China’s position in the world and growing influence in the United Nations and on many countries worldwide does not mean that it is opening up. On the contrary, contacts with foreigners are becoming increasingly restricted and rare.1 Deng Xiaoping famously quipped: “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” The author of the article mentioned shows that “at least since the time of Marco Polo, China has managed cultural diversity by ring fencing.” Thus, contacts with foreigners were already perceived as being “us against them” centuries before the Communist Party came into power. According to the author, a recent position paper by the EU Chamber of Commerce in China reported that there were currently more foreigners living in Luxemburg than in China and concluded: “The number is diminishing. COVID-19 in some ways has come as a boon to Chinese leaders who tend towards xenophobia: It provides an excuse to keep foreigners out and, to a large extent, to keep Chinese in. And so, China has come full circle, from the bewildered sleeper that emerged from the Cultural Revolution rubbing its collective eyes to the isolated Middle Kingdom it has historically preferred to be, from the Open Door to the nearly closed.”
Global Times editor and Renmin University Dean Wang Wen spoke at an official seminar on “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” on May 9, 2023, calling for a “comprehensive opening-up to the outside world.”2 According to Wang, the proportion of foreign residents in China is stated as being approximately 0.05% (a mere 700,000). This is very low for the world’s second-largest economy and many of that number come from the developing world or from countries one might call the “China orbit.” Such a low proportion can only increase misunderstandings about China and multiply the challenges involved in international cooperation.
Even though the number of foreign residents may be slowly crawling back with the threat of COVID-19 fading, and even though contacts with foreigners always came with its own limitations, distortions, and misunderstandings (for instance, many foreign residents live in thriving cities and have a limited view of China elsewhere), there are limited opportunities to hear the stories from China, helping to make sense of what is happening. This is one reason why hearing from the church in China has become more of a challenge in recent years.
Be Careful What You Talk About—And How You Do It
Added to the limitations mentioned above, reporting from China and about Chinese affairs has become steadily more difficult over recent years. This has been made abundantly clear in the chilling annual report published by the Foreign Correspondents Club in China.3 To an increasing extent, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is making it clear how it wants reporting about China to be done and the number of resident foreign correspondents is shrinking, especially from countries with a history of independent and critical press. This does not bode well for the future. Another interesting aspect in the FCCC report is the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on journalism. As of March 2022, 148 countries from all continents had an official “Memorandum of Understanding” with China4 and China has been keen to invite and train up journalists from African and Latin American countries, who then report on Chinese affairs in apparent independence.
The new anti-espionage law, which is slowly being rolled out and implemented by local authorities (e.g., in Chongqing),5 may well have an additional chilling effect, as it prohibits sharing any information related to the national security of China, a term which has experienced a considerable broadening in its definition over the last years: A report entitled “’Comprehensive National Security’ unleashed: How Xi’s approach shapes China’s policies at home and abroad” summarizes this development and called it the “securitization of everything.”6 The CCP’s traditional concept of national security, as followed by Mao Zedong, consisted of just three elements – political, territorial, and military security. In contrast, Secretary General Xi`s comprehensive national security concept consists of not less than 16 different types of security.
Thus, any encounter with a foreigner or a foreign entity, let alone sharing information, can be viewed as an act carrying a high risk. This is even more true for members of religious minorities not recognized by the state. It has been widely reported that the space for house churches and other non-registered Christian groups (and even state-affiliated churches) has shrunk considerably over recent years, not least due to a barrage of regulations on religious activities and an increasingly strict implementation.
Where to Go from Here?
It is important for Christians outside and inside of China not to lose courage, but to continue to interact with brothers and sisters in China (acting wisely and taking precautions) and to find new and creative ways of listening to them and learning about how they are coping. Given the country’s overall trajectory, it is highly likely that new obstacles will emerge in the future. Despite this, the interaction of the different parts of the body of Christ will continue, as there are no hindrances that God’s Spirit cannot overcome. And after all, it is not at all clear if the “walling off” of China, as Ian Johnson called it recently7 will pay off in the end.
Johnson compared the growing restrictions to the construction of an invisible Berlin Wall. At first sight, it serves to buy the Communist leadership time, but it is far from clear whether such a policy can succeed in a time of economic slowdown in which the regime’s promise of ever progressing economic improvement will become harder and harder to fulfil. This is summed up in a quote at the end of the commentary, in which a senior publisher of a scientific magazine from China says: ‘You can’t do anything publicly in China….But we still work and wait. We have time. They do not.’”
- Michael Beckley, “Enemies of My Enemy: How Fear of China Is Forging a New World Order,” Foreign Affairs, February 14, 2022, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/new-world-order-enemies-my-enemy-china.
- Jiayao Liu, Gao Yuan, and Zichen Wang, “Sharp Decline in the Number of Foreigners in China Demands Serious Attention,” Pekingnology, June 11, 2023, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.pekingnology.com/p/sharp-decline-in-the-number-of-foreigners.
- “Media Freedoms Report 2022: ‘Zero Covid, Many Controls: Covering China in 2022,’” The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, March 1, 2023, accessed October 12, 2023, https://fccchina.org/2023/03/01/media-freedoms-report-2022-zero-covid-many-controls-covering-china-in-2022/.
- Christoph Nedopil, “Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Green Finance and Development Center, FISF Fudan University, 2023, accessed October 12, 2023, https://greenfdc.org/countries-of-the-belt-and-road-initiative-bri/.
- Liz Lee, “China’s Chongqing First to Roll out Local Anti-Espionage Rules,” Reuters, September 1, 2023, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/chinas-chongqing-first-roll-out-local-anti-espionage-rules-2023-09-01/.
- Katja Drinhausen and Helena Legarda, “‘Comprehensive National Security’ Unleashed: How Xi’s Approach Shapes China’s Policies at Home and Abroad,” Merics, September 15, 2022, accessed October 12, 2023, https://merics.org/en/report/comprehensive-national-security-unleashed-how-xis-approach-shapes-chinas-policies-home-and.
- Ian Johnson, “Xi’s Age of Stagnation: The Great Walling-Off of China,” Foreign Affairs, August 22, 2023, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/xi-jinping-age-stagnation.
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