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The Straight-Line Fallacy

From the series Our China Stories


A driving assumption in the West’s relationship to China during the past 40 years has been the ability of engagement, whether cultural, educational, economic or even military, to naturally move the country in a direction that is consistent with Western values and ideals. The result, according to this narrative, would be a China that is not only friendly to the West, but also more similar politically and culturally.

Former Los Angeles Times Beijing Bureau Chief James Mann dissected this narrative in his 2007 book, The China Fantasy (New York: Viking). As his book title suggests, Mann viewed the engagement myth as fundamentally flawed in its straight-line view of the West’s relationship with China. Reflecting on the years since Mann’s book came out, it is clear that, while the relationship may have brought benefits to both sides, it has not necessarily brought about alignment on fundamental issues. In many ways, the divergence between China and much of the international community is sharper now than it was in the 1980s when China’s reform and opening policy began to take shape.

Western narratives about the church in China tend to take a similar straight-line approach. They anticipate a linear relationship between certain types of China involvement and corresponding outcomes affecting the church. In this sense our narratives are as much about what we as outsiders hope to do in China and for China as they are about China itself. Like the engagement narrative described above, the dominant Christian narratives each envision a desired future for China and offer a prescribed course of action in order to realize that future.

Proponents of the persecuted church narrative, for example, envision a China in which Christians are free to exercise their faith without the restraints imposed upon them by a hostile government. They promote advocacy as the means to achieve this desired future, believing that political and economic pressure will eventually force the Chinese party-state to change its tact in dealing with religious believers. China’s’ leaders may have been sensitive to foreign sentiment in the years leading up to China’s bid for the Olympic Games and its accession to the World Trade Organization. Their more aggressive stance in recent years, however, suggests that efforts to strongarm China into altering its religious policy may actually have the opposite effect, bolstering their opposition to Western-imposed norms and their resolve to rein in China’s growing church.

In a similar way, the needy church narrative envisions a well-resourced church and ample opportunities for Chinese to come to know Christ. The prescription usually involves giving or going, with specific results tied to these actions. This narrative naturally appeals to those who desire to participate financially in ministry to China, as their gifts can result in tangible outcomes.

For some activities, such as delivering Bibles or hosting an event, this may be the case. Yet, as many who have managed to introduce materials or programs that have had long-term impact in China will testify, the process is usually anything but linear. Multiple iterations are usually needed before such contributions can be truly useful. Those who stay in China for any length of time often discover that their most meaningful work is quite different from what they had originally envisioned doing when they first arrived.

The “Christian China” narrative promises that China will become a different place once a significant number of Christians have assumed positions of influence. Historically as well as in contemporary China there are those who have served in the mold of Daniel or Joseph, using their positions to bring about change. Christian leaders who led the way in reaching out to those affected by the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 stand out as examples. In today’s environment, however, given the Party’s stranglehold on virtually every segment of society, it is hard to envision China’s Christians impacting a system that is constantly reinforcing itself against efforts, including by religious believers, to alter the status quo.

Finally, the missionary church narrative envisions a mighty wave of cross-cultural workers taking the gospel beyond China’s borders and invites the international Christian community to join in equipping them. Plenty are ready to be sent out, so the narrative goes; they simply need to be trained and supported on the field. While the church outside China may have much experience in traditional missions sending, there is no guarantee that the traditional structures will serve the Chinese church well. Early results suggest that new wineskins are needed. Again, there is no straight line between the promise of the narrative and the prescription for getting there. While the prevailing China church narratives may make us feel good about our intentions, the results of the actions they prescribe may not meet our expectations. This is not to say we should do nothing. Rather it points to the need to see ourselves, along with believers in China, within a much larger narrative in which we do not always perceive things clearly from beginning to end, a narrative in which God is working sovereignly to bring about his purposes both in our lives and in the church in China.

Image credit: wez528 via Pixabay.
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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