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Is Christianity Transforming China?

A decade ago David Aikman wrote Jesus in Beijing, provocatively subtitled "How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Balance of World Power."

As Aikman ably pointed out in his book, Christianity is a formidable movement and a significant feature on China's emerging urban landscape. But is it transforming the nation? If so, how?

Gerda Wielander, a UK-based Sinologist, picks up this question in Christian Values in Communist China (Routledge, 2013). Drawing on a combination of scholarly sources, interviews with Chinese Christians, and publications put out by the church in China, Wielander looks for transformation in six areas:

Moral Reconstruction: In a China with no universally accepted moral values and no basis for trust between individuals, Christianity provides an external authority that can govern human relations. This is particularly relevant in urban China, where traditional kinship relationships cannot be relied upon to fulfill this function.

Christian Love: Wielander makes a connection between the regime's promotion of "love" as a core social value in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and former TSPM head Bishop Ding Guangxun's promotion of the same as the basis for a "Chinese theology" (while acknowledging that the bulk of Chinese Christians were less than enthusiastic in their support for Ding's efforts). Nevertheless Wielander sees Christian love as significant in ameliorating tensions that would otherwise exist between many husbands and wives in China, particularly in cases where the wife is a believer and the husband is not.

Charity: Although the case studies she chooses (Amity Foundation and Huiling, a service provider for families of people with mental disabilities) are not representative of Christian-run charities, Wielander's examination of the sector reveals how Christians could have a transforming effect upon the society. According to Wielander, "The area in which Christian ethics and values are potentially most pertinent and most practical is charity work. It is in this context where Christians are called on to make contributions to society."

However, as she notes, the government's unwillingness to make space for Christians in this sector means that current efforts are often small-scale, scattered, under-resourced and lacking in professional expertise.

The Internet: Her survey of several Christian online and print publications leads Wielander to the conclusion that today's Christians are not bashful about having their voice heard in public. On the contrary, they are proud to promote their "brand." Wielander also notes the "educational" function of such publications, particularly in inculcating grassroots believers with progressive political ideas rooted in biblical principles.

Intellectual Thought: Here Wielander observes that Chinese intellectuals have traditionally been hampered in their ability to move from theory to real political reform. She asks whether Christian intellectuals, because of their faith convictions and their role within the church, could potentially play a "bridging" function between intellectuals and the masses of believers, between political theory and social action, and between Chinese intellectuals and the global community.

Politics: A significant Christian presence among former Tiananmen Square activists, human rights lawyers, and constitutional theorists indicates points to the influential role of believers in the political sphere. Christian influence in this area will likely grow as Christianity continues to take root in China's middle class, which may be expected to become increasingly vocal. Wielander sees Christianity as a "strong contender" to provide the moral framework which is generally agreed to be lacking in contemporary Chinese society.

Wielander's study reveals the potential for Christians to have significant influence in each of the above areas. According to Wielander, "The main role Chinese Christians play in China's social and political transformation is that of an additional significant voice to what is already a much more diverse and pluralistic society. While comparatively small in number, Chinese Christians have gained a reputation as a result of their principled behavior and what are considered to be superior moral standards."

Image credit: Joann Pittman

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  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 China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio