even if this is her first child, there may be problems. If she has not obtained a certificate allowing her to give birth, she must consider whether or not she will need to bribe someone to get a certificate and the kind of bribe required. If she cannot get the certificate, she too must face the awful reality of the trip to the hospital to abort what may be the only child she will ever carry. Sadly, many young women have been so heavily influenced by the relentless “one child” propaganda that they have abortions without even pondering their action or its impact on their ability to have another child.


The corruption of the soul of China exacerbated by the “One Child Policy” has been accompanied by the corruption of her economy. The puritanical communism espoused by Mao Zedong succeeded in eliminating much of the corruption left from the Kuomintang era although, admittedly, China was so impoverished that there was relatively little to corrupt. This has changed dramatically during the era of the Four Modernizations.

The cliché that relationships (guanxi) are needed to get anything done in China has been amended to add the need to pay a bribe. Ironically, money—and not class status—has become the key to life in China. Every layer of Chinese society is now pervaded by corruption and even the church has all too often become infected with this evil. It is perhaps no surprise that most business deals are greased with bribes. But the impact reaches further. Elementary teachers are bribed to give good grades to students so they can advance to a good high school. Doctors are bribed to give priority to patients waiting for surgery. Environmental inspectors are bribed to ignore massive pollution. Building inspectors are bribed to allow shoddy construction to pass muster.

Periodically the government mounts a major campaign when scandals become too large to ignore. The Beijing Communist Party Secretary, Chen Xitong, was finally imprisoned after embezzling $2.2 billon. Jiangxi’s Vice Governor for the Religious Affairs Bureau, Hu Changqing, was executed in May of this year after taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. The problem is rooted in man’s corrupt nature and in a materialistic system that has attempted to banish any concept of God’s absolute truth that would act as a check on that nature.

This corruption has also led to the revival of old social evils thought to have been banished in the “New China.” Police are bribed to overlook prostitution, gambling, and drug use. To one who saw the spartan life in China’s cities in the ’70s or ’80s, the gaudy and glitzy neon scenes of the ’90s seem almost unimaginable.

Spiritual Environment

While the physical and social changes of the last decade have been significant, those of the spiritual environment seem more limited. The great revival that has swept China in recent years has been largely rural and, to a lesser degree, on college campuses, leaving China’s average urban dwellers largely untouched. This urban population can truly be considered among the least reached people groups in China.

Although the Communist Party seems to have reached some level of accommodation with the idea of the control of significant economic activity being in private hands, it has yet to do so in the area of religious activity. As the ferocity of the government campaign against the Falungong has illustrated, the urban Chinese have yet to experience in the arena of religious activities anything like the changes they have seen in the economic sphere. For Christians living in urban areas, there are several major problems with the current situation, including the number of registered church buildings, their location and condition and the plight of unregistered house churches.

Number of Registered Church Buildings

Most Chinese cities have at least one Protestant and one Catholic church building open—sometimes a few more. Given the level of interest in the countryside and on campuses, it is certain that the current number of registered buildings in the cities do not begin to meet the need. The registered congregations usually meet in old buildings given back to the Three Self authorities after the Cultural Revolution. However, the vast majority of church buildings closed down in the ’50s and later still have not been returned. Moreover, often these buildings are located in areas that have become prime space for development. In Tianjin, Kunming and Xi’an to name just three, the main church building was torn down. The churches in Kunming and Xi’an are experiencing major problems in getting a new building, while the situation in Tianjin was helped by the fact that the church already owned property a few blocks away and did not need to incur the huge expenses of acquiring new land.

Location and Condition

Many of the older buildings are in areas that are no longer primarily residential or areas that are not easily accessible from the newly developed residential areas. In reality, urban congregations need to retain their current buildings while they plant churches in newer areas. The authorities have not only not given back all the older buildings, but they are not permitting congregations to build or register in newer areas. Urban churches have only been able to register “meeting points,” often under the guise of serving older members who can no longer travel to the older buildings. This does not begin to address the need for an aggressive evangelism strategy which would allow Christians to freely gather in homes, schools, or other places to meet the needs of China’s urban peoples.

In addition to buildings inadequate in number and location, many are also in poor condition. The facilities were abused for years when used as factories or warehouses and the government has made no real effort to compensate for this abuse. Few urban Christians have the wealth, or perhaps the motivation, to donate the kinds of sums that would be required to upgrade the old facilities.

Unregistered House Churches

China’s urban Christians are much more restricted than their rural brothers and sisters in regard to meeting outside the control of the Three Self. There seems to be an unpublished rule that in the cities unregistered groups can meet as long as they are not “too large,” a number that seems to be around fifty in many places. When numbers grow beyond this size, the authorities step in and discipline the leaders until the situation is resolved.

The cities in north and northeast China seem to be somewhat more restrictive about unregistered house churches than those in other parts of the country. This may be due in part to the fact that geographical proximity increases the control of Beijing and in part to the more open atmosphere in the economically vibrant cities of south China. However, oftentimes the degree of restriction is greatly affected by the personalities of local officials, so accurate generalizations based on geography can be somewhat tricky.

Christians in the central areas of Henan and Anhui have been intensely persecuted in recent years as the huge growth of the church has created fear and resentment in Communist Party officials. In addition, the campaign against the Falungong undoubtedly has spilled over to the church. Shanghai is one city where house churches recently reported an increase in troubles, sometimes fostered by Three Self leaders.


China’s cities have shaken off the sterility and stagnation of the Mao years. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people becomes more evident with each passing year. If the gospel is to penetrate all of China, these great cities must be reached. The rapidly growing portion of the population housed in China’s cities need to hear of Christ. The urbanization of China should be viewed as a wonderful opportunity to reach many minority peoples who may be away from the spiritual bondage of their tradition-bound cultures for the first time. In addition, cities are strategic centers for disseminating the gospel to smaller towns, villages and rural areas. May we carefully study their characteristics and prayerfully develop strategies to reach them so that their inhabitants will find their rightful place in the body of Christ.

For more on China’s cities at the turn of the millennium, see the other articles in”Urbanization in China.” A PDF version is available for download.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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