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The Tyranny of History and the China Dream


It was an honor to be part of the sixth China Theology Symposium held this August at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. Centered on the theme "Christian Faith and Ideological Trends in China," the four days of meetings gathered intellectuals from China's major ideological groups, and encouraged them to engage one another with an eye towards elucidating what Christianity may or may not have to contribute to China's future.

The event provided Chinese participants representing the Neo-Leftist, Neo-Confucianist, Liberal, and Christian ways of looking at the world with an opportunity to talk to one another, something which the attendees noted simply does not happen within Chinese academic circles. In addition to the Chinese attendees, a number of global evangelicals from outside China were in attendance, observing and at times offering commentary on the Chinese discussion. This sixth symposium provided a unique opportunity to witness the true level of passionate disagreement that exists within China over some of the most basic ideas about human life and societyover the normative content of the China Dream.

The debate amongst the Chinese participants was erudite, and at times quite heated, providing a powerful counter to the (hopefully by now) crumbling myths of a monolithic China, and the ideological unity of the party. Much of the passion came from the presence of Chinese government officials, reporters, and artists alongside the scholars. Of interest to those more familiar with the Chinese ideological world, locating the discussions in Oxford and filling the room with global evangelicals shifted the terms of the debate in interesting ways, revealing more clearly both the hollow promises and barely hidden authoritarianism of the New Leftists, as well as the narrow nationalism and parochial concerns lurking under the surface of Neo-Confucian universal values.

Over the course of the four days of deliberation, one particularly interesting pattern emerged. Passions would naturally rise as disagreements became more heated, often resulting in an explosive comment that would produce silence and then an abrupt change of topic. Time and again, those eruptions referred to China's recent historical past, particularly when Liberals and Neo-Leftists were speaking. The purges of the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward famine, the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, the Beijing Spring of 1989the restrictions on discussing and studying these events in China are well known; but this event highlighted the important fact that it is very difficult to resolve differences of opinion about China's future when so much of her recent past remains unsettled.

As an exercise in oblique evangelism, the event was strategic and largely effective. Many of the Chinese attendees would typically have little opportunity to interact with Christians, and encountering so many in such a positive and hospitable context left them with more open minds and a willingness to continue conversations with Christians in the future. Given the level of discourse and the scholarly influence of the Chinese participants this is no small matter.

As an East-meets-West exchange of ideas the event was less successful, though perhaps unavoidably so. Language barriers were substantial, as were the cultural barriers, at times preventing those from outside China from engaging with those inside China. Given the ideological theme of this meeting and the substantial disagreement between the different Chinese attendees, much of the discussion involved debating the age-old question of all Chinese intellectuals: where is China headed? Unfortunately, China's current confidence and nationalistic impulses meant that contributions from foreignerseven from Chinese diasporawere not welcome. This also meant that little actual theology was discussed, and the Chinese church was reduced to little more than a potential political threat due to its perceived enslavement to western hegemony. It was disappointing in this context to see many of the Chinese intellectuals still unable to move beyond the religion lessons from their middle school textbooks. Finally, and understandably, the wide-ranging and sophisticated nature of the discussions taxed even the best and brightest of the translators.

High-ranging intellectual discussions like these are important for China at this moment in her development, as she tries to imagine how to get from her current situation of growing international confidence and increasing internal dissatisfaction to some kind of truly "harmonious society." Everyone wants the China Dream, but no one is quite sure what it is. Of course, the ideas and ideals of the intellectual elites must eventually find purchase or be reflected in the dreams and desires of the rest of China's population. And as the body of Christ for that nation, the Chinese church must collectively discover their own vision of the Chinese Dream, one that is rooted in the Gospel and founded on the values and ideals of God's Kingdom. But that is a discussion for a very different kind of symposium.

For further reading, the report from the sixth China Theology Symposium is available from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.

Image credit: Guangzongsi, Inner Mongolia, by Martin Angerer

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China. View Full Bio