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Christian Higher Education in China: Calling or Chimera?


Private higher education in China is a recently founded, rapidly expanding sector. When economic reforms were introduced in China after Deng Xiaoping's assumption of power in 1978, the way was open for private higher education. The first private higher education institution (HEI) in the post-Cultural Revolution era was Zhonghua Societal University, established in Beijing in 1982. As of 2008, the sector boasted more than 640 accredited private HEIs authorized to issue bachelor degrees or diplomas, of which 322 were independent colleges run under the auspices of public higher education institutions. There were also 866 higher education institutions that provided only limited training and lacked government accreditation, but were filling a gap in the demand for access to higher education (Spring Su [2011] Property ownership and private higher education in China).

Some see this movement as an opportunity for Christian higher education to insert itself in the Chinese higher education market. There are, however, two important obstacles to the entry of Christian institutions. First, Chinese law prohibits religious instruction in higher educational institutions. Article 8 of the law of education states explicitly that "The state shall separate education from religion." Although this might appear to open the possibility that religious instruction could take place in non-public schools, this possibility was later closed with the promulgation of the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Promotion of Non-state/ Private Education in September 2003. This law encourages enterprises, industry, social organizations, and institutions as well as individuals to manage schools and educational institutions for society without governmental funding. This law, however, also stipulates: "the rule of separation of religion and education must be upheld" and "religion may not be used to interfere in the national education system" (Article 4, The People's Daily, 3 January 2003). This is understood to mean that religious instruction is prohibited in educational institutions (Hirot Nanbu. [2008]. Religion in Chinese education: from denial to cooperation. British Journal of Religious Education, 30[3], 223-234).

Second, the Chinese law of education requires educational institutions to "conduct education based on dialectical materialism and historical materialism and have the duty and right to promote atheism." It is not entirely clear, of course, how such instruction might be carried out in a Christian educational institution. Although Christian instructors might be able to fairly and accurately represent dialectical and historical materialism, and even atheism, they could not in good conscience "promote" it.

Is Christian higher education in China then chimera or calling? I would argue that it is the latter, based on certain conditions. First, we must learn to embrace our role as part of the "harmonious society." The goals of the harmonious society, both the traditional Chinese version and the modified socialist version currently espoused by the Chinese authorities are not inimical to the Biblical message. Although wrapped in an ideology with which we cannot ultimately agree, the goals of peace, justice, and prosperity are deeply rooted in the Biblical message. As Christian higher education practitioners, we must learn that our entry into Chinese society must first and foremost be born of a desire to contribute to the well-being of Chinese society. This also leads to a second condition. We must learn to speak the language of the Gospel in another language. By this, I do not mean only the Chinese language, but in a language that allows the principles and values of the Gospel to be inculcated without openly challenging the prohibition on religious instruction. This must be a temporary solution, for at some point the Gospel must be proclaimed openly. Yet winning a platform for the Gospel will mean speaking a language that can be heard and received. And this leads to a third condition. We must learn to serve Chinese society in such a way that our actions speak for us. We must deliver an education whose principles and values are transformative in society. If we enter under these premises, eventually, we will win a hearing for the Gospel itself.

Recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education have documented China's growing introduction of liberal arts education. There is increasing awareness in China's higher education sector that it is not enough to fill the minds of students; one must also fill their hearts. The hunger for socially transforming values is great. Higher education leaders are at a loss as to how to feed it. Into this void Christian higher education can step, albeit lightly, and with due compassion and concern for the well-being of the Chinese people.

John William Medendorp is a PhD candidate in Michigan State University's Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program. John is a researcher on global higher education and has extensive experience working internationally. He has conducted dissertation research in China over the last three years and will soon publish on the topic of returning Chinese PhDs. He is a supporter of, and has been in recent collaboration with, Azusa Pacific University's Global Ph.D. in Higher Education program, which is launching a cohort in Zhengzhou, China, in August 2013.

For more information about this new degree opportunity and application information, see: http://www.apu.edu/bas/highered/globalphd/.

 

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Private higher education in China is a recently founded, rapidly expanding sector. When economic reforms were introduced in China after Deng Xiaopings assumption of power in 1978, the way was open for private higher education. The first private higher education institution (HEI) in the post Cultural Revolution era was Zhonghua Societal University, established in Beijing in 1982. As of 2008, the sector boasted more than 640 accredited private HEIs authorized to issue bachelor degrees or diplomas, of which 322 were independent colleges run under the auspices of public higher education institutions. There were also 866 higher education institutions that provided only limited training and lacked government accreditation, but were filling a gap in the demand for access to higher education (Spring Su [2011] Property ownership and private higher education in China).

Some see this movement as an opportunity for Christian higher education to insert itself in the Chinese higher education market. There are, however, two important obstacles to the entry of Christian institutions. First, Chinese law prohibits religious instruction in higher educational institutions. Article 8 of the law of education states explicitly that The state shall separate education from religion. Although this might appear to open the possibility that religious instruction could take place in non-public schools, this possibility was later closed with the promulgation of the Law of the Peoples Republic of China on the Promotion of Non-state/ Private Education in September 2003. This law encourages enterprises, industry, social organizations, and institutions as well as individuals to manage schools and educational institutions for society without governmental funding. This law, however, also stipulates: the rule of separation of religion and education must be upheld and religion may not be used to interfere in the national education system (Article 4, The Peoples Daily, 3 January 2003). This is understood to mean that religious instruction is prohibited in educational institutions (Hirot Nanbu. [2008]. Religion in Chinese education: from denial to cooperation. British Journal of Religious Education, 30[3], 223-234).

Second, the Chinese law of education requires educational institutions to conduct education based on dialectical materialism and historical materialism and have the duty and right to promote atheism. It is not entirely clear, of course, how such instruction might be carried out in a Christian educational institution. Although Christian instructors might be able to fairly and accurately represent dialectical and historical materialism, and even atheism, they could not in good conscience promote it.

Is Christian higher education in China then chimera or calling? I would argue that it is the latter, based on certain conditions. First, we must learn to embrace our role as part of the harmonious society. The goals of the harmonious society, both the traditional Chinese version and the modified socialist version currently espoused by the Chinese authorities are not inimical to the Biblical message. Although wrapped in an ideology with which we cannot ultimately agree, the goals of peace, justice, and prosperity are deeply rooted in the Biblical message. As Christian higher education practitioners, we must learn that our entry into Chinese society must first and foremost be born of a desire to contribute to the well-being of Chinese society. This also leads to a second condition. We must learn to speak the language of the Gospel in another language. By this, I do not mean only the Chinese language, but in a language that allows the principles and values of the Gospel to be inculcated without openly challenging the prohibition on religious instruction. This must be a temporary solution, for at some point the Gospel must be proclaimed openly. Yet winning a platform for the Gospel will mean speaking a language that can be heard and received. And this leads to a third condition. We must learn to serve Chinese society in such a way that our actions speak for us. We must deliver an education whose principles and values are transformative in society. If we enter under these premises, eventually, we will win a hearing for the Gospel itself.

Recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education have documented Chinas growing introduction of liberal arts education. There is increasing awareness in Chinas higher education sector that it is not enough to fill the minds of students; one must also fill their hearts. The hunger for socially transforming values is great. Higher education leaders are at a loss as to how to feed it. Into this void Christian higher education can step, albeit lightly, and with due compassion and concern for the well-being of the Chinese people.

John William Medendorp is a PhD candidate in Michigan State University's Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program. John is a researcher on global higher education and has extensive experience working internationally. He has conducted dissertation research in China over the last three years and will soon publish on the topic of returning Chinese PhDs. He is a supporter of, and has been in recent collaboration with, Azusa Pacific University's Global Ph.D. in Higher Education program, which is launching a cohort in Zhengzhou, China, in August 2013.

Image credit: Tongji University Library, by Matthias Ripp, via Flickr

John William Medendorp

John William Medendorp is a PhD candidate in Michigan State University's Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program. John is a researcher on global higher education and has extensive experience working internationally. He has conducted dissertation research in China over the last three years and will soon publish on the topic... View Full Bio