(As a teenager, I had spent a year in Taiwan, where my father commanded the American military forces and met weekly with Chiang Kai-shek, the President. I could tell you stories of stepping on sleeping cobras, running from an aroused water buffalo, getting lost in the jungle, and being in an airplane with Chiang’s son that had lost one engine and was in danger of going down in Taiwan’s mountainous wilderness area. But that will have to wait until another time.)
Now, we live in a different world. The U.S. recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China, although it maintains an unofficial tie with Taiwan, whose independence movement it seeks to restrain. China sits on the Security Council, and contributes troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions. Millions of Americans and others flock to that once-closed country to study, do business, or see the Great Wall and other sights. Other millions of Chinese come to America for similar reasons; many of them settle down here, but others return, carrying indelible impressions with them.
China’s Changing Society
Unprecedented change has swept over China in the past one hundred years. We must take note also of momentous movements that have forever altered the shape of this ancient nation.
The collapse of the imperial system in 1911 terminated a form of government that had prevailed since the beginning of China’s long history. No longer did a Son of Heaven sit on the Dragon Throne in the Forbidden City within the walls of Beijing. Instead, parliaments and congresses convened under presidents and prime ministers. Sacrifices ceased at the Temple of Heaven; the old civil service exam based on a mastery of the Confucian classics, abolished in 1905, was replaced by a modern education system modeled on those of the West.
The language itself underwent profound transformation, as the spoken dialect assumed primacy in written works. With this came new ideas as well – democracy, science, materialism, nationalism, socialism, and eventually communism.
Chaotic competition among warlords after 1911, followed by Japanese invasion in 1937, brought the people untold misery. World War II saw China engaged as a major member of the Allies, with American servicemen helping in large numbers. The long-simmering civil war between Nationalist and Communist parties ended in victory for the Communists, led by Mao Zedong in 1949, and the flight of Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan with a million troops and government officials.
But the events of the first fifty years of the twentieth century were just a prelude to the social upheavals introduced by the Communists. The result was a society in which all that was old was attacked and rejected, to be replaced by a militant secular atheism.
Most traumatic of all was the Great Cultural Revolution, in which, from 1966 to 1976, China’s reverence for age and authority was turned upside down into a rebellion of youth led by Mao.
In 1978, after the death of Mao, Deng Xiaoping introduced reforms that would radically re-make Chinese society. Though political rulers were just as authoritarian as the emperors, and even more intrusive, economic freedoms reversed decades of Communist control and unleashed the entrepreneurial energies of China’s millions.
The ensuing prosperity has brought about the greatest human migration in human history, as millions have left the farm to find work in the city. Urban centers have replaced country towns as major concentrations of wealth and power. Foreigners have poured billions of dollars into new factories, railroads, roads, power plants, and buildings. Shanghai boasts twice as many skyscrapers as Manhattan. China’s telephone system by-passed the first generation of wires and cables and jumped into the wireless age almost overnight.
Other examples of modernization abound, and can be seen in China’s economic clout, her rising confidence, and the presence of Chinese tourists all over the globe. Sophisticated tycoons swing multi-billion dollar deals in glitzy office complexes. Stylish men and women stroll streets lined with designer stores from all nations. Spoiled offspring of the “one-child policy” expect, and get, the best of everything from doting parents and grandparents in a reversal of the traditional dominance of age over youth.
In the cities, young people are just as “wired” as those in New York, perhaps more so. Television and related media have brought the world’s entertainment into millions of homes, transforming values and breeding a new generation individualistic consumers.
“The best of times”
Unprecedented Freedom and Opportunity
Globalization, accelerated by China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, has transformed hundreds of cities in China, as it has enormously multiplied contact with foreigners. Arriving by the millions for business, education, and tourism, people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South East Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America have brought more than their money and their expertise. New ideas and fresh ways of doing things in a way, and on a scale, that exceeds even the period from the mid-19th-century Opium Wars to World War II.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Chinese, most of them educated but some coming from the lower classes, have gone overseas – also to study, do business, or simply see the sights. The resulting sophistication and broadening of perspective have stretched the horizons of both those who have gone and those they left behind, as letters, phone calls, and emails carry tales of a new world hitherto only seen in movies and on television. Of course, many romantic notions of America and Europe are shattered by close encounters with the real thing, but the entire experience continues to reverberate throughout all strata of Chinese society in an ever-widening ring of impulses that will certainly shake the foundations of that ancient civilization.
Some of those who return have embraced, or at least been influenced by, Christian beliefs while overseas, and their impact is being felt in the church and the larger society.
Some of the effects of economic growth upon the urban society include intense competition, constant pressure, stress. To these we may add the attractions of Vanity Fair: Entertainment, a vast array of consumer products and money to acquire them; fashion, worldliness, sophistication; the challenge of facing rapid social change; demolition of ancient neighborhoods and the construction of shining new high-rise apartment buildings; separation of the generations not only through the inevitable gap of cultures but also now distance and the rush to succeed.
To say there is a great flexibility to explore new ideas would be an understatement. Freedom to probe and discuss any and all issues in many contexts, including the Central Party School in Beijing, has spawned a jungle of competing ideological options, including Christianity. Western influences, such as modernism and post-modernism; traditional Chinese thinking, like Confucianism and Daoism; Communism – all these vie for the allegiance of the rising generation.
Today’s urban Chinese, in short, enjoy more freedom and prosperity than at any time in the past fifty years, and they are taking advantage of this new environment to express their creativity and increase their opportunities for advancement on an unprecedented scale.
The Other Side
The World Bank estimates that over 200 million Chinese peasants live in poverty. They are absolutely poor, with not enough money for adequate food, clothing, or shelter, not to mention education or medical care. That is almost the population of the United States mired in disease, destitution, and despair of future improvement.
With little opportunity in the countryside, more than a hundred million people have migrated to the cities and towns of China, as we have seen. Thus, entire villages have been emptied of their able-bodied men and young people, as anyone who saw the movie, The Road Home, will remember.
In the urban marketplace, however, there is no mercy for the slow or unskilled. Competition for limited resources spawns a frenetic lifestyle, with long hours and high pressure to produce.
Urban Chinese are almost overwhelmed by a bewildering array of challenges, including unemployment for millions, as state-owned enterprises are allowed to go belly-up; lack of medical care, education, and even the necessities for those who can’t find jobs, or can’t afford to pay for services once provided, however minimally, by the state; dizzying wealth for many who are able, or well-connected, enough to profit from the truly stunning growth of China’s economy; incessant demands by employers who can replace you in five minutes; a fast pace that allows little or no time for reflection, reading, or prayer.
China’s leaders worry day and night about the widening gap between the rich and the poor – one of the largest in the world; the yawning discrepancy between rural want and urban wealth; and the social unrest that has developed from a still, small voice into an incessant rumble.
As men leave the village, despair stalks the women they leave behind to tend the animals, till the land, teach the children, and take care of all the affairs of the community. Alone among the nations of the world, China’s country folk commit suicide more often than do urbanites; and women kill themselves more than men.
We shall not be surprised to learn of a tremendous moral collapse. A huge proportion of unmarried young people are sexually active; adultery is common, and the divorce rate has climbed to unprecedented heights. More than half of China’s married women complain of physical abuse.
The “one-child policy” has birthed a number of unintended progeny, among them the phenomenon of so-call “little emperors” spoiled by the solicitous care of two parents and four grandparents. With millennia of teaching that bearing a son is the most filial act one can perform, who would have thought that young people, who are legally barred from marrying before their mid-twenties, would actually delay marriage, postpone having children until their careers are established, or even forego parenting altogether? No wonder social critics, and even the government itself, worry about an epidemic of radical self-centeredness.
Older Chinese complain that all that matters now is getting ahead. Those who have to care for them counter that mere survival is often at stake. No matter how you explain it, no one denies that an obsession with material comfort and prestige has gripped China’s millions in a way never before seen. Anything goes. Lying and cheating at work and in school are almost universal. Once you could walk the streets unafraid, but now violent crime of all sorts has spawned tension and fear, especially in the South.
Across the land, an obvious loss of meaning and a corrosive relativism combine with a profound love-hunger that demands satisfaction. Western movies compete with those from Japan to foster a new romanticism, fed also by love songs by pop idols in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and now China itself.
Massive confusion reigns in the marketplace of ideas: Which way is best? The failure of other belief systems has left many thinking persons bewildered, groping for answers to the perennial questions in an environment shifting so fast hardly anyone can keep up.
Confucianism – now promoted by the government - espouses fine ethics, but has been exploited by those in power for two thousand years, and has anyway never warmed the heart. Buddhism attracts high-minded souls, especially contemplative types, but cannot provide the theoretical foundations for a modern society. Despite its profound mystical strain and wise counsel for political leaders, Daoism fails to answer questions which press upon today’s thinkers and decision-makers.
The Communist bosses hope that a return to the thought of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Deng will re-invigorate a party demoralized by its impotence to control avarice and power-lust at all levels and confronted with the failures of the past, not to mention socialism’s evident inability to produce the prosperity that it long ago promised, and that the free market has delivered so spectacularly in recent years.
The masses and even intellectuals in their superstitious moments will practice popular religion, but no one looks there for solutions to economic, social, political, or philosophical problems. And Islam will always be limited to particular ethnic minorities, not least because Chinese love to eat pork!
That basically leaves secular humanism, with its empty atheism; romantic, hedonistic relativism; nihilism; and Christianity.
The mention of love brings us to the psychological environment of today’s Chinese.
Chinese hearts and minds are laden with an onerous burden from the past. How can they cope with anger over innumerable abuses; the confusion, chaos, and futility of various political “movements” that have convulsed society since 1949; and mindless terror, including torture, directed against tens of millions?
The government’s one-child policy has inflicted forced abortions upon unwilling women, causing incalculable physical and emotional damage.
The Tian An Men incident of 1989 will not go away, despite government-sponsored re-writing of history. Citizens of Beijing cannot forget the wanton killing unleashed upon them when the army crushed the students.
Imagine what government corruption does to people – both the venal officials who live off its illicit gains, and irate citizens who have no recourse to justice under a system that regularly robs them. How do you handle a chronically bad conscience or a rage that simmers for years on end?
Government crackdowns have affected millions of citizens and security personnel. Guilt for participation in abuse must take its toll in the hearts of those who are party to the perpetration of terror which has characterized many in power since the 1920s. In the Great Cultural Revolution, tens of millions of young people subjected their teachers, elders, and even parents to shameful treatment, including beatings, torture, and death. Continued police brutality crushes the souls of those who endure it, but also sears the consciences of those who mete it out to innocent victims.
Participation in abortion; envy; greed; betrayal of family and friends; hatred of enemies; increasingly common sexual license; abandonment of spouse and children – all must foster a feeling of guilt and shame that cries out for consolation.
And, despite the sustained economic growth of the past decade, widespread anxiety over the future gnaws at the hearts of hundreds of millions caught up in the rush of events. Political uncertainty – who will be ruling China ten years from now? Will there be another leftist backlash? Economic uncertainty – will the feverish pace of growth continue, or will the bubble burst, as some experts predict? And social insecurity – what is my place in a society where everything is up for grabs, nothing is certain, and relationships built on the quid-pro-quo determine one’s fate?
As much as they welcome new-found freedoms and unparalleled wealth, thoughtful Chinese decry the unraveling of society which has come with economic and political change.
The one-child policy has left a legacy of aborted or abandoned infant girls, producing a disproportionate percentage of males in the adult population. What do you do with millions of men who cannot find a wife?
Rural poverty has increased, not declined, in the past two decades, despite recent government attempts to reverse this trend. Mass migration into cities has created a vast floating population of rootless and unemployed element whose instability concerns the government and feeds a rising crime rate.
Perhaps most troubling of all are the public demonstrations, many of them large and violent, against government corruption. Even according to government statistics, the number of these popular protests has increased exponentially in recent years, raising the specter of a massive uprising against the Communist government. Powerful centripetal forces make such a revolution highly unlikely for now –at least until after the Olympics in 2008 – but the rulers in Beijing do not discount the possibility of the kind of movement that has toppled previous dynasties.
In other words, for many it is the best of times, but for many others – deprived of the “iron rice bowl” that guaranteed employment, housing, health care, and education from the cradle to the grave – it feels like the worst of times. Though the description of Shanghai in the 1930s – “a thin layer of heaven covering a thick layer of hell” – may not now be quite accurate, since prosperity has spread to a far larger proportion of the population, nevertheless a high degree of angst plagues huge numbers of Chinese.
A “new” Chinese culture?
Some observers go so far as to claim that a radically different Chinese culture and society have begun to emerge from the whirlwind changes of the past fifty years. Respect for elders; submission to authority; seeking the welfare of the group; a reverence for the past – all these “traditional” values have been assaulted by the chaos and confusion of recent times.
What do these massive changes in society portend for China’s future – and ours? To this question we shall now turn.
While there is no doubt that China has regained much of the prestige and power she enjoyed in the greatest days of her East Asian hegemony, observers differ on the prospects for this rising giant.
On the one hand, China has made almost unprecedented progress in almost every arena since the dark days of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Modern China builds upon an ancient and very rich cultural tradition. The reforms begun in 1978 have penetrated, and transformed, most sectors of society, and have thrust the world’s most populous nation into the forefront all over the globe.
Economically, China (as of this writing) possesses by far the world’s largest foreign reserves; boasts one of the fastest sustained growth rates in history; has (depending on how you measure) either the second or third largest national economy; and is enjoying a rapid rise in average living standards. Never have so many Chinese had so much.
Politically, the government has worked hard to create a new and comprehensive code of law; initiated limited popular elections at the “homeowner association” level; brought entrepreneurs into the Communist Party; and enshrined the right to private property in the law of the land.
China’s economic growth has fueled a huge military build-up, causing concern to her neighbors and also to America. With the largest military establishment in the world, China can now not only defend itself but also project power into other parts of Asia and, with ballistic missiles, other continents. China has actively sought to contain India, with strong relationships with Myanmar and Pakistan, and has established a presence on the disputed Spratly Islands. Sophisticated equipment and know-how make cyber-warfare, and attacks in and from space, highly possible, as tests last fall and winter demonstrated.
A surplus of funds, aligned with an insatiable thirst for oil and other commodities, has led China to make strategic political, commercial, and military alliances with many nations that once looked to the West or Japan. Chinese are gobbling up energy and natural resource contracts at such a rate that the United States, Europe, and other regions may find themselves left out in the cold – literally.
A dramatic reversal of Mao’s policy came when China and Russia became strategic partners in a relationship that harks back to the early days of the Cold War. Their common probable opponent? The United States of America and its allies, such as Japan.
All this has brought China world-wide diplomatic influence unprecedented in her long history. With a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, China can veto any motion it desires. In 2006, the World Health Organization elected a Chinese as head. Chinese troops have served in Haiti and elsewhere as part of U.N. peace-keeping forces. What a remarkable change from the days when Chinese “volunteers’ fought U.N. troops in Korea!
Not all looks bright for China’s future, however. In addition to those I have already mentioned, a number of problems, present and potential, cloud the horizon and cause considerable concern among her leaders and informed people.
Like all Communist nations, past and present, China faces an impending ecological crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. Already, there is not enough water, and pollution makes most of it unfit for human consumption. Factories and processing plants have degraded the soil and the air. “Acid rain” from China even affects the other nations in East Asia and even North America.
Erosion, mostly caused by wanton deforestation, has robbed the land of millions of acres of topsoil. Urbanization has consumed even more. A once self-sufficient nation must now import large quantities of food and energy for its burgeoning population.
The Three Gorges project – the largest engineering feat in human history – is meant to control the floods that have rampaged through the Yangtze River valley for millennia, and to provide hydroelectric power. But who knows what ecological disasters will come home to roost on the heads of those who brushed aside cries of protest from both inside China and without? One particular fear: The dam is located on an earthquake fault line.
Today’s leaders are making heroic efforts to improve government in China. In many ways, this regime is better than many in China’s long history, and certainly superior to Mao’s chaotic and destructive reign.
Nevertheless, no one seems to have a solution to the major threat to stability: Pervasive corruption. Indeed, as long as political criticism and organized opposition remain illegal, it is hard to imagine how the Communist Party can police itself. So far, anti-corruption campaigns have mostly targeted clients and children of opposing factions.
The present harsh repression of all political dissent, coupled with stringent control of non-profit organizations, including religious ones, are creating mounting pressures that could someday explode.
No one knows the future, of course. What possible scenarios can we imagine?
Muddling through: Continuation of the status quo, with gradual improvements. The Communist Party clearly envisions holding onto power indefinitely. Enough reforms might convince the people that there is hope for a truly better government, and stifle revolution from below. Continued economic growth would grant the kind of legitimacy the government now enjoys, however tenuous.
Nationalist authoritarianism. As in Russia, the Communist Party might turn itself into a nationalist/patriotic party, emphasizing China’s ancient culture and asserting its hegemony in East Asia and perhaps the world. Signs of this can already be seen in the virulent anti-Japanese (and occasionally anti-American) tone of government-controlled mass media and in a re-affirmation of the abiding value of Confucianism.
Populist transformation from above. Who knows? A truly reformist group might gain power in Beijing, and institute sweeping changes that radically re-make the government. This was tried in the last years of the 19th century, and came close to success, until the wily Empress Dowager mobilized the reactionaries and squelched a movement that might have saved the Qing Dynasty.
War. If the government feels sufficiently threatened by popular discontent, it might start a war to distract the people and unite them against a common foe. A declaration of independence by Taiwan could spark an offensive, which would probably include a strike against American forces in Japan, or even a general pre-emptive attack on the United States and its allies, including Japan. Though this would be only a last-ditch lunge by a desperate regime, China’s multi-faceted military capacity and the determination of the Party to remain in power make it at least possible.
Most analysts believe this is highly unlikely, for several reasons: China still lacks a single aircraft power; its air force needs modernization; some elements of the military are less loyal than before the Tian An Men incident in 1989.
A “Christian” Nation? Another - and to many highly implausible - scenario has been suggested by Dr. David Aikman in Jesus in Beijing: The presence and growing influence of Christianity both in rural and urban areas constitutes a potent force. If the Christians, who are now mostly a-political, would organize themselves, or if enough intellectuals adopt a Christian world view, believers may exercise a powerful, and perhaps dominant, pressure on the country’s leadership. Christians already outnumber members of the Communist Party, and are considered enough of a threat to be constantly monitored and sometimes persecuted.
This brings us to the rapid resurgence of religion in Chinese society over the past two decades. Under Mao, the Communists tried their utmost to stamp out all vestiges of anything branded as “old,” especially religion, which communism considers to be nothing more than superstition.
Of course, most Westerners would see much traditional Chinese religion in the same light. For thousands of years, Chinese have offered worship to a large pantheon of gods and goddesses, some merely local deities, others with national followings. The God of Wealth receives prayer for prosperity in business. The Goddess of Mercy – a bit like the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism, from whom some scholars think she has derived – offers compassion, kindness, and the fruitfulness of the womb. In Southern China and Taiwan, Madzu, once an historical teenage girl who is said to have rescued sailors from death in a storm, is invoked for protection.
Most of all, however, ancestors are fed regularly with real food - the essence of which they consume, leaving the flesh to the living worshipers - and provided for with paper money, which is burnt as a way of getting it transferred to the Bank of Hades. Well taken care of, they leave you alone; if hungry or neglected, they can inflict all sorts of trouble, even calamity.
Buddhism with Chinese characteristics is mixed with Daoism (Taoism) and this popular religion to produce a unique blend, while – mostly in Western provinces – Islam claims the loyalty of some minority groups who agitate for independence.
All these faiths have surged in popularity since economic reforms were introduced in 1979, fueled and financed largely at first by visitors from overseas Chinese, especially those from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
None of that is surprising, given the long history of these religious traditions and practices in China.
What has struck most observers as remarkable, and even stunning, is the amazing growth of Christianity, especially of the Protestant evangelical sort, in the past three decades. From about four million in 1949 when the Communists took over, the number of believers in Jesus Christ has risen many times, and estimates now run from fifty million to an astounding one hundred million. Never in its history has the Christian church seen such phenomenal expansion in such a short time.
Beginning first in the countryside, where humble peasants flocked to a message of healing and hope, this formerly “Western” religion has spread to the cities, and claims the allegiance of millions of middle-class educated folk as well as some very high-ranking officials.
A friend of ours whom I met in China some years ago came to visit us in January. She had become a Christian while in law school, and returned home to share her new faith with her dying grandfather. This old man had been on the Long March with Mao in the early thirties, and had risen through the ranks to become a general. His position entitled him to a room in a hospital reserved for elite Party and Army leaders, so next to him was another old general. When our friend became frustrated that her grandfather had not immediately accepted her exhortation to believe in Christ, the wife of the other old general said, “Don’t worry. Our entire family – three generations – are now Christians, and we have been working on your grandfather for some time now.”
Indeed, Christian influence has penetrated to all levels and domains of Chinese society, even the highest reaches of the Communist Party, whose members are said to have their own fellowship group!
That is why Dr. David Aikman, former TIME Magazine bureau chief in Moscow, Jerusalem and Beijing, stated in his book, Jesus in Beijing, that within thirty years or so China would replace the United States as the world’s pre-eminent Christian power.
What if some future Chinese Constantine1, locked in a desperate struggle for supremacy, decides to worship the Christian God and then, victorious, makes Christianity the official religion of China? Fantastic? Perhaps. But it happened in pagan Rome, and could happen again. Most Christians cringe at the idea, but some would welcome the chance to replace the current system with one that prizes the value of human life and individual rights, within the confines of a strict moral code.
We can only hope that the Chinese people will continue to benefit from the prosperity and peace they have tasted in recent decades, under a government that works energetically to provide fair treatment for all.
After all, as huge characters on the wall of Tian An Men in Beijing state, what is good for China is good for the entire world.
Changing China and Your Future
Now what does all this mean for people about to enter college? A great deal, actually.
First, you must adjust to China’s rise (and that of India, too, but that is another story). America’s dominance is a thing of the past. Get ready for a new world with multiple poles of power, including Russia, China, and India; especially China.
Excel in school. Americans used to be known for our ability to have a good time. Now, I don’t want you to turn into bookworms with no activity other than study – but I don’t worry that many of you will! More likely, you will be tempted to follow the crowd and waste your time at parties, playing computer games, or surfing the Net.
Remember, there are literally millions of smart kids like you in China and elsewhere who work very long hours in order to excel in academics and get into the best graduate schools – in America. Once you get to college, if you have not found out already, you will discover that your competitors in class and in the lab are Chinese or Indians. They didn’t get there by lounging around in front of the TV all day.
Learn and Live
My next bit of advice consists of two words: learn, and live.
Learn all you can about Chinese history, culture, and current society.
Take courses on Chinese history, religion, literature, economy, art – whatever you can. Read books – I have a list which you can access easily. Watch Chinese movies – one of my favorite pastimes. Some are trash, but there are a few really good ones.
Acquire a taste for Chinese food, and the skill of using chopsticks.
Make friends with ethnic Chinese both those born or brought up here (often called ABCs – American-born Chinese) and the increasing number who come to college from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China proper.
Learn Chinese – now, while it’s optional. One caution here: It’s very hard to get correct pronunciation from a college Chinese class, and since Chinese is a tonal language, pronunciation is about 95% of the impression you make. So, I suggest you buy the Rosetta Stone software, then get a Chinese with standard pronunciation (you’ll have to ask around to find one) to correct the way you say things.
And learn about biblical Christianity. Not the boring stuff you may have encountered in traditional churches here, but First Century faith in Christ, where people believe the Bible and live by it, regardless of the cost, which may be loss of liberty and even life. By the time you are out in the working world, the odds are that your colleague or the person on the other side of the negotiating table will be an evangelical Chinese Christian. You may as well find out now what they are all about.
The reading list I recommend includes some really fine books on the courageous Chinese who dare to profess faith in Christ in a hostile environment.
Travel to China. Go every year, if possible, or alternate with trips to Europe. Join a tour – don’t try to do China on your own – for a brief visit. Sign up for your school’s semester or summer-long program in China to learn. One especially enjoyable opportunity is going to China to serve; there are lots of exciting openings.
Live in China. I mean, consider going there for a longer period of time to study or to work. It will broaden your horizons and give you an incalculable advantage over those who know only Western countries.