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Expatriate Ministry in China during the Age of COVID

From the series Still Serving in China

Over the last five years or so, many long-term, cross-cultural workers in China have had to leave the country for one reason or another. While some left with the understanding that they would not be returning, many have been waiting for several years for the opportunity to return to the life and ministry in China that they have grown to love. China, however, has not been waiting for them. The experience of ministering as an expatriate in China is quite different today, as those who remain struggle to carve out meaningful roles in an increasingly challenging environment.

One of the most obvious differences is the pervasive climate of grief within the expatriate Christian ministry community. The absence of so many dear colleagues is impressed upon us anew every time we attend the now spartan foreign fellowships or attend a social event noteworthy more for those who are missing than those who are present: so many empty apartments and quiet school hallways, so few people left with which to celebrate our own national holidays. The remembrances of former teammates and expatriate friends linger in the suitcases and boxes, apartments and cars that have been left behind to be managed by those who remain. One small group of expats in a second-tier Chinese city—they now half-jokingly refer to themselves as “the remnant”—recently had a “party” to distribute all the imported food, medicine, and cosmetics left behind by various foreigners over the last few years. Far from excited by the bounty (those able to attend left with suitcases full of imported treats and treasures), the entire event was a depressing reminder of loss and absence.

Some foreign communities report a marked increase in health emergencies. It is difficult to gauge how prevalent injuries and difficult diagnoses of cancer or other illnesses are among China workers and their families, but for expatriate workers in China this results in an increased burden to care for one another. With fewer workers, each must take on a heavier and heavier share of the personal support work. This same calculus affects the daily work of the ministry as well, with the remaining expatriates now overworked and exhausted as they try and maintain ministries once sustained by many, many more hands. Seemingly endless requests for COVID-related reports from Chinese officials along with similar reporting requests from leaders stuck outside of China threaten to suck all joy out of China ministry.

Alongside these challenges from within the ministry community, negative trends in Chinese policies and in Chinese attitudes towards expatriates in general are making life still more difficult for those still serving from within China.

Many readers will have been affected directly by the near elimination of China’s private education market resulting from this summer’s official “twin reductions” (双减) regulations.1 Combined with aggressive monitoring of local and foreign students across China’s campuses, expatriates who minister through education are under tremendous pressure to either find increasingly rare creative solutions or else transition to a new field of ministry. New policies aimed at streamlining the foreign residency process also include even more rigorous requirements designed to make long-term residency harder for those who are not bringing large amounts of cash or technology to China.

And while China’s aggressive COVID regulations have created space for people to move about relatively freely within their own local communities, those measures have been especially hard on the kind of group gatherings that allow for fellowship, counseling, training, and really almost anything involving young people—some of the core aspects of expatriate ministry in China today.

Local people initially enjoyed the novelty and freedom of moving these things online. With the novelty now faded, new regulations on online religious activity threaten to bring an end to virtual fellowships and trainings. Expatriates still in China, of course, must be extra cautious about participating in online events as monitoring is pervasive and can lead to visa troubles. Compared to just three or four years ago, official China is using surveillance and regulations even more to further shrink the sphere of opportunity for foreigners to engage with Chinese society.

Finally, persistent and pervasive state messaging is feeding into a general downturn in Chinese people’s attitude toward outsiders. While expatriates from Africa and Central Asia have long found Chinese society less welcoming, this negative shift has been particularly noticeable for those from western countries. Daily doses of negative attribution in state-controlled media and official anti-espionage propaganda campaigns that target expatriates as threats to China’s safety and well-being have combined with filtered news from outside China to encourage many Chinese people to distrust and dislike people from other nations.2

COVID-related news and regulations have only strengthened these impressions, as young and old alike are told that COVID originated with and is now being carried into China by outsiders (nearly all published cases are officially labeled 境外 or “from outside China’s borders”). China workers still in China all have stories of people recoiling in horror as they walk down the street. Where grandparents used to smack their grandkids on their heads to get them to greet us in English, it is now routine to have children forcibly yanked from elevators when the foreigner enters. Add in the feeling of being constantly watched through China’s inescapable surveillance system, and expatriates have never felt less welcome in China.3

Of course, for those of us accustomed to being part of the majority culture in our passport country and being honored as a special guest when in China, this has been an important—if difficult—eye-opening experience. It is not unusual to discover that local friends who only a year ago were openly exploring Christianity and were eager to spend time with us, are now distant or even hostile. Even where the bond of friendship remains strong, many local people are compelled by their employers, their extended family, their school, or even their more politically active friends to avoid interactions with us for fear of the real-world cost of such associations.

Grief, loneliness, burdensome workloads, vanishing opportunities, rejection and ostracism… these are some of the key distinguishing features of this specific moment for expatriate ministry in China. Of course, for these very same reasons, continuing expatriate presence in China can be a vital and remarkable ministry. As Chinese believers experience the same sense of constriction, marginalization, and in some cases outright hostility, the encouraging presence of a faithful brother or sister from afar can provide a spiritual lifeline.

Most expatriates still ministering from within China would report that they are “doing” less than they were four or five years ago; and yet most would also likely report a profound deepening in many of their local discipling relationships. As the stakes for everyone involved get higher and higher, the value of mutual (for this kind of discipleship is now increasingly mutual) support becomes that much clearer. To those who can serve in humility, embracing their identity as servants of the gospel and aliens and strangers on this earth, this seemingly smaller sphere of ministry provides rich opportunities to walk more closely with our Chinese sisters and brothers, serving together in the strength of the Lord that shines so clearly in the midst of our present weakness (2 Corinthians 12). Those of us who remain agree: it is worth the cost!4


  1. Dandan, Ni. “A Is for Anxiety: Tutoring Clampdown Tests China’s Parents.” Sixth Tone. 27 August 2021. Accessed 4 January 2022.
  2. “Government Cartoon Portrays ‘Foreign NGOs’ as National Security Concern.“ The China NGO Project. ChinaFile, 18 April 2018. Accessed 4 January 2022.; or more recently, “又发现一间谍组织!中南屋接受境外资金在国内进行意识形态渗透,” 網易October 29, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  3. Keegan, Matthew. “Big Brother Is Watching: Chinese City With 2.6m Cameras Is World’s Most Heavily Surveilled.” The Guardian, 2 December 2019. Accessed 4 January 2022.
  4. For a challenging reminder of the place of suffering in faithful ministry, see Ajith Fernando’s “Suffering and Evangelism,”
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Image credit: Zhang Kaiyv via UnSplash

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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