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Rhetoric and Reality

From the series Our China Stories

Recently Foreign Affairs polled a diverse group of China specialists on the question of whether US policy was too hostile toward China. While the respondents were equally divided in their opinions, there was a common thread running through many of their remarks. Policy considerations aside, the increase in hostile rhetoric about China (as well as the corresponding rhetoric from China about the United States) is detrimental to the relationship.

In the words of one scholar, “Ramping up hostility may feel satisfying and serve parochial political interests in Washington and Beijing. But it also makes it more difficult to strengthen the safeguards against escalation that will be necessary when conflicting interests lead to confrontations with potentially catastrophic results.”

Policy concerns the decisions made and the concrete actions taken on both sides of the relationship. Rhetoric comprises the ongoing conversation about the relationship, not only the facts as they are perceived but also deep-seated feelings, prejudices, and expectations. As many of the responses to the Foreign Affairs poll made clear, policy and rhetoric may be two different topics, but they cannot be separated. In an age of ubiquitous social media and intense political polarization, rhetoric takes on a life of its own, becoming reality. The implications of one’s chosen narrative take precedence over the facts themselves. As a result, policymakers find themselves responding as much (or more) to the rhetoric than to the actual issues at hand.  

The purpose in bringing this up is not to delve into the intricacies of Sino-US relations, but to draw a parallel to the relationship between the global Christian community and China and its church.

The thoughtful commentary by Chinese and non-Chinese contributors hosted here on the ChinaSource site touches a range of issues surrounding the church and ministry in China, many of which are complex, often controversial, and at times troubling. Most contributors are also personally engaged in serving in the Chinese world. Their actions, as well as their words, reflect not only a deep understanding of the country but also a deep personal commitment.

Within the Christian community at large, a narrower—yet much louder and more heated—China conversation is taking place. Sampling a handful of the most-read evangelical publications over the past three months1 yields these headlines:

This is the China discussed in church hallways and Zoom meeting rooms, the China that makes its way into pastors’ sermons and onto the Facebook pages of believers in the West.

All these stories are important, and they need to be told. All represent something of the current realities of China. Yet the one-dimensional picture they paint and the stereotypes they reinforce prevent a deeper look into what else may be happening, particularly in the lives of Chinese Christians. Playing to the fears and prejudices of Western readers, these headlines raise the temperature on the already heated rhetoric, fueling anger and offering little hope for change. Rhetoric becomes reality—a reality that severely constrains whatever options might be available for meaningful engagement with China.

Leaders in the policy arena face the difficult task of taking constructive action while at the same time being intentional participants in a larger conversation that could directly impact their options. In a similar way, Christians engaged in China are called to expand the larger conversation beyond the currently acknowledged reality, exposing their fellow believers to new possibilities through a deeper relationship with China and its church.


  1. Christianity Today, The Christian Post, The Gospel Coalition, and WORLD, July 23–October 23, 2021.
Image credit: Stefan Wagener on Unsplash.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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