China Today

By Gugel, John | Currents in Theology and Mission, October 2006 | Go to article overview

China Today


Gugel, John, Currents in Theology and Mission


The Chinese have a proverb, "If you visit for a week you can write a book; stay a lifetime and you won't be able to finish a sentence." It is a way of stating that China defies any attempt at a simple description. The more a person learns about China, the more complicated the subject becomes. China is too vast, too diverse, its population too large, its terrain too varied, and its history too rich for a single statement to capture every nuance of this most populous nation on earth.

Moreover, Chinese society is changing rapidly with its booming economy, a result of the seemingly contradictory combination of a socialist government with a market economy. Its rapidly expanding economy--fourth largest in the world and climbing--is the envy of many capitalist countries. The Chinese Gross Domestic Product grew 9.5 percent in 2004 while the U.S. GDP grew 1.1 percent.

Signs of progress in the country's economy are evident from the moment a visitor arrives in any large Chinese city. Construction is everywhere. Building cranes dot the landscape. There are so many in use in this country that the current joke claims that the crane is the national bird.

China plans to present the best possible face to the world at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 followed by the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

In this article I attempt to clarify certain issues concerning the status of Christianity in China and to point out three things we can learn from Chinese Christians. I spent the month of April, 2005, in China. My observations are limited to the month I lived there. While that hardly makes me an expert, I was in a position to observe church life and ministry in that rapidly changing society.

The observations I report arise from a combination of sources: reading (fiction and nonfiction, travel guides, and Web sites); formal interviews with General Secretary Qiu Zhonghui and staff members of the Amity Foundation (for more on the Amity Foundation, read articles I wrote for The LUTHERAN and Clergy Journal); and extensive conversations with my hosts, Michael and Louise Weber, and their colleagues at Concordia International School Shanghai, missionary Henry Rowold, and Peter Shen and Barbara Lund of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Division for Global Mission. Travel within China from my home base in Shanghai (Pudong New Area) to Nanjing, Beijing, and Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region, by air and by rail added to the mix.

The Chinese people are helpful, friendly, resourceful, resilient, hard-working, and industrious. As a person who depends on a wheelchair to get around, I was grateful when on more than one occasion they were responsive to my needs and quick to offer help when I confronted an obstacle.

Brief history

A quick look at Chinese history is essential for understanding China today. Successive dynasties ruled China for long centuries with little or no contact with the West. Then, around the turn of the twentieth century, China suffered grievously from foreign intervention as various Western colonial powers (including the U.S.) competed for concessions and carved out spheres of influence, primarily in coastal regions. One of the last of these enclaves to return to Chinese rule was the former British crown colony of Hong Kong.

The architecture of many Chinese buildings constructed in the era of colonial domination reflects Western influence, particularly in Shanghai's Bund. Once the focal point of foreign oppression, nowadays you find prosperous Chinese and foreign tourists rubbing elbows in the Bund's crowded shops, restaurants, and night spots.

Missionaries accompanied the colonial powers to China. While they deserve respect for their witness to the gospel, often under difficult and dangerous conditions, many Chinese remember their collaboration with the oppressive Western infrastructure. It was this Western face of Christianity that caused the much larger non-Christian population to be suspicious of where Christian loyalties lay. …

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