During the week of October 7, 2021, three months’ worth of rain fell on the typically arid plains of central Shanxi. This record-breaking downpour swelled rivers, leading to burst dikes along the Yellow River and extensive flooding of local fields and reservoirs. According to official media, the heavy rainfall in Shanxi affected 1,757,100 people in 76 counties and 11 cities. Fifteen people died, three went missing, 120,100 people were urgently relocated, 3,576,900 mu of crops were affected, 19,500 houses collapsed, and 18,200 homes were severely damaged resulting in a direct economic loss of 5.029 billion yuan (US$781.5 million).1
Ten or more years ago, this disaster would have provided a rich opportunity for expatriate Christian ministries and organizations to mobilize overseas donors and workers on the ground to offer timely and effective relief. The resulting goodwill would then form the foundation of new development initiatives as part of a larger holistic mission effort. In today’s China, however, this pattern of work is no longer viable. This does not mean that Christian witness is finished, or that transformational development is no longer part of Christian mission. Rather, as the following example will demonstrate, this kind of gospel work continues but with the expatriates and local believers serving in new roles that better match the new reality.
The deluge and resulting destruction in Shanxi attracted national-level attention, with many eager both to help those in need and to demonstrate their patriotic fervor in light of Xi Jinping’s recent pressure on the wealthy to contribute to China’s “common prosperity.”2 The China Children’s Charity (中华儿慈会 or CCC), one of the country’s largest foundations, was quick to reach out to one of their on-the-ground partners, Non-profit A (NPA), a small local organization focused on providing support services to children with disabilities and their parents.
One of the last to be legally registered as a local non-profit in Shanxi (the province has not processed any applications since the end of 2018), NPA began its life as a project within a foreign Christian ministry organization. Incubated and spun off from the foreign organization in response to China’s restrictive 2017 NGO regulations, NPA is now an independent, locally registered organization run by former local employees from the foreign ministry organization—most of whom have received years of training and discipleship from that ministry organization. NPA’s formal partnership with CCC enables the small non-profit to legally process and receive donations in China.
Shortly after the rain stopped falling in Shanxi, CCC offered 30,000 RMB to NPA for them to distribute in flood-stricken areas of Shanxi. The director of NPA reached out through her own networks to identify a village near her hometown that had been hit hard by the floods. This small community of 2000 families had lost 700 homes, most of them traditional Shanxi cave homes that collapsed as the cliffsides they were carved into subsided under the deluge. NPA used the CCC funds to purchase cots, bedding, padded clothing, and bottled water. They rented two trucks, and set off on the two-hour trip—now four hours thanks to damaged roads and bridges—to deliver goods to the officials in the small village.
When the foreign Christian ministry organization heard about what their former colleague was doing, they immediately reached out, offering to help if there were need for any additional assistance. The director of NPA returned from her visit with a list of urgent needs from the village officials: with the damage spread so wide across the region, this village had yet to receive any official assistance other than a promise to rebuild everyone’s homes—eventually. While NPA had the connections to purchase and distribute aid, as well as the manpower to make it all happen, they lacked the funds to pay for it. The foreign Christian ministry had funds available for this kind of relief, but in today’s China they were not able to personally distribute aid or to make sizable donations to their former colleagues in NPA who were still trying to convince local officials of their independence. In this instance, the foreign Christian ministry’s Shanxi expats were able to purchase the goods directly from the local merchants identified by NPA, and then the staff and volunteers from NPA headed back to the village once again—this time with more beds and bedding, as well as small electric heaters and lots of winter coats for children.
The children were thrilled to receive the new coats, asking the NPA workers and volunteers, “can we keep them?” Having grown up not far from the village, the director of NPA knew precisely what would be of real practical help to the displaced residents now living in crowded conditions in the intact homes of neighbors and extended family within the community. As the team prepared to return to the city following their second round of aid distribution, the director of NPA was approached by local officials who wanted to know if NPA could help them improve their care for the children and adults in their village with disabilities—a great opportunity for NPA to expand their work in Shanxi.
The above account is a typical example of Christian relief and development work in today’s China. The primary actors are local, and most of the resources and connections involved are also local. The credit for the work and the follow-up opportunities it creates overwhelmingly belong to local organizations. The role of expatriate ministry organizations is much more circumscribed, though still important. First of all, throughout the process there were conversations taking place between people in NPA and on-the-ground people in the foreign Christian ministry organization. The discussions covered some of the more practical “how-to” aspects of this kind of work (asking officials for a list of needs, distributing directly to those in need, giving goods rather than cash, how to transfer funds), as well as time-sensitive prayer requests passed on through prayer chains and word of mouth (safety on the roads, good communication with local officials). Obviously, funding was still an important contribution from the expatriate organization; notice, however, that only half of the funding came from foreign sources.
Less obvious but of vital importance are the years of mentoring and training that the foreign ministry organization has invested in the director, workers, local board members, and even volunteers from NPA. The rapid and appropriate response of NPA is at least partly due to the years they spent observing and then working with the foreign Christian ministry organization. This influence continues today in a different form, as the director of NPA along with several of her board members are now part of a network of local Christian non-profit organizations that has been established by a local employee of the foreign Christian ministry organization to provide peer support, skill-training, and discipleship mentoring for leaders in Shanxi’s fledgling social service sector.
As this case demonstrates, relief and development work is still very much a part of Christian witness in China. Similar to every other aspect of Christian ministry in China, the role of foreigners in transformational development work has decreased over the last five years. As expatriates move from founders and leaders to colleagues, and now consultants, foreign contributions are increasingly in the nature of support and encouragement from behind the scenes, providing practical help in a few key areas as requested. Chinese brothers and sisters stepping into transformational development work in their own communities often feel isolated, struggling to find support from within local churches that do not fully understand what they are doing.
As these local believers carry more and more of the burden of social concern (社会关怀) for their communities in the face of an often-hostile official China, foreigners find themselves increasingly offering pastoral counseling and practical daily support. The new roles for expat workers include childcare and education assistance; career advice; legal, political, and professional consulting; mental and spiritual guidance and encouragement. This smaller, seemingly less active, scope for expatriate contribution to the transformational development aspects of Christian ministry is still very much needed.
Are expatriate China workers humble enough to remain faithful? Can we set aside our own vocational ambitions and serve in the background, happy to play whatever role God gives us no matter how small?
The first part of this post gives an overview of the history and growth of transformational development in China and looks honestly at the challenges facing expat workers still ministering there.
- Lucas Niewenhuis “Shanxi Floods Leave Dozens Dead, 120,000 Displaced, and Hundreds of Cultural Relics Damaged,” SupChina.com, 12 October 2021. Accessed 3 February 2022. https://supchina.com/2021/10/12/shanxi-floods-leave-dozens-dead-120000-displaced-and-hundreds-of-cultural-relics-damaged/; and Ryan Wu, “Chinese Communist Party Admits 15 Dead in Shanxi Floods, Remains Silent About Reservoir Flooding,” Vision Times.com, 15 October 2021. Accessed 3 February 2022. https://www.visiontimes.com/2021/10/15/chinese-communist-party-admits-15-dead-in-shanxi-floods-remains-silent-about-reservoir-flooding.html.
- Evelyn Cheng, “China Calls for Curbs on ‘Excessive’ Income and for the Wealthy to Give Back More to Society,” CNBC.com, 18 August 2021. Accessed 3 February 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/18/chinas-xi-emphasizes-common-prosperity-at-finance-economy-meeting.html.
Image credit: Oliver Roos via UnSplash
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