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Chinese History & Culture

China Rising in Historical Perspective, Part II

(This essay is a continuation of Part I.)

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4. China’s rise is fraught with fragility

From the perspective of world history, we can detect some common features not only of a great power’s rise, but of its decline. These typically include over-extension; internal division; economic mistakes, such as high taxes and/or heavy government intervention and debasement of the currency. A lack of public “morality” and a breakdown of national cohesiveness sap the will to rule. Natural disasters and strategic blunders, such as the mistakes that both Napoleon and Hitler made in Russia, and perhaps that George Bush committed in Iraq, can lead to disastrous setbacks. Powerful enemies also do their part.

For these and other reasons, all world empires have been temporary, with that of Athens and of America being two of the briefest reigns of glory.

In China’s case, there are obstacles to its continued rise, and ominous signs of troubled waters ahead.

Internal

Internal warnings are coming from a variety of directions. Rising rebellions, fueled by rural resentment and urban unrest are being caused by endemic corruption of local officials, as seen in the shoddy school construction in Sichuan. Favored “princelings” also arouse the ire of common people.

Party divisions threaten the unity that is essential for any government to stand. Traditionalists argue for more state control, especially now that capitalism seems discredited, while “reformers” still believe in allowing the market to work. Restless citizens keep pushing the envelope towards more freedom, and individualistic youth join with angry consumers and an aroused middle class to produce a pool of discontent. Civil rights activists and signers of Charter ‘08” publicly call for political reform, while the more than 120,000 demonstrations in 2008 testify to the depth and breadth of popular resentment. Some are even whispering the sentiment that the Communist Party, like many a corrupt predecessor, has lost the Mandate of Heaven.

The government is very aware of the presence of widening economic divisions that could produce instability. The gaps between rich and poor; urban and rural residents; coastal and hinterland regions; not to mention ethnic tensions between the Han and Tibetans and Muslims, add to Beijing’s worries.

Such ingredients have brewed widespread revolts in the past, and I have read somewhere that there are already more than 100 revolutionary movements at present, including some pretty scary semi-“Christian” millenarian sects. With the memory of the quasi-Christian Taiping rebellion, which almost toppled the Manchu dynasty, before them, it is no wonder that government officials fear a highly-organized Christian movement with a rural base, connections in the cities, and foreign support!

Looming in the foreground is the terrible environmental crisis- the shortage of clean water, deadly air, depleted or poisoned soil - all leading to disease, disruption, disillusionment and anger against the government, as well as growing international outrage.

Incredibly rapid urbanization has brought with it loss of agricultural sufficiency, and an unstable migrant worker population, while demographic trends such as an aging population and huge surplus of males portend trouble ahead.

Rising health dangers include a creeping epidemic of HIV/AIDS; endemic heart disease; respiratory ailments. Another outbreak of SARS or bird flu could create social disorder on a large scale.

Unexpected shocks, as devastating as they are sudden, can upset carefully-laid plans and introduce fearsome volatility. Natural disasters, such as last year’s winter storms and the terrible earthquake, are always possible, as are internal events, such as the Tibetan riots in 2008.

The current economic slowdown caught many off guard, and has spawned unemployment and internal conflict over role of the state in the economy. As the rest of the world sinks into recession or even depression, China’s own slower growth, plus anger over entrance into WTO and close ties to the world economy, could erode support for the current regime.

External

External threats to the stability of China are not lacking, either. The existence of an autonomous, democratic Taiwan presents a constant reminder of another way of governing China, one in which basic human rights are guaranteed, including that of the unrestricted practice of religion. The rise of a nuclear-armed India poses no immediate threat, pre-occupied as the Indians are with Pakistan, but one must not underestimate the potential of a clash of fundamental interests coupled with radical Hinduism to lead to real conflict, especially as India feels pressured by China’s moves in the Indian Ocean.

Nor should we forget Islamic influence, in China’s far West, in South East Asia, where Chinese settlers have been seen as a threat for decades, and in the neighboring countries of Central Asia. All is currently relatively quiet on the western front, but things could change in a flash.

What shall we say about the Middle East, where an American conflict with Iran could shut down the vital oil supply line running through the Straits of Hormuz before the pipeline to Russia is fully operative? What would happen if Japan decides to go nuclear to protect itself from its former enemy? Does anyone know what is going to happen on the Korean Peninsula? Would a nervous Russia ever resort to an oil shutoff or even atomic weapons to counter China’s rapid de facto colonization of eastern Siberia or some other perceived threat? Can we be sure that a future American president won’t do something rash?

If the current economic crisis results in the sudden collapse of American and European economies, how would that affect China’s own precarious prosperity?

Scenarios

Based on the past and the present, can we make any guesses – for that is all they can be – about the future? Several possible scenarios have been put forward. One is that the status quo will continue, with the Communist Party somehow successfully muddling through. Another, less likely, option, is that China would break up into regions, as it did after the Revolution of 1911. A third, equally unlikely as it seems to me, would be a peaceful transition to democracy, which was attempted by the Republic of China in the pre-war period and finally achieved on Taiwan.

If we look both at China’s very recent history and at the ways in which previous dynasties have followed each other, it seems very possible to me that the People’s Liberation Army would step in to save the nation from descending into chaos in an emergency caused by any of the threats I have just mentioned, or an explosive mix of them. The army was called in to quell the Red Guards when they got out of control in the 1960s, and once again to put down the popular demonstrations in 1989. Each time the troops returned to their barracks, though they gained more influence in the government after the Tiananmen incident. What if, like the Manchu troops who were asked to help save a dying Ming dynasty, they do their job and then stay around?

Though it was nominally a constitutional republic, China was in fact governed by generals from 1911 to 1949. Why could we not see another nationalist and basically socialist regime in the future? Such a state would feature strict control, a strong appeal to China’s past glory, a passion for its future honor, and a high potential for war, especially if that was considered the only way to re-unite the nation.

Christian history

China’s rise presents both opportunities and challenges to the Christian church

In the light of all this, we can see that China’s rise presents both opportunities and challenges to the Christian church.

If we scan the pages of church history, we shall observe several ways in which Christians have related to a powerful state.

There have been cases of Christian expansion under an imperial “peace,” such as the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, and Pax Americana. Christianity has expanded also with the support of a rising power, such as Charlemagne’s “Holy Roman Empire,” the alliance of crown and church in the colonial territories of Catholic Spain and Portugal and of Protestant Holland and Britain. In the first half of the twentieth century, the United States of America identified itself as a “Christian” nation, and sought, at least in theory, to promote the interests of Christianity wherever its power advanced.

We can find cases, also, of the church beings sponsored, approved, or even conjoined to the state by an established imperial government, as in Rome after Constantine; the Byzantine Empire; Roman Catholicism in Europe and Latin America, and the established Protestant churches of western Europe. There was some of this also in the case of the “Church of the East” in Tang and Yuan China, though mixed with state support of other religions.

Advantages & disadvantages

We can not deny that certain advantages accrue to such state support, including prestige, financial resources, and political protection. On the other hand, numerous disadvantages also come with state patronage, including connection with unwelcome dominance, as in the case of the Dutch Reformed Church in Indonesia and the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in 19th-20th century China. Even worse, however, are the pride, arrogance, assumption of cultural superiority, and reliance on man that tend to accompany sponsorship by a mighty government or country. Christian spirituality under these conditions tends to be crippled by forgetting the Cross, love of this world, advanced and moribund ecclesiastical organization, and even “dead orthodoxy.” All too often, church leaders with state patronage have been guilty of abusing power to suppress “heresy” and have been co-opted by the rulers for their own political ends. One thinks of Czarist Russia, the German Church, and even some periods of the Church of England, and the way that “civil religion” has silenced the American church.

Perhaps the most harm has come when Christians have allowed the cultural values of their culture to penetrate the church, rather than allowing the truth of the Bible to transform our cultural values. One particularly dangerous error is to confuse love of country with complete agreement with whatever our country does. Sometimes patriotism involves speaking out with a prophetic voice – something we in the West have not done enough.

To me, the worst case scenario for China would be for some Chinese “Constantine” to decide he could not destroy the church and that he needed to favor Christianity in order to strengthen his hand and run the country. We must pray that this will never happen to Christians in China!

There is another model of church growth, however: Expansion under pressure and even persecution. Early Christianity provides one of the best examples, but so does the history of the Anabaptists in Europe, the Pilgrims in the first period of American colonization, Christians in India today, and of course Chinese Christians at various times and in various places.

We must not minimize the disadvantages of such an existence. Suffering can be terribly painful; the necessity of clandestine operations creates tension and stress and may foster loss of trust, lack of coordination, and the growth of heresies and sects. Under constant pressure, it’s easy to encourage an unhealthy “martyr” mentality, and hard to build a healthy church life.

On the other hand there are advantages to state suspicion and even persecution. Such churches tend to stress the primacy of evangelism and love; they preach the centrality of the Cross; they rely upon God’s power and presence; they are nurtured by a heavenly hope. As we have seen in China, government restrictions tend to produce house churches, which multiply rapidly, training new leaders and calling forth the participation of ordinary believers along the way.

If Christians learn from the past, they may avoid some previous mistakes. After all, that is the chief purpose of looking at current events from a historical perspective – that we gain wisdom thereby. The time for Western leadership in the church, as in the world, is coming to an end. The era of American wealth, power, and prestige is over. Westerners will be able to contribute to Chinese Christianity only if they renounce all national and cultural arrogance; seek to be pre-eminent only in service, to be outstanding only in humility, to lead only by example, to prevail only in prayer.

Chinese Christians would also be wise to avoid errors committed by Western Christians, while retaining whatever is good in what Westerners have done among them. They should not forget how God has grown the great Chinese church of today – hard work, suffering, prayer, the message of the Cross and the power of the Resurrection, loving community and the reliance upon God. They need to remember the fatal compromises that Christians in the past have made with the world’s obsession with power, vainly believing that political connections and bulging bank accounts would advance the true kingdom of God. It would be good for them not to follow the common pattern of identifying one’s country or our culture with the kingdom of God, or thinking that China is God’s chosen nation, as some used to call America. Western Christians have all too often confused their culture with the Gospel, and have mixed culture and Christianity in ways that have not been consistent the Bible’s world view. We see some of this sort of thing taking place among “culture Christians” in China today, with potentially debilitating consequences.

Now is a good time for Chinese Christians to apply biblical principles to all aspects of life, seeking to serve as salt and light in a society with many ills, promoting harmony, obedience to the government, and care for the poor and weak in times of increasing insecurity and fear.

Some of the values of traditional Chinese culture have been increasingly called into question by Chinese themselves since the early 20th century, and some of the myths by which the current regime stays in power have lost their persuasive power. With Chinese in command of their own destiny, their problems can no longer be blamed on foreigners. Perhaps more self-criticism will bring significant progress, even as the positive contributions of traditional Chinese culture are re-affirmed.

G. Wright Doyle