Since the early 1980s, rapid growth of the Church in China has resulted in one of the largest Christian communities in the world. This achievement could not have been made without prayer, support, and involvement on the part of the churches and agencies from abroad.
Needless to say, the context in which the Chinese Church lives is a fast-changing one. As China undergoes drastic social and cultural changes, the Church there is facing new realities and challenges. If the overseas churches continue to walk along with the Chinese Christians in a constructive way, it is absolutely necessary to understand the Chinese Church’s current dynamics in Chinese society and culture, and to adjust their approaches and strategies accordingly.
In my view, there are three monumental shiftings or mega trends in the Chinese context, which have huge implications for the Christian ministry there.
1. Shifting from Social Consensus to Social Division
When the nightmare of the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) finally ended, Deng Xiao-ping inaugurated the massive market-oriented reform of the country’s economy and opening-up to the outside world in the late 1970s. Disillusioned with Mao’s revolutionary ideology and exuberant by new opportunities, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population threw their support behind Deng’s policies and united in developing their economy and improving their life. Reform and modernization were no doubt the consensus of almost the entire society.
After more than three decades of reform and development, China has been transformed from a Soviet-style communist state into a bizarre hybrid of capitalist economy and authoritarian regime. By the mid-1990s the negative consequences of the free-market style of reform and economic take-off became evident by the widening gap between rich and poor, rampant corruption, a deteriorating environment, and so forth. As social inequality deepened, the voice critical of current reform began to be heard. While popular discontent was widespread, nostalgia of the “good old days” under Mao gained popularity, and social tension and unrest were on the rise. Consequently, the social consensus forged in the 1980s was shattered by the early years of the 21st century.
The society is also highly divided in regard to its future direction. While liberals (the rightists) push for the continuous adoption of a Western-style free-market economy and political democracy, the so-called neo-leftists want the country to take a more socialist-oriented and uniquely Chinese path of development. And the Maoists even call for a return to Mao’s radical ideology and vision as the only viable solution for the country’s deep-rooted problems. Although the Communist government still holds on fast to its reform and modernization policy with the Chinese characters, the current ideological and social landscape in China is hopelessly chaotic and volatile.
2. Shifting from the Marxist Dominance to Religious Pluralism
While the Chinese communist party liberalized its economic policy in the 1980s, it determined to maintain the dominance of Marxism as the official ideology. But the party soon found out it was increasingly hard to control the country’s spiritual life as firmly and thoroughly as in Mao’s era, since growing economic prosperity and opportunity created more room for citizens to pursue their own interests and express themselves more freely. The credibility of Marxism was also seriously damaged by the disastrous consequences of the Cultural Revolution and rampant corruption. Consequently, the once-suppressed religious and cultural traditions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism began to make a come-back, and new religions and ideologies were introduced from abroad on a large scale.
From the 1990s to the early 21st century, the Marxism’s credibility crisis deepened, and thus led to an enlarging spiritual vacuum and worsening moral decay. Rising materialism and consumerism only added to the woes. Trying their best to shore up the legitimate authority of Marxism, the party sought to support and manipulate the resurrection of traditional Chinese religions and culture to its own advantage. Under such a circumstance, the revivals of religions gained new momentum from grass-root interest and official endorsement. In recent decades, extravagant Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist ceremonies were staged, Confucius’ birthday was celebrated, thousands of volumes of religious scriptures were re-printed, massive religious monuments and temples were erected, traditional values and cultures were re-introduced into the national educational system, and academic studies of Chinese traditions were aggressively promoted. In the meantime, all kinds of folk religions, superstitions, new religious cults, and post-modern values from the West found a fertile ground to thrive in China.
As a result, China has been transformed from a Marxism-dominated, atheist society to a spiritually diverse one. Religions are enjoying unprecedented popularity in the society.
3. Shifting from Open-mindedness to Nationalism
In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people suddenly realized that their country was far behind many Western countries, especially in economic and social developments, and they had a lot to learn from the rest of the world in their endeavor to modernize their homeland. Thus, the dominant mood of the general public throughout the 1980s was very much characterized by awe of Western achievements, open-mindedness toward the world, and even a kind of “pro-West” attitude. The West was generally viewed as the model for modern industrial civilization. The Chinese open-mindedness and friendliness to the outside world was to a great extent embodied in the Student Democratic Movement and its popular support in 1989.
Thanks to thirty years of economic growth and social reform, China is now a rising superpower economically, politically, and militarily. The country’s increasing status and influence on the world stage was highlighted by such events as the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Nowadays, the Chinese people certainly have more reasons to feel proud of their country. As a result, the kind of overwhelming open-mindedness has been in the wane, and national pride or nationalism on the rise. Across Chinese society, the nationalist voice calling for China to explore its own path of development, to defend its own interests, and to say “No” to the West is getting louder. It is true that China’s ideological landscape is much more diverse now than before. But nationalism, in couple with the revivals of Confucianism and other native traditions, has definitely emerged as one of the most dominant forces in the public opinion and has led to a mixed feeling about the West.
Even more ominous is the common hostility the rising nationalist and traditional religious groups explicitly exhibit toward Christianity. Already smeared by its historical ties with Western colonialism, the Church is once again labeled as part of the Western influence and conspiracy against China, and the phenomenal growth of the Church is interpreted as a serious threat to national sovereignty and security.
Concluding Remarks: What do all these trends mean to us?
No doubt the emerging social and cultural realities in China are challenging some of the Western conventional wisdom or stereotypes about contemporary Chinese society. Rather than a monolithic “communist state,” China should be more accurately described as a market-driven society with a nominal communist party in power; rather than dominated by Marxism and atheism, China is actually quite religious and culturally pluralistic; rather than a tyrant like Hitler, Mao is still revered by a large segment of the population as a big hero; rather than all for free-market oriented reform and Western style of democracy and human rights, the Chinese public are currently divided over the future of the country. Therefore, China’s future path is quite unpredictable. In any case, compared with the 1980s, today’s China is much more diverse, complex, precarious, and volatile.
For many overseas churches and mission agencies, their China strategies and approaches to a great degree are still the products of the 1980s. However, as the Chinese context is undergoing monumental changes, some of the existing approaches and their presuppositions badly need to be re-examined and adjusted. For instance, under the context of the 1980s, linking Christianity and modernization seemed conducive to evangelization in the country. However, this kind of linkage can become a liability, reinforcing the Church’s western image and thus acting in ways counterproductive to mission nowadays. Related to this is the issue of the relation between the gospels and social policy. Under the highly divided and ideologically-charged circumstances of contemporary China, it is especially wise to safeguard the gospels from being tied with any partisan agenda and politics.
Furthermore, the competitor of Christianity in China of the 1980s was relatively easy to be identified: primarily Marxism. But today there are multiple competitors ranging from Marxism to traditional religions, and from consumerism to new religious cults. In the face of nationalist pressure, to make the Church genuinely Chinese is becoming an even more urgent task. Taking all factors into account, I believe the challenges the Chinese Church faces in the 21st century are mounting, not waning. And the paramount external challenge may no longer be governmental persecution, but religious pluralism. Therefore, even with all the impressive church growth of the past decades, there is no ground for hyper-optimistic prediction and triumphalistic vision for what the Church can accomplish in the years to come. Instead, the question we should ask more is how we can help the Chinese Christians to be better prepared for the coming storms and to be the all-weather ambassadors for Christ in an increasingly pluralist society.