Chinas economic growth is unprecedented in recent history, and the effects have been jarring. Having been involved with China long enough to remember when ordinary citizens needed ration cards to purchase basic necessities, I can also recall my shock and surprise when I first saw advertisements for a new weight loss program plastered on the side of a bus in a prosperous southern Chinese city.
Within 30 years, China has moved from being a nation still struggling to feed its people to being the worlds second largest economy.
Yet the headlong pursuit of economic growth is not without its downside. The rapidly developing consumer economy is fueling demand for resources that are not currently available domestically, as China goes from having three percent of the worlds middle class consumers in 2009 to a projected 13% by 2020, according to Brookings Institution figures.
With a population of 1.4 billion people, China is consuming an increasing percentage of the worlds resources. Its shift to a meat diet, for example, has led to a tenfold increase in water demand, and Chinas corn imports will increase from around 2 million to 15 million tons by 2020. With 7 out of 10 of the worlds most polluted cities in China, Chinas environmental decisions have ramifications far beyond Chinas borders. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese are flooding into cities to seek work, commonly ill-equipped for urban life, creating urgent social needs that outstrip the governments and the nascent non-profit sectors ability to meet them.
A key question, given these factors, is whether China, as it becomes more affluent, will also become more generous, or whether increased wealth without generosity will negatively affect Chinas future social and environmental development. A significant part of the answer may be found in Chinas growing church, whose membership numbered 3-4 million in the 1970s but today is estimated at 68 million or more. As the church becomes increasingly urban, with Christians having access to more resources and moving into positions of influence, their understanding of biblical stewardship becomes a key factor in their witness and role in society.
This is particularly relevant and urgent for Chinese-led ministries that have been receiving support from overseas during the past three decades and will need to transition to an indigenous funding base to sustain them in the future. Within the larger picture, however, by developing a biblical view of stewardship, Chinas Christians could potentially lead the way in building a culture of generosity that does not currently exist in China. Christians in business could provide a welcome counterbalance to the ethically adrift culture pervading China's commercial world. Biblical attitudes regarding stewardship of the environment could promote models of sustainability that are desperately needed given Chinas continued economic growth and environmental degradation.
Moving forward in this area will require a multi-faceted approach, from working with business leaders to training pastors and developing a theology of stewardship in the seminaries where those pastors are trained. The obstacles are huge, but so is the potential for impact as the church leads the way in addressing one of the key issues in China's rapidly developing society.
Image credit: Yuan, by Christina B. Castro, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio