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Returnees—A Topic Worth Revisiting

From the series From the ChinaSource Archives

Returnees is a topic that we continue to return to. We’ve dedicated two issues of ChinaSource Quarterly (CSQ) to the topic and we will be including an update on returnee ministry in the autumn issue of CSQ. There we will look at the impact of COVID-19 and other factors on returnee ministry in 2021.

Why is this topic worth revisiting? “Leo” wrote about the importance of reaching returnees in “A Key Way that Christians around the World Can Contribute to Gospel Growth in China.”

A Key Way that Christians around the World Can Contribute to Gospel Growth in China

During her undergraduate studies in Australia Jing was invited along to a church. She started regularly attending that church, and several months later committed her life to Jesus and was baptized. Over the next few years, through the ongoing ministry of that church, Jing continued to grow in faith. As planned, Jing returned to China after completing her studies, though now as a Christian with a desire to serve and bless others. Although she has experienced a number of challenges since returning to China, especially in relation to work and unbelieving parents, Jing continues to stand firm in faith. She is a committed member of a local church and is involved in ministry, mainly to other returnees. Through Jing, Christians in Australia, and one particular church in Australia, have contributed to gospel ministry within China.

Why are returnees like Jing an influential demographic in China? Why are they a key way for Christians around the world to contribute to gospel growth in China? Below are several reasons.

Large and Increasing Numbers

China is the country with the largest number of students going abroad to study.1 Every year several hundred thousand Chinese people leave China to study overseas, and several hundred thousand Chinese who have studied overseas return to China. These numbers have been steadily increasing these last few years, with 662,100 people going abroad to study and 519,400 returning home to China in the year 2018.2

Annual Numbers of Chinese Students Studying Abroad and Returning Home3

The proportion of students who return to China each year is also increasing, with a return rate in recent years of around 80%. Some of these students return reluctantly because they are unable to find work and get a visa to remain overseas (particularly in countries such as the UK where visa conditions are stricter). However, an increasing number of Chinese students are actively choosing to return to China as they believe they have better career prospects in China due to China’s economic development and growing global influence.

Future Leaders and Influencers

More significant than the actual number of returnees is the sort of people these returnees are. The majority of those who go overseas to study are young adults, among whom are many of the future leaders and influencers of China across many different sectors of Chinese society.

Returning to Key Cities all Across China

While the majority of returnees continue to go to large first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, there is growing diversity in the places they are returning to. Increasing proportions of returnees are going to “new first-tier” cities such as Hangzhou and Chengdu, as well as second-tier and smaller cities. These future leaders are thus able to have a widespread impact on China as they return to positions of influence all across China, especially the key cities that impact and shape the wider culture.

A Window of Opportunity for Gospel Impact

The period of time that these Chinese returnees are overseas studying and working is a window of opportunity for Christians in their host countries to impact and influence them with the gospel.

  • Formative life stage. These young adults are starting to think more about life’s big questions. They have greater freedom and independence and are more open to new ideas, being away for the first time from the structured environment of Chinese schools and the strong influence of their parents and Chinese culture.
  • Living in countries with significant Christian resources. Although the range of countries that Chinese go to study in is broadening, the majority still choose to study in places such as North America, the UK, and Australia, in “Christian” countries with religious freedom and significant Christian resources such as strong churches and campus ministries.
  • Spiritual interest and openness. Many Chinese while living overseas are genuinely interested in learning about Christianity and are open and responsive to the gospel. Significant numbers attend International Student Ministry (ISM) groups and visit, or even regularly attend, a church. Many of these, if they hadn’t left China to study in another country, may never have had these opportunities to hear the gospel and be part of a Christian community.
  • Broad gospel impact. Gospel exposure and impact is much wider than just those who come to genuine faith in Jesus. Many other Chinese people gain a more accurate understanding of Christianity while abroad and have their misconceptions and negative stereotypes about Christianity challenged. Others become spiritual “seekers” who continue their faith journey after they return to China, with some of them subsequently coming to faith through the ministry of the Chinese church.

Increasing Restrictions within China

The situation in China is becoming tighter and more restrictive, especially in relation to religious freedom. It is getting harder for foreign Christians to live and be involved in ministry in China. Consequently, ministering to Chinese students while they are outside China is increasingly important.

So, in summary:

Large numbers of China’s future leaders

  •  are going overseas to study and work
  •  in countries which are open to the gospel and have significant Christian resources
  •  at a strategic time for overseas Christians to impact them with the gospel.

And large numbers, including many Christians and those who have been exposed to the gospel,

  •  are returning to key cities all over China,
  •  to positions of leadership and influence in many sectors of society.

How can overseas Christians and churches contribute to the growth of the gospel in China? One key way they can do this is through returnees such as Jing. Christians around the world have a great opportunity to connect with Chinese students, invite them to their homes and churches, share their lives and faith with them, encourage them and pray for them. As they do this they are planting gospel seeds that, by God’s grace, can grow and bear fruit for the kingdom as these returnees return to places of influence all across China.

Have you considered that the Chinese student you are connecting with may one day be a person of influence in China?

A Key Way that Christians around the World Can Contribute to Gospel Growth in China” by “Leo” was first published on November 13, 2019.


  1. Mandy Zuo, “China now world’s biggest source of international students as more Chinese head overseas for broader education”, South China Morning Post, 15 May 2015. (Accessed 14 Oct 2019); “More Chinese students study abroad”, China Daily, 2018-03-30. (Accessed 14 Oct 2019)
  2. According to China’s Ministry of Education: (Accessed 14 Oct 2019)
  3. Data from China’s Ministry of Education. Source: (Accessed 14 Oct 2019)
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Image credit: Leo.


Leo (pseudonym) is a cross-cultural worker in China ministering to returnees and local church leaders.View Full Bio

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