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Ethical Storytelling

From the series Our China Stories

Who speaks for the church in China?

Given the old adage, “Anything you say about China is true—somewhere, and at some time…,” the answer to this question could either be “everyone” or “no one.”

Everyone who has been to China, or met a Christian from China, or read or heard something about Christians in China, has a story to tell.

But no one has the whole story.

Depending on the storyteller’s own perspective, their internal biases, their intended audience, and their motive for telling the story, the same set of facts may be related very differently.

Consider, for example, a report in September 2020 from China Christian Daily, a domestic Christian media service, on an ethnic minority village in Yunnan Province that had outlawed belief in Christianity. Many overseas news organizations picked up the story, treating it as just another example of state-sponsored religious persecution. The China Christian Daily report, however, provided a more nuanced view of events, pointing out that the village leaders’ discrimination was culturally motivated and was in violation of China’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of religious belief.

Since China Christian Daily is based in China, one can assume that any reporting deemed by the government to be critical of its policies would be taken down immediately. Given that this article was allowed to stay up, it would appear that government censors were not opposed to China Christian Daily’s appeal to the Constitution in exposing the local leaders’ abuse of power. Maybe the real story is not that China’s Communist officials are outlawing Christianity but that, despite a significant increase in censorship in China, this article protesting the treatment of ethnic minority Christians was allowed to remain online.

Even firsthand accounts from Chinese Christians, presented verbatim, represent only one viewpoint, and may draw criticism from other believers in China who see things differently. How much to say, and to whom, can be a contentious question for Chinese believers. As World magazine pointed out last year in an article on Chengdu’s Early Rain Church, Chinese Christians themselves may disagree on how much to share with the outside world.

Context Matters

The stories told by, or about, Christians in China often suffer from a lack of context. Many reports capture a moment in time, providing no historical background about the people or events described. For example, while incidences of violence against Christians in China decreased during the relative openness that characterized the first decade of this century, most current reporting provides little sense of the contrast between that period and today, nor does it attempt to explain what has changed and why.

Also lacking is a longer historical sense of how the treatment of Christians in contemporary China compares with other eras in China’s history (which could provide valuable clues about factors responsible for the current situation). The unique history of individuals or groups can be critical to understanding why some face persecution and others do not.

Geographical context is likewise important. It makes a world of difference whether a particular incident is limited to one area or is happening elsewhere, and how policies and practices vary (or not) from place to place. Cultural context can go a long way toward explaining why certain Christian activities provoke a strong negative reaction (or may be considered normal) in China. Organizational context is necessary for understanding who (i.e., the Chinese bureaucracy or other actors in society) is responsible when “China” takes action against Christians.

Lack of verification can result in false or misleading information ricocheting around the internet and taking on a life of its own. Often the problem is not false data, but rather insinuations about particular events that could be misconstrued as representing a greater reality. Those telling the story need to make sure they are accurately representing what actually happened, when it took place, and where it occurred, and not extrapolating the situation onto the whole of China unless the evidence supports doing so (again, the need for context).

Telling Honest Stories

All this points to the importance of ethical storytelling. Carmen M. Nanko-Fernandez, director of the Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, coined the term ortho-proxy to describe what she referred to as the concept of “right representation.” She writes, “To ‘stand in’ for another requires permission of sorts and an obligation to not confuse solidarity with sanction to usurp another’s agency. Ortho-proxy does not assume voicelessness; rather it recognizes and responds to obstacles that might hinder or actively impede someone from speaking out or up. The responsibility to represent takes ethical care to avoid misrepresentation.”

Drawing upon the work of Nanko-Fernandez, M. Andrew Gale suggests a framework for storytelling that recognizes the implicit power relationship between the storyteller and those whose stories are being told. He offers three principles for honest storytelling.

  • Long-term relationships. Our tendency to want to tell a story as if it were complete results in our highlighting selected events, taking the story out of context. Stories should be grounded in long-term relationships, reflecting deep involvement in the context of the people whose lives we are describing, recognizing the history that has come before and the reality that there will be much more to come, whether or not we are around to tell it.
  • Language matters. Beware of us/them language that creates false distance between ourselves and those who are culturally different, or that puts the storyteller at the center of the narrative.
  • Tell the story together. Share the story with those involved and take time to elicit their feedback. Have them participate in the editing so that the story truly reflects their own context.
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Image credit: Kevin Erdvig via UnSplash
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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