Engaging a Global Chinese Society and Culture

Relations between Chinese and Americans have changed greatly over the past thirty years -- from very little interaction, primarily between high-level political and diplomatic officials, to a very thick web of ongoing ties of every kind at every level of society. This intensifying transnational exchange is transforming Chinese society and affecting millions of Americans and Chinese daily. It is in our interests to see healthy social progress rather than social instability in China. A Kingdom perspective could help adjust official U.S. foreign policy to better support bilateral social interaction, and inspire unofficial nongovernmental actors to develop a more fruitful engagement strategy.

The Dynamics of Change

China rejoined the international community in the early 1980s, but the full transformation of its society and culture began in the late 1990s with China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Rebuilding a market economy that can compete globally has launched a largely silent and invisible social and cultural revolution. China’s new complex society features massive rural to urban migration with an accelerating rural-urban income gap; the rapid growth of a middle class; government downsizing and expansion of a civil society that increasingly responds to market and international forces; cultural pluralism and competition to fill the moral vacuum as the state monopoly over ideology and values erodes; freer information and rapid growth of religious practice and media dissent despite efforts to tighten government regulation of society; and integration of China with global Chinese networks. How the political elite manages its complex and fluid relations with social groups and address social tensions, is probably the most important challenge facing China’s leadership.These changes in China have been accompanied by tremendous change in the nature of our bilateral relations. In today’s world, foreign relations, broadly defined, range far beyond the control -- sometimes even outside the knowledge -- of the government policy-makers. Interaction is now thoroughly transnational due to the Internet and global travel, strongly influenced by PRC citizens and overseas Chinese with permanent residence in U.S., along with Chinese Americans. American Chinese-speakers permanently residing in China also are shaping Chinese society and culture.Among these cross-border influencers are over 300 international NGOs -- many based in the U.S. -- providing funding, training and modeling for the development of Chinese Third Sector organizations. Similarly, the rapid growth of Christianity in China is a dynamic and increasingly influential part of Chinese society and culture. Despite official restrictions on joint religious worship and cooperation involving PRC Chinese and others, the Chinese church is increasingly transnational in nature, as it re-joins world Christianity.The proliferation of mutual interaction and interpenetration across borders has resulted in great complexity of policy-making, both in the US and in China, as pressure on policy-makers from special interest groups has great and growing impact. It is generally acknowledged that big business through its lobbies in D.C. and its partnership with state and city governments on trade missions to China greatly shape US policy. Human rights and religious rights advocacy organizations are also special interest groups influencing policy, often responding to constituencies outside of China more than the Chinese they claim to represent. But broader social-cultural ties are not well represented or supported by policy.

A Kingdom Perspective

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to continued peaceful progress, both within Chinese society and in Americans-Chinese relations, is the clash between unhealthy sorts of nationalism on both sides. Competition between boosters of a rising “China century” and defenders of American supremacy is subject to misuse by political interests. Some forces in China claim the intensity and deep penetration of social interaction is evidence of a new wave of American “cultural imperialism,” and they promote efforts to compete with American “soft power” by defining things “Chinese” primarily as “not Western” (meaning not American and not Christian). “Patriotic” education campaigns and official warnings to remain vigilant against hidden subversion by American NGOs or Christian organizations help sustain antiquated policies and keep social activists and religious believers on the defensive, pressured to prove their “patriotism.”In this context, a Biblical worldview could help reshape strategies for engaging Chinese society and culture:

  • Speaking truth to power must be balanced with incarnate demonstrations of love for our neighbor.
  • Limits on state power and responsibility require greater responsibility for foreign relations from actors in other sectors.
  • Respect for the human dignity of the “other” requires helping others help themselves, and putting their interests first.
  • Politics should support the promotion of voluntary and indigenous spiritual and cultural developments needed to sustain peaceful and lasting change.
  • Citizenship in the Kingdom has priority over patriotism.

Adjustments to Engaging the Chinese

There is a need to better coordinate US politics and policy to go beyond a limited focus on short-term promotion of human rights and rule of law in China, to proactive programming to support long-term social and cultural progress. An example of the difficulty of getting this right is a meeting at the White House in May 2006 between President Bush and a delegation of Chinese Christian lawyers, which had the unintended impact of signaling his personal backing for their religious rights advocacy but unintentionally fostered a split between the secular and Christian components of the dissident community and provided fodder for state-sponsored suspicion regarding the political loyalties of Chinese Christians.There also is a need to better manage the impact of bilateral social relations on PRC policy. On one hand, informal personal ties can provide a buffer that protects relations during state conflict, as it did in the aftermath of the 1999 NATO bombing of the PRC Embassy in Yugoslavia. Many Chinese were able to distinguish between government actions and the larger society due to their positive experiences with Americans serving in China, thwarting xenophobia. On the other hand, unwise foreign missionary activity and NGO advocacy of a color revolution in China both have buttressed government-sponsored discrimination and repression.Christians and other religious believers could take the lead in national and international reflection on key ethical issues involved in foreign affairs, such as the pros and cons of “proselytism,” the ethics of supporting civil disobedience abroad, and the implementation of codes of ethics for US-based multinationals. The latter can be models overseas for safety and fairness but can also prop up authoritarian governments by giving ground on Internet censorship (the Yahoo and Microsoft examples) or state-controlled unions (the Walmart experience).Finally, leadership is needed in public discussion on how to maximize the positive potential influence of social and cultural ties that introduce new ideas and values among the Chinese, based on American experience, institutions and techniques. We must find a way to redress the negative impact abroad of our own moral failures in corporate, NGO and government circles. Only then can we regain the moral authority to help shape a Chinese culture of respect for human dignity and humanitarian philanthropy, which is essential for a peaceful transition out of communism and eventual democratization.

Briefing NotesJason Truell