Huangshan, China

Christianity in China

Greater China's Great Transformation

L
et me start by explaining the choice of terms used in my title:

“Greater China” refers to the Chinese diaspora of traders, emigrants and political exiles from the coastal provinces – including many Christians --who played a very important role in the early modernization of China and have continued to do so ever since. We can’t understand China’s past or future, or the Chinese church, unless we incorporate into our thinking the Chinese communities in the Hong Kong and Macau SARs, Taiwan, Singapore and other parts of Pacific Asia and America.

The Great Transformation was the title of historian Karl Polanyi’s book that studied the 300 year long industrial-commercial transformation that created modern Western society by the 19th century. A similar modernizing transformation was kicked off in China by the intrusion of those Western imperialist powers seeking trading outlets, during what was an earlier period of globalization. This transformation to a modern China is still underway as it joins today’s wave of high-tech globalization.

So we’re talking here about approximately 200 years (1840-2050), after the Opium Wars forced the Qing dynasty to open up first the coastal ports and then the whole interior of China to foreign traders and missionaries, and spurred China’s transition from a rural agricultural empire to a fully modern, industrialized, and urbanized society and an influential world power by the middle of this century.

Today’s China is roughly comparable to the U.S. 100 years ago. Just before and after 1900, the U.S. experienced a burst of industrial growth that totally changed social life and shaped us into the world’s greatest industrial power and mission-sending country. In those years, as in China 100 years later, we too experienced economic booms and busts, great inequalities of wealth and social instability, labor unrest, and official and corporate corruption.

This transformation certainly has not been a matter of seamless progress anywhere in the world. In China, it has been punctuated by traumatic and massive popular uprisings, natural disasters, famine and disease, wars, and political revolutions. In fact, the recent thirty years since Mao Zedong died and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms began is about the longest stretch of relative peace, stability, and rapid development China has ever experienced since 1840.

China in the Shadow of Deng Xiaoping

I want to start with the fairly recent past -- the post-Mao era, since many people have been reading and thinking about the 17th Communist Party Congress on October 15th. The main outcome people will be watching for is the promotion of the first Cultural Revolution generation leaders to the Politburo, one of whom will be groomed over the next five years to succeed current leader Hu Jintao, whose two terms of office will end in 2012.

The mindset and timetable that shapes the planning of China’s leaders still is Deng Xiaoping’s 70 year program set forth in Jan. 1980. Before that, Mao’s socialist program called for egalitarian class struggle at home and abroad to rapidly overcome China’s poverty, division, and weakness. Deng’s nationalist program instead put top priority on rapid economic development through integration with the global market economy to build up a solid base for later attaining China’s other goals of complete reunification and military development.

Current government policy should be seen as an adaptation and implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy, which he himself reaffirmed in early 1992. At that time, the beleaguered leadership debated what to do in the wake of post-June Fourth sanctions against China and the collapse of European communism. Deng made sure that China did not “pick up the baton” of leadership in the utopian cause of world communism against the U.S., but stayed on course.

The Goal he set for 2000 was to quadruple China’s GDP per capita in 20 years. This was accomplished early along with the recovery of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999, continuing economic integration and political-social assimilation of the Far West, and military restructuring.

By 2020 Deng’s plan foresees China’s GDP per capita quadrupling again, moving China into the ranks of “middle income” countries and providing a “comfortable” life for the Chinese people, all to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding in 1921. China again seems to be ahead of schedule -- sustained economic growth, a rising middle class, good management of Hong Kong and Macao and patient Taiwan policies, suppression of separatism (e.g., the new Tibet railroad), good relations and settled borders with multiple neighboring regions, military modernization including a space program -- all resulting in today’s international perception of a “rising China”.

Deng’s Goal by 2050 is to ensure full unification with Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and China’s Far West, and complete China’s great transformation … in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Late in 1999, President Jiang Zemin was asked about China’s major goals in the new century and he said, “By the middle of the next century, we shall turn China into a rich, powerful, democratic, and civilized socialist country and realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Thus, it is not accidental that Hong Kong and Macau were granted SAR status only for “fifty years,” not in perpetuity. The idea was not that communist China would then take over, but rather that China by then would “catch up” with Hong Kong and Taiwan in all areas of economic, social, and democratic political development.

Note that Deng’s pragmatic agenda did not include clear moral or political goals other than improving, strengthening, and prolonging the Chinese Communist Party’s rule and somehow, someday, becoming democratic in the process. He was willing to pursue limited political reforms that would serve to boost economic growth such as downsizing the government, collective leadership norms, and regular turnover of leaders through limited terms and honorable retirement. Last fall’s peaceful leadership turnover is testimony to considerable progress. Deng in fact prohibited debate over the specific contents of “Chinese-style socialism” or “socialist civilization,” while China became more and more capitalist. As Deng famously put it, “Black cat, white cat… it doesn’t matter, so long as it catches rats.”

But as a result, people in China today don’t know what they’re working for except to make a Chinese buck... as many as possible. Recently, the media commentary about China’s reluctance to intervene for justice in Sudan and in Burma, wondering what China wants to be known for as it becomes a great power, reminded me of a story about an airplane pilot on a long transpacific flight who came on the intercom to announce, “Well, folks, the good news is that we’re ahead of our timetable. The bad news is we’re lost.”

I have to admit was nostalgic last October for the more progressive 13th Party Congress program of 1987 when Premier Zhao Ziyang introduced a comprehensive program for economic, social, and political reform. It would have removed party control groups in the government and granted social and religious organizations much greater autonomy. I guess history is full of “what ifs.”

After the June Fourth,1989, incident, Jiang Zemin dropped references to political reform and called for “unity and stability.” Today’s leaders call for a “harmonious society,” indicating that it is still too early for democratization. Last March, Premier Wen Jiabao was quoted as saying that China wouldn’t be democratic for 100 years. When I saw the exact wording, I realized he was referring to Deng’s 2050 timetable.

I would note that Deng Xiaoping personally chose Hu Jintao to become successor to Jiang Zemin, who was a compromise candidate reflecting Deng’s loss of face in 1989. So Hu Jintao, as he consolidates power this Fall, will still be operating under the shadow of Deng Xiaoping’s program for strengthening the Chinese Communist Party’s rule through state capitalism and reform of the bureaucracy. Only the set of leaders affirmed in 2012 will be those not chosen by Deng Xiaoping and will include those with greater international education and experience who may be prepared to make greater departures from his program.

China in the Shadow of Mao Zedong

Some of the challenges to reaching Deng Xiaoping’s objectives have been shared by other societies which were thrust into the same kind of intensive globalization which is now underway in China. Market liberalization has exacerbated inequities in society while weakening the authority of the state and hollowing out redistributive programs for helping the poor. The resulting mixed economy has fueled opportunities for corruption, as well as its scale in many countries around the world.

But many of the obstacles to China’s achievement of world-class stature are those typical of former communist countries, like China under Mao, which pursued a Soviet-style mobilization of all resources for rapid socialist industrialization. The chief characteristics of post-communist societies also shape church life. They include the:

  1. State domination of the economy, media, and education, which works against the goal of world-class innovation and creativity required to compete in the global economy.
  2. Environmental devastation and resource inefficiencies due to rapid industrialization.
  3. Leninist control by the party over society through monopoly social organizations (such as the official religious organizations) which stifles social initiative that could come through expansion of voluntary associations in the Third Sector.
  4. A low trust culture which still reflects the zero-sum, black and white world view leading to personalistic power struggles between factions.

Historical Parallels

In recent months, I have been reviewing the history of the 1900-1949 period of Chinese and church history with several other scholars for a book project -- writing up the life stories of Chinese Christians in the early modern period. And we notice some very interesting parallels between the 1900-1925 and our contemporary 2000-2025 periods. Both timeframes were periods of economic globalization, technological advance, social progress, and greater openness to Christianity, both in China and elsewhere. Christians were important actors along the way, as God has intervened to bring good out of the pendulum swings of history.

ThenNow
1898 Hundred Days’ Reform and suppression
Yuang Wing, Timothy Richard
1988-89 D.M. Comprehensive Reform
1998 “Thaw” and suppressions
Chinese D.M. leaders in exile turn to Christ
1899-1900 Boxer anti-foreign movement and suppression; re-opening to West 1999-2000 Falungong movement and suppression; WTO opening up
@1905-10 Abolition of Confucian exam system.
Late Qing reforms; constitutional movement.
Young China Group
@2005 Private education & property laws.
Late CCP reforms.
2008 Beijing Olympics
[NOTE KEY PERIOD OF TIME COMING UP around 2011-12]
1911 Republican Revolution.
Local Party election; surge of interest in Western democracy and Christianity
1914-1918 World War I; warlord era
Shanghai Expo 2010
Hong Kong & Taiwan
2011 100th anniversary of the ROC elections
2012 Next leaders chosen (the first not designated by Deng Xiaoping), free elections of H.K. legislature, and Taiwan elections
1919 May Fourth Movement protesting Western betrayal at Treaty of Versailles, calls for “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy” 2019 100th May Fourth anniversary, 30th June Fourth anniversary
1922 Anti-Christian Student Federation
demonstrations begin
1925-27 Death of Sun Yat-sen; national reunification with KMT-CCP cooperation
Anti-foreignism & mass exodus of missionaries
1930s World depression; rise of fascism including “Confucian fascism” in China
Japan’s creeping invasion of China

While the parallels are inexact and the world has changed much, I want to stress the point that much of what happened in China back then came in response to changes on the outside – world war and depression – over which China had little influence (much less control). This is even more true today when, despite greater international influence, China’s economy and society are much, much more intertwined with the rest of the world in ways that are hard to manage. These earlier changes took Western missionaries and Chinese Christians by surprise; will that also be the case for us?

China’s Future

Four Possible Scenarios

  1. Democratic China (what we might call the Taiwan or South Korean model)
    • I would drop the adjective “strong” because I think any fledgling democracy in China, as with Taiwan, will be weak and vulnerable to reversal -- as in Russia today, until institutions stabilize and a democratic culture builds traditions.
    • One China expert recently pointed out that between now and 2020, China will be well into the level of per capita income and percentage of middle class which tend to fuel democratic transitions, so perhaps by the end of this period that could happen.
  2. Collapse of Central Rule (the USSR model)
    • This has been the CCP’s nightmare for the past 15 years; the prevention of regime collapse and the fragmentation of China has been the focus of thousands of internal research projects and policy adjustments.
    • Currently, this option is unlikely as public surveys show a high level of satisfaction with central leaders and policies and with China’s international stature, while anger over corruption and abuses is aimed mainly at local leaders (and even mafia-style governments in some localities). The smooth recovery of Hong Kong and Macao has greatly diminished prospects for separatism.
    • Collapse would require a mega-crisis in not just one, but two or more major areas such as economic depression, Taiwan independence, or natural disaster.
  3. “Inner Party” Democracy (the Japan model in which one party monopolizes power, but formal competing factions alternate control)
    • The officials promoted at the 17th Party Congress will likely be chosen carefully to balance the two main factions: the Youth League Faction under Hu Jintao and the Shanghai coastal faction, which remains powerful despite Jiang Zemin’s retirement.
    • China’s elite so far has not shown much interest in legitimizing such open factional competition, however, rather trying hard not to allow a split in leadership that brought down other communist parties.
  4. Resilient Authoritarian China (the Singapore model)
    • This scenario may be the most likely possibility for China between now and 2020. In fact, Deng Xiaoping’s long-term program, which turned away from the European communist model, was an attempt to replicate the economic takeoff that allowed Asia’s “tiger” economies to break through the barrier between underdeveloped and developed worlds, and by closing the gap, to reincorporate Taiwan and Hong Kong-Macau. Jiang Zemin in turn was enamored of the Singapore model under Lee Kuan Yew’s benevolent autocracy.
    • The public face of this model will be state capitalism and mercantilism, authoritarian government, and “Asian values” (a term more acceptable than “Confucian” in Asia’s multi-ethnic context) imparted through “moral education” in the schools to complement the growth of a “Research and Development” culture.

      A number of these themes are echoed in China under Hu Jintao:

      • Populist slogans calling on officials to serve the public benefit
      • A strategy of balanced development to stem growing inequality
      • Slogans calling for a “green, scientific, and people’s Olympics”
      • Calls for a harmonious society
      • Anti-corruption campaigns and Hu’s moralistic “8 dos and don’ts”
      • Creating “world class” universities to fuel innovation for high-tech industry
      • Government sponsored Confucius Institutes around the world to spread Chinese “soft power”
    • A CCIV special on the “rise of great powers” highlighted science and technology accomplishments rather than social-political institutions or moral values. Apparently, “Chinese style socialism” is now nationalism, plus science and technology, plus Confucian values.

      Behind the scenes, however, Singapore’s success actually reflects a very strong evangelical Christian influence, with forty percent of parliamentarians being Christian (compared to less than ten percent in society as a whole). These individuals reflect an expanding and influential Asian Christian network that includes Hong Kong and Taiwan Christians.

      This is the CCP’s goal, judging from the latest Party Congress. The CCP continues to adapt institutions and policies to meet socio-economic challenges. For example, in the last few years they have put their efforts into removing all rural taxes and fees, putting teeth into environmental controls, and curbing the worst cases of corruption. In this scenario, pluralism in the economy and society would continue to grow, along with integration with the outside world. However, the CCP would still monopolize political power through a “consultative democracy”.

What struck me most in considering these scenarios was that early modern China experienced each of these in succession in the early 20th century and Christians made contributions despite the changing political situation – our “cloud of witnesses”.

The newborn Republic of China, for five years from 1911-16, witnessed China’s first experiments at constitutional democracy.

This was followed by a decade of chaos in the absence of any viable national government from 1916 - 1926, as regional warlords fought for territorial control.

Periods of two-party cooperation between CCP and KMT (Kuomintang) -- in the mid-20s against the warlords and after 1937 against Japan -- might have developed into a multi-party coalition government if the Marshall Mission had succeeded in its mediation in 1945. But such was not to be.

After the KMT in cooperation with the CCP re-established the central government, the Nanjing Decade prior to full-fledged Japanese invasion witnessed a highly authoritarian government, with an anti-liberal and anti-Western bent. This was then the norm for much of the 20th century under both the KMT on Taiwan and the CCP on the mainland.

China might again undergo a similar revolving door in its transition to a post-communist equilibrium … with one scenario succeeded by another in sequence. In fact, it is highly likely that the nation will experience some level of national, social, and political turbulence, which we can all pray will be small-scale and quickly resolved in a peaceful fashion.

2020 Predictions

Based on China’s modern history, let me offer some predictions toward 2020.

  1. The next five years, 2007-2012, will be an important period for shaping the future cultural and political identity of the Chinese people for a post-industrial, post-communist era, as well as its relations with the West. Christians need to be players in the cultural realm.
  2. Whatever the name of the ruling party – Communist, Democratic Socialist, or Christian Democratic – in 2020 China will still be a unitary rather than federal state, authoritarian and elitist, with state intervention in the economy and society and some sort of state-endorsed national belief system.
  3. Yet there will also be more openness to allowing diversity and autonomy from the state – for social organizations, including faith institutions; for cultural pluralism; and for a confederation with China’s outlying areas.
  4. Between now and 2020, China will experience some level of national, social, and political turbulence; the severity will depend mainly on the health of the global economy and northeast Asian politics. This may include:

    • Rapid growth of political radicalism fueled by local abuses of power;

    • An undercurrent of anti-foreign nationalism with outbreaks targeting Christians directly or indirectly;

    • Chinese political, even military intervention to protect access to/control over key resources or territorial claims;

    • As in the early 20th century, Christians may be called on to play a role out of proportion to their numbers in the event of a crisis and transition of political power as has been true in many countries. Evangelical Protestant culture of voluntary association and active citizenship tends to equip Christians to play a democratizing role.

Serving China

Looking to the future in light of the past, what are some key issues for serving in China?

  1. World-wide political and economic trends greatly affect China. In the 1920s and 1930s, China missionaries and Chinese Christians were not prepared for the swing toward radical politics and military violence as warlords battled for territory and the elite turned away from the “Christian” West in disappointment over its inaction in the face of Japanese aggression. Dependency on missionaries for funds, policy direction, and institutional management made Chinese Christians vulnerable to criticism and suspicion that they were “traitors”, not patriots. They had neither the confidence nor the vision to transform society.
  2. Underlying currents of nationalism, ambivalence toward the West, and anti-Christian biases will become a greater problem for two reasons. Hyper-nationalism is emerging among today’s youth who are finding their personal identity in the cause of a “rising China”. Unlike their parents or older siblings, these pampered single children growing up in the bubble of coastal affluence have been isolated from China’s internal poverty and repression.

    Populist and socialist concerns for the poor are aroused by the neo-liberal approach to globalization. This view fosters the perception that globalization causes growing inequalities and corruption. Some Chinese will be joining the worldwide anti-globalization movement. To what extent are Christian institutions identified with the winners or with the losers in the global market?

    It is important to separate out biblical principles from the “American way”, move faster to get out of the driver’s seat and focus our efforts on supporting and training indigenous leaders for indigenous projects. There is an urgent need for mainland Chinese Christians now overseas to get leadership experience in all fields.

    We need to work closely with the Asian Christian identity and networks. In God’s providence, much of the early modern educated Chinese Christian middle class ended up overseas and is now shaping the growth of the church in China.

  3. The whole cultural realm is our field to plow. We cannot just focus narrowly on “religious work” in China – evangelism and discipleship, church-planting pastoral training – assuming that this will automatically influence society in a positive direction. We need to be thinking: Who is the competition? Who are our allies?

    The Chinese church as an institution is likely to remain vulnerable and marginalized, even as believers and their families and networks grow in influence. Several factors inhibit the church’s influence: the old-fashioned official church, suppression of house churches, and the intellectual elite’s aversion to church. Exploration of new models for the church are much needed.

    As we work in the context of cultural globalization, we will realize the importance of the affective ties of relationships across borders. When we apply business models to doing or funding ministry, we may gain accountability and efficiency but may also be shifting the orientation to goal achievement and impersonal relationships.

In conclusion: Christians in China are called to be salt and light in the larger society which is suffering from spiritual poverty in the midst of material prosperity.