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In an Ever-Changing China, Some Things Haven’t Changed

From the series Looking Back


As ChinaSource celebrates 20 years of service we are digging into our archives for articles chronicling the myriad far-reaching changes in China during the past two decades.

Here we present a View from the Wall column by Huo Shui, a writer in China, originally entitled, “Keys to Effectiveness in an Ever-Changing China.” This article first appeared in the winter 2001 issue of the ChinaSource journal (later retitled ChinaSource Quarterly), which took as its theme, “Listening to the Chinese Church.”

While many of the specific ways of serving described in that issue may not be as relevant for foreigners in China today, the attitude and posture advocated by Huo Shui are as important now as they were two decades ago. Much has changed in China, but relationships are still central to the witness of foreigners who seek to have an effective presence. What is seen and experienced in the context of personal interaction is often more important than what is heard.

Here is Huo Shui’s article:

Keys to Effectiveness in an Ever-Changing China

A recent street saying in China proclaims that “It doesn’t matter what you say or whether it’s good or bad; if it’s about China, it’s true.” There is some truth to this. Why? It’s not just that China is so big, it’s that China is constantly changing. Coastal provinces increasingly contrast with the inland ones. Cities become more distinct from villages. Modes of transportation and communication are rapidly advancing. What people wear, where they eat and how they enjoy their spare time are constantly evolving. This year differs from last year. The only constant in our society is change.

In an ever-changing society, many Chinese are puzzled, and many feel at a loss. To speak to the needs of the Chinese people, Christian workers in China must clearly know how to position themselves. Many workers simply say they work for the Lord and do not study the Chinese situation. “We are where the Lord put us,” is their stance. Other workers come to China expecting to see much fruit in a short time—a mode of thinking that is impractical in modern day China. These attitudes are not sufficient for addressing China’s complex needs. Adopting a simple approach for complex problems will not produce desirable results. Those coming to China with this outlook will miss great opportunities because they are either inadequately or ill prepared. To avoid this, they must first understand the needs of the Chinese people.

China has realized amazing economic achievement over the last twenty years. For most people, the basic needs of sufficient food and warm clothing are no longer problems. Many people in China own cars and beautiful homes. There is a rich supply of products on store shelves as the country has moved away from the controlled economy of past days. Even though poverty still continues and a wide gap in wealth exists between eastern and western China, poverty is no longer a main problem.

At the same time, various forms of crime, addictions, and counterfeit products plague society. Cheating and bribery now go hand in hand as China travels a new path to a market economy. Today, murders, robberies and explosions have become common news. Government leaders from villages, townships and provinces up to high-ranking officials in the central government are corrupt. The result has been a decline in public trust, justice and moral standards. Material wealth coupled with moral poverty is especially evident among the younger generation. More and more people have come to realize that money cannot solve their problems nor can it bring true happiness. Society is in a deep spiritual and moral crisis.

What, then, do Chinese people need? They need honesty, trust, integrity and faith. Chinese people need higher moral standards, they need to obey the laws, care for the environment, respect human lives, control personal desires and develop responsibility toward their family and society. Chinese people need a higher ethic than the pursuit of material desires. They need humility and forgiveness rather than arrogance and covetousness. They must desire truth. Above all, Chinese people need love; they need to know and respect the God who is love. Simply put, Chinese people, who are deprived spiritually and hungry for real faith, need real spiritual food that satisfies the soul and enables the pursuit of the real purpose in life.

Such needs are no strangers to us. The question is, How do we meet them? Our attitude is the key. We must understand that China, boasting a culture with a long history, suffered much humiliation over the last 150 years. Nationalism and patriotism, mixed with traditional Confucianism, live deep in the heart of every Chinese person. Chinese are very sensitive when foreigners approach them with an attitude of superiority. This hurts their self-respect. If we cannot approach our friends in a spirit of humility and love, if we cannot deal with one another on an equal basis, then our actions can easily be viewed as a bestowal out of pity.

To make friends in China is not hard, but to become really good friends—to be in a position to share God’s truth— requires giving of one’s self. As we interact with those who do not know God, we need to see beyond their outward pride and into their inner being. We ought to understand each individual totally from his physical needs, his daily living and employment needs, to his spiritual needs. As we dialogue with these individuals, we should not be proud of ourselves thinking we are better or more spiritual. Rather, we must humbly offer understanding as an expression of our love. Ultimately, the spirit of love and truth is the only key for unlocking closed hearts and minds.

Sharing the gospel is not about persuading others to believe God; the gospel cannot be imposed on people. Arguing or lecturing will only cause people to reject what we have to give. The Chinese people have listened to so much “preaching” (Communist doctrines) and propaganda during their lifetime that they instinctively reject any form of it. As a result, a lack of belief has become the hallmark of the new China. If a Christian desires to share the love of God with the Chinese, preaching is not the answer. Chinese people usually judge each other by actions, not by words. This is why Communism failed in China. There was a great gap between what was said and what was done, a large disconnect between theory and actual practice. When Jesus healed the sick and forgave sinful people, it was not just his words, but his actions that spoke truth and love—and won their respect. This is what changed their worldviews.

It is not easy to live out God’s truth through our actions—but it is easy to criticize others. Some have criticized the Chinese as being very pragmatic. While this is true, today’s pragmatism is the result of yesterday’s shattered dreams.  Remember, every action of every day testifies to what you believe. Once you enter China, numerous pairs of eyes will be watching you—not listening to you.

The number of Christians in China is not large in light of its huge population, but it is increasing every day. While it is wonderful to lead someone to the Lord, this is only the beginning. After an individual has come to the Lord, we must focus on discipling this person instead of hurrying out to convert someone else. This approach puts quality above quantity. Lacking qualified Bible teachers and without enough discipleship and training materials, spiritual growth is hindered. This has been the issue with the church—its roots are not deep enough. Once a Christian becomes mature and strong, he will naturally bring others to the Kingdom of God and Chinese Christians will develop their own church. Our task is to ensure that each Christian we lead to the Lord grows to full maturity. Focusing on quality will turn out to be the best way to achieve quantity although it may seem slow at times.

Much of what is written above is not new, but it does identify real problems in the church of China. As we serve in this great nation, let us examine our attitudes and actions. In so doing, we can become more effective in meeting the needs of the citizens of an ever-changing China.

For more on perspectives on effective service at the turn of the millennium, see the other articles in “Listening to the Chinese Church.”

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of... View Full Bio


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