Having remained in China during the early stressful years of the COVID-19 pandemic, my family and I left in late 2021 for what we thought would be a brief trip to visit our aging parents who were experiencing health issues. Those planned six weeks in our passport country stretched into 18 months until finally—after two bouts of covid, three trips to the Chinese consulate for visas, four canceled flights, and thousands of dollars spent on various required covid tests—we returned in May 2023 to our home in northern China.
With the traumatic experiences of the early covid days in China still fresh in our minds, we naturally carried a certain amount of anxiety with us as we returned. Would people be happy to see us again? What kind of welcome would we receive? Would we be ostracized, feared—or even resented?
Below, and in no particular order, are some observations on conditions on the ground after a few months back in our relatively isolated city of four million.
There are noticeably fewer people in the pews on Sunday mornings. Admittedly, the church was one of the last places to reopen in our city, but the pastors know that many people have grown accustomed to the convenience of watching the online broadcast at home. Baptisms this summer are also down, with maybe a quarter of the numbers we typically saw pre-covid.
There are fewer people riding buses. It could be a lingering habit from trying to avoid infection these past few years, but even at rush hour there are almost always empty seats (and plenty of standing room) on the buses.
Where Are the Young People?
The wait staff in restaurants seem on average to be older than they were four years ago (more middle-aged workers). Friends from the rural suburbs around our city say the young people have left the province and headed to the big coastal and southern cities in search of employment. In an attempt to create new jobs, the city has reversed years of regulations banning peddling and lined the streets of the central shopping district with food carts, but many of these remain empty.
The Return of Curiosity
People on the street are more interested in greeting, taking photos with, and generally talking to expatriates than they have been for many years. The antagonism fostered by so many years of aggressive nationalistic propaganda is showing some cracks, as citizens are a little less quick to dismiss everything everywhere else as bad. Certainly, doubts and fears persist, but most people are less confident in their claims about Chinese superiority.
“A Corner Has Been Turned”
After 40 years of dramatic growth, the economy is stuttering, and everyone is feeling its effects. Plummeting housing prices—and more importantly the inability to sell some homes at any price—have frightened consumers who have long viewed housing as the most secure and profitable investment available to Chinese citizens. The stock market is still perceived as too risky; there are very few jobs for college graduates; migrant workers have returned to their villages, and banks offer little interest. With most people nervous about spending money for fear of a lingering recession and continued loss of income, hardly anyone is willing to invest in anything new. Local people believe it will take our northern province ten years or more to recover economically.
As one friend described it, every aspect of Chinese life and society is noticeably worse today than it was five years ago. Decades of broad optimism about their country’s future has been wiped away by the perceived betrayal of the party-state’s sudden end to pandemic measures. Every expat who has visited the immigration bureau processing office these past few months has reported a jam-packed waiting room full of Chinese families (kids, parents, and grandparents) processing passports as fast as they can. People seem to have lost faith in their rulers and nearly everyone is less positive about their nation’s future.
While popular attitudes towards expatriates have improved dramatically, official China continues to approach foreign residents with suspicion and fear. Monitoring continues unabated, as does the pervasive preference for limiting expatriate activities of nearly all types and avoiding taking responsibility for any official decision involving expatriates. I recently had several public security officials express unease with the notion of an expatriate working legally for one company choosing to invest their own money in a different company in China. On another occasion I spent half a day at the provincial branch of the Bank of China helping a foreign tourist exchange a thousand US dollars; the bank was requiring overseas employment and tax information just to complete this most basic tourist transaction.
For at least the foreseeable future, China will be an increasingly difficult place for expatriates to live and work. However, for those who find a way to meet the requirements to remain in the country, there is a general openness to new ideas that provides fertile ground for the gospel. Yes, the larger-scale, more public pathways for ministry are closing—for expatriates and local churches alike. But conversations between friends and neighbors continue and, for now at least, friends and neighbors are eager to hear the reason for the hope that we have in the face of an ever-darkening world.
Image credit: An abandoned COVID-19 testing station, courtesy of the author.
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