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Whispers from Within

Understanding China's Changes

From the series How We Hear from the Church in China


Blink, and you’ll miss it. In China, it often seems you merely closed your eyes for a moment, but you opened them to find the whole country had changed. Things move quickly on the mainland: villages are torn down so towering developments can rise; high-speed train lines are constructed in the blink of an eye; and laws and regulations change. But things stay the same as well. When I read books written a hundred years (or more) ago in China, I have often been amazed to realize how much I still recognize the people and culture. To pull out another old adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s true many things are different in China these days—but a lot of things remain the same as well.

The differences are easy to recount. To list just a few: pressure on and even persecution of Christian communities has increased; previously burgeoning faith communities have been forced to divide into smaller groups; the economy is no longer climbing, but plunging; and China and the West are increasingly at odds, the relationship between the two spheres tenser than it has been in decades.

I manage a blog devoted to telling the stories of the house church, and work to help Westerners pray for China. The changes and challenges of these past few years have definitely made it more difficult for outsiders to understand what is happening in China. As a foreigner, it’s impossible not to notice that, although travel is rebounding, there are far fewer foreigners living inside China than before. And because many issues, not just matters of faith, are now considered politically sensitive, it seems people are more hesitant to share openly.

Other things, though, have not changed: relationships are of paramount importance (especially if you want the inside scoop on what is really happening, not just the surface report); and face-to-face interaction is more helpful than any number of e-mails (video chat can help provide these face-to-face interactions).

While there are new obstacles, broader exchange between China and the outside world has resumed. I know many, many people who have traveled to China in recent months. Some have gone to see family and visit friends, while others have traveled for work. The floodgates have not re-opened. But China and the outside world are again interacting in ways not possible for the past several years.

What Is Really Happening in China?

So, how can those of us outside of the Middle Kingdom find out what is going on in China?  In my own experience, personal connections are still the best way to stay in touch with the church in China. I’ve called friends in China and asked them about their experiences.

They’ve shared stories of what their lives have been like these past few years, and we have prayed and shared life, even from afar. As I have leaned on personal relationships, it has also been helpful to broaden that network. My Chinese friends do not live in a vacuum; they know what their friends and family are talking and thinking about—and their connections often stretch the country, broadening their horizons from incidents in their own local community.

Many years ago, when I first visited China, someone gave me a very wise piece of advice. They told me everything I ever heard about China was probably true—of someone, somewhere! There are definitely overarching trends and tendencies throughout the country as a whole. But a whole swathe of people in one town may have experiences that are completely contradictory to the experience of others somewhere else. To truly understand what is happening, it is important to cast as wide a net as possible.

Another way I have tried to stay connected to the Chinese church is through talking to very recent members of the Chinese diaspora. Right now, a lot of Chinese are leaving the country and traveling overseas. Many are emigrating; others are spending extended time abroad. Spending time with those who have recently left China has helped me better understand what is going on right now inside China. Recent emigrees also have robust in-country networks and are helpful at pointing to resources that Chinese still in the country are leaning on.

Chinese are still writing, processing, and sharing their insights within their own circles. I have tried to keep a close eye on Chinese social media networks and websites where they share their own writings. A lot of things posted on Weibo or other sites might get taken down quickly, but people still post. Chinese contacts have also been helpful in pointing me toward privately circulated sermons and essays. They are sharing these sorts of writings in their own groups, and I’ve actively tried to ask people to point me toward interesting reflections.

It’s true that it is more difficult for outsiders to access information these days. In years past, foreigners inside China acted as a sort of “bridge,” explaining and helping the wider world find the resources the Chinese church was leaning on. But while a lot of “bridge” people are no longer in China these days, much writing is still being circulated and shared.  I’m doing my best to keep my ear to the ground and find out as much as possible about the topics Chinese are thinking and writing on right now.

One additional note: I’ve noticed that in this moment, a lot of Chinese are openly sharing their experiences of persecution. That is an important story, and we need to hear and share their voices. However, China is not a monolith. These stories of persecution are true, but they are not the only story within China, even in a time of significantly rising pressure. A lot of what I’ve seen shared publicly has been understandably focused on the pressure Chinese are experiencing. But in order to try and give a more complete picture of the Chinese house church, extra discretion is needed.

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Image credit: Edvinas Bruzas via UnSplash.

E. F. Gregory

E. F. Gregory is the blog editor for China Partnership, which serves, trains, and resources the Chinese house church.View Full Bio

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