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In October, I finally set foot on Chinese soil again. In the past, I used to be in China four times a year, but now it is the first time in four years. After the lockdown due to covid and the deterioration of US-China relations, there were so many negative stories and news reports that I was quite nervous and cautious.
When I arrived at the Beijing Capital International Airport, it was very quiet, and the long lines at immigration were not as bustling as they once were. Surprisingly, there was no special questioning, not even the usual general questions like the purpose of the trip and so on. The immigration officer just asked simply “Name? Name in Chinese?” and then stamped. Even at the baggage check, the staff just waved their hands, signaling that there was no need to put luggage on the X-ray machine, just leave. I do not know whether it is good luck or that people had been tossed for too long and they began to tang-ping (lie down).1 Afterwards, I began to regret this. If I had known, I would have brought back more of our published books!
Restaurants are still full of diners, and busy streets are still bustling. But it seems that people’s faces do not have the same kind of confidence as in the past, though they are also less fickle. One obvious change, just like we used to be surprised by shared bikes everywhere and extremely convenient WeChat Pay, I was surprised by the large number of electric cars and motorbikes of all sorts traveling on the streets this time. Especially in Shanghai, entire neighborhoods seem much quieter as a result.
Yes, quieter. Compared to the noise and bustle of the past, I was struck by the quietness of China this trip. This quietness could be due to the popularity of electric vehicles and the oppressive political environment, or it could be the trauma of the pandemic, or concerns and worries about China’s economic downturn and future…
Compared to the past, the Chinese churches also seem to be extraordinarily quiet. This time I had the opportunity to talk with young pastors in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Shenzhen, and learned that under today’s harsh and comprehensive control and surveillance, churches are mostly forced to organize themselves into small groups and operate in a low-profile manner. The aftermath of covid on the churches is also quite obvious. Many people, especially the elderly, have more health concerns about gathering in larger groups, and with online gatherings giving people more choices, there are some churches that are rapidly dying out or in the process of downsizing.
Just as happened since the implementation of the internet regulations in March 2021, we have seen many public WeChat accounts of Christians almost disappear, and the communication in WeChat groups has become even more cryptic, almost as bleak and difficult to understand as Martian. Where once you could hear all kinds of sounds and noises, now there’s only silence. Evangelism in the digital realm is also seeking new breakthroughs in the last few years.
Since keywords related to faith are easily censored, Christians try to use more common language to express their faith; the content has shifted from believer oriented to broader public topics such as marriage and family or literature and art. Since more followers will draw more attention from the government, the operation no longer pursues numbers but serves a niche more accurately, and the rise of short video platforms has given a new generation of Christians the opportunity to give full play to their creativity.
New media has changed the rules of the game of communication. Previously, censorship came before publication; now it comes after. Tom is destined to lose and be laughed at in the cat-and-mouse story. It may be challenging to regain the “prosperity” we enjoyed a few years ago, but isn’t it even more concerning that “the bad money has driven out the good money” during prosperity?2
In looking back at the Chinese church, which seems to be a bit quiet, perhaps it is also passing through the adolescent phase. The new generation of believers and church leaders are no longer easily excited by large conferences and mission movements but are willing to delve deeper into each individual’s life. They have started moving away from focusing on the relationship between church and state and are now turning their attention to broader public concerns. During this trip I heard more reflections on ethnocentrism and the Chinese imperial narrative, and saw that ancient spiritual practices are being endorsed by many churches. Some churches are embracing the new technology, and the online merge offline model is becoming an opportunity for rapid growth…. Quiet. Could this quietness also signify that the Chinese church is maturing?
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Still is also translated here as quiet, calm, and relaxed, but for sure not “tang-ping.” In quietness, we can let go of our worries and fears and refocus our faith and hope on the almighty God who is with us.
- Elsie Chen, “These Chinese Millennials Are ‘Chilling,’ and Beijing Isn’t Happy,” The New York Times, July 3, 2021, accessed November 9, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/03/world/asia/china-slackers-tangping.html.
- Jerry An, “Here’s What Thousands of Christian WeChat Accounts Reveal About Chinese Internet Evangelism,” Christianity Today, May 13, 2022, accessed November 9, 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/may-web-only/wechat-public-accounts-chinese-evangelism-censorship.html.
Pastor Jerry An has worked in media ministry since 2001, and now serves as the Chinese Team Leader at ReFrame Ministries (formerly Back to God Ministries International). Under his vision and leadership, the Chinese language ministry of ReFrame has become a pioneer, think tank, and partner in new media ministry. Pastor …View Full Bio
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