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China in the Mirror: Challenges and Realities

Reflections on China, Part 1: The Context in 2024

From the series Reflections on China in 2024

Whether in the area of economics, politics, foreign affairs, theology, or ministry, there is a distinct pessimism in the air about China among Americans. This is evidence in many areas, three in particular: (1) An Orwellian political environment, with no space for free speech or free thought, is assumed, including fear about China’s ascent on the global stage. (2) The anticipated demise of China’s economy continues. (3) And the concern that basic missiological principles to guide cross-cultural ministry don’t work under restrictive environments is common.

I first went to China in 1985, serving there until 2012. The level of surveillance and scrutiny of expatriates at that time was high. We were not allowed to learn the Chinese language, so we had to surreptitiously work with a language tutor informally during noon rest time. The Chinese church was only six years from being normalized with the formation of the China Christian Council in 1980. The Chinese church was finding its own way and didn’t know how to relate to foreigners. While the current ministry context, with highly technological surveillance tools, feels restrictive, it appears to be a change in method, rather than a change in concept. We have been here all along.

There is no denying that since 2013 the climate has been difficult for foreign Christian organizations in China. It is said that the number of expatriate Christians serving in China today is less than 20% of what it was at its peak. With all these concerns, and the facts of the last ten years, how is one to view China in 2024? In the first of this two-part series, I will lay out three concerns, and then in part two I will explain how my hope for ministry in China lies in a reconfigured view of these three concerns.


To use a Chinese phrase, the political atmosphere in China in the last decade has been “strong” (政治气氛很浓). But this should come as no surprise. What we call arbitrary use of authority is simply China’s traditional view that “government equals law.” After 39 years of living in and following China, I have come to expect authoritarian rule. The 2015 law forbidding critique of the central government (妄议中央) is a particularly clear example of this. However, that does not mean I see the system as draconian. While their policies have collateral harm, they are designed to accomplish something they believe is in the best interests of China. Xi Jinping is simply obsessed with validating the Communist Party in China and abroad, which requires strengthening party discipline internally, and reducing corruption. Furthermore, we should not assume that fiats coming out of Beijing are absolute for all people everywhere, or that Xi Jinping is the embodiment of all that matters in China. Such views are simplistic and lack a textured understanding of Chinese people and Chinese culture. Beware of receiving your information about China only from Western sources. Be diligent to read and listen to Chinese news sources about itself.


The eventual implosion of China’s economy has been an annual prediction among conservatives since the 1990s. And yet, the mixed socialist market economy in China has been able to lift 800 million people out of poverty, create space for many people to prosper, and push China forward as a global economic power.  However, similarly to the US (with comparable Gini coefficients1 of .48 and .47), the distribution of that wealth is unequal, leaving some people behind. This is part of the reason for Xi Jinping’s increasing discipline and anti-corruption efforts, because he desperately wants to deliver good governance and economic results for China and reduce disparities. This is not to ignore that China has high rates of unemployment among young people, many who have grown disenchanted. 

Ephesians 5:15–17 reminds us to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  Might China’s concern about their economy be a ministry opportunity? Stay tuned for part two.


The 1990s and 2000s saw a substantial expansion of the space within which the Chinese church was allowed to exist. This space has shrunk considerably in the last ten years. Yet despite the challenges faced, the sovereignty of God is not restrained by human politics. In fact, over the last 40 years basic missiological principles to guide cross-cultural ministry in restrictive environments have been forged in China. Ministry in China requires good cross-cultural understanding and flexibility. One such example is that the converse of China’s high surveillance society, is “fishbowl ministry.” What does that mean?  And how does it combine Chinese culture with ministry opportunities? I will address those questions in part two.

These and other reasons explain some of the fear and pessimism observed in those watching the ministry context in China. But I John 4:18 reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” When we depend upon God through prayer, there is nothing to fear. In the next blog these three issues will be considered from a reconfigured perspective.


  1. The Gini coefficient or Gini index measures wealth inequality. Perfect equality would produce a score of 0, while perfect inequality would produce a score of 1. See “Gini Index,” United States Census Bureau, accessed April 11, 2024,
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Image credit: Harry Cao via UnSplash.
Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand

  Mark A. Strand, PhD, professor in public health at North Dakota State University, lived in China with his wife and three children for nearly twenty years. While in China he was involved in medical research and development with a non-profit organization in collaboration with the Chinese government.View Full Bio

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