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The Ups and Downs of Understanding China

One of the dangers of being a ‘China Expert’ is that as people look to you for expert analysis of China, it always feels to me to be a bit risky, kind of like predicting the weather. Even with my years of experience in China, and the people on the ground I have feeding me the latest information, I often offer analysis knowing that things can change quickly in China. I often downplay the role of ‘China Expert,’ given China’s long, 4,500 year history (there’s a lot to learn!) and the unpredictable nature of China’s current leaders and the perplexing predicament they are in. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to rule the world’s most populous country in a modern society with a Communist heritage and backdrop to work with. When someone refers to me as a ‘China Expert,’ I’ll often say something like, ‘I’m not sure about that. I just know a little more about China than you.’ It’s also hard because just as you think you’ve got a particular part of China figured out, an event or situation pops up that totally blows up what you thought was true.

Such is the case with the recent events in the city of Wenzhou, where as you probably know by now, the former provincial Governor, Xia Baolong, now the Party Secretary in Zhejiang province and a member of the 18th CPC Central Committee, was on a tour of the province and was disturbed by all the churches with crosses placed up high and within view of the new interstate highway going through Wenzhou. So he ordered that they come down, much to the chagrin of those in the churches, including the church grandmas who took to sleeping in the churches to protect them, and to Christians worldwide. This situation has caused me particular ‘麻烦’ (trouble) because I’ve been touting for a long time that incidents of persecution of Christians has been going down over the last 10 years or so. I’ve shown statistical data to prove my point and while I still stand by my claim, especially since a little persecution in Wenzhou doesn’t mean this same type of persecution is happening throughout China, it’s a little hard for me to explain how their tearing down churches and church crosses in Wenzhou while persecution is down throughout the country. I guess this confusion of my message is to be expected given China’s size and variety of political leaders and is just a part of doing analysis on China, but I’ve wanted to know more about why this happened and how I can explain it to those who follow my ministry and read my writing.

A few weeks ago, I was back in China and I had the distinct pleasure to visit with several top China watchers from the West living in China. One colleague in particular really helped me understand how something like the situation in Wenzhou could happen. His take of Chinese government officials is similar to my own: The top 5% of National level Government leaders are really smart, effective men. They know China’s place in the world, understand World politics and are really quite effective. The next 25% of leaders are what he would call ‘Bulldogs.’ It is this group of leaders who want to be in the top 5%, but have not been chosen for top leadership. They still have quite a bit of influence though and enough muscle to largely push through their agenda. They are referred to as ‘Bulldogs,’ or as I’ve called them ‘Pit Bulls’ because they abuse their power at times and don’t have the savvy to restrain themselves when needed. It is amongst this group that President Xi Jinping’s current ‘anti-corruption’ campaign is occurring, since many within this group have been without restrictions on their power or spending.

Enter Xia Baolong, former Zhejiang provincial Governor and current Party Secretary in Zhejiang province. As a Pit Bull, in Zhejiang province, he sets the rules. There’s no one in the province who outranks him. He works within a system in China that has not yet gotten to true Rule of Law and where the longstanding Rule of Man is still at play. As it has been for centuries in China, Rule of Man dictates that each official can determine for themselves what a law means and how it should be administered, so although the churches in question have the legal authority to exist and got approval to build the church and put up the cross, if Mr. Xia doesn’t like the cross that high, he feels like he has the ability to take it down. And in reality, until laws on religion are evenly enforced, he will have the authority to exercise his will in this way.

So what do we learn about China and about Christianity in China in this situation? A few key things: First, we learn that China still has a bit of work to do on administering the laws evenly. We also learn that men like Xia Baolong can cause trouble for people of faith without seemingly many consequences. Second, we learn that most of what I’ve been saying about Christianity in China is true. House churches in major metropolitan areas are still operating with a level of openness they’ve never seen. We also learn that just because Mr. Xia wanted some crosses taken down, it doesn’t indicate a nationwide crackdown on Christianity in China, as some major news outlets are reporting. Many novice China watchers will often see something like this happening and assume it’s happening throughout the country, but that is almost never the case. Thirdly, we’re still seeing the growth of the Church in China in unprecedented numbers, and there’s little to suggest that will be slowed. And finally, I hope that Xia Baolong got a phone call from President Xi Jinping after seeing the worldwide response to the tearing down of Churches and church crosses to never do anything like that again, lest he become the President’s next target in his campaign to reign in wayward ‘Pitbulls.’

Is it illegal to share Jesus with Children in China?

As we talk to people about China, we often hear the question, ‘I’ve heard it’s illegal to teach children under 18 about Jesus. Is this true?’ While we can’t find the source of this rumor, it is prevalent amongst Western Christians to the point that it seems like most people believe that this would be true.

We’re happy to report that after substantial research, there are no government rules or documents that we can find to substantiate the myth. There are three documents that one would look at to see if there are any prohibitions to teaching children under 18 about the Bible.

The first is article 36 of the current Chinese Constitution. It states: Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.

No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.

The state protects normal religious activities.

No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.

Many people to recite the myth to us will often say the the Chinese constitution prohibits the teaching of children under 18, but article 36 is the only article in the Chinese Constitution that the deals with religious rights in China, and clearly, there is nothing about children at all.

The second document that deals directly with religion in China is Document No. 19: The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during our Country’s Socialist Period. It was issued in March 1982 and is issued to all provincial and municipal Party committees; all Party committees of autonomous regions. It comes the closest to a prohibition and is probably where the myth came from. In the middle of the document, it states: The political power in a Socialist state can in no way be used to promote any one religion, nor can it be used to forbid any one religion, as long as it is only a question of normal religious beliefs and practices. At the same time, religion will not be permitted to meddle in the administrative or juridical affairs of state, nor to intervene in the schools or public education. It will be absolutely forbidden to force anyone, particularly people under eighteen years of age, to become a member of a church, to become a Buddhist monk or nun, or to go to temples or monasteries to study Buddhist scripture.

So does this document provide some truth to the myth? We don’t think so. Let’s look at the relevant pieces of the document, one by one:  ‘Religion will not be permitted to intervene in the schools or public education.’ This certainly has a familiar feel to those of us in the United States working under the principle of the separation of church and state. The second part is just as clear cut: ‘It will be absolutely forbidden to force anyone, particularly people under eighteen years of age, to become a member of a church.’ So the question here is: Is teaching children in Sunday School ‘forcing them’ to become a member? While you could make a case, I guess, that if the children had the choice to choose if they wanted to be there, they may choose not to be there and are therefore being ‘forced,’ as those of us who have spent time in Chinese churches know that church attendance is welcomed by all members of a family. Also, the myth states that it’s prohibited to teach children under 18, which is different from it being illegal to force children to become a member of a church.

Finally, in 2005 the State Council promulgated the ‘Regulations on Religious Affairs,’ which provides further clarification on how the country was to manage religious affairs. Within these regulations, there is no mention in one direction or another about teaching children of any age. It seems like the myth of this prohibition came from the same line of thinking as Bibles are not available in China. Many times, once a myth about China gets started, even if it’s not true, people assume it is based on what they perceive China to be like.

It is our heart and our hope to clarify Western perceptions in China, believing that when the Western church knows the truth about China, we’ll best be able to engage in participation and prayer to impact China for Christ!

Sanjiang Church: The Basics of Christianity in China

As the news of the battle for Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou began to break over the last week and I read the accounts, I was reminded again why fully understanding Christianity in China from the West is so hard. For those who truly want to know the situation in China for Christians, there is a lot that prevents us to full understanding: circumstances on the ground at the incident site which we may not know, what the environment for religious activity is in the city of the incident and unfortunately some Western organizations and most Western news outlets tend put a negative spin on any story about Christianity in China.

Fortunately, there are some general concepts we can keep in mind when we see a story like the one about Sanjiang Church. The story of this church itself also gives us some additional concepts that are helpful to keep in mind. First the general concepts:

1.     Persecution of Christians is not the main story

Persecution of Christians in China today is sporadic and not normative, as some would proclaim. Some simple math shows us the full story.  China Aid, an organization in Midland TX, directed and founded by China native Bob Fu, has become the ‘go to’ source for information on persecution in China. Using data from China Aid’s 2013 Annual Report on Chinese Government Persecution of Christians and Churches in Mainland China, only .03 percent of all Christians suffered persecution, which means in real terms over 99.97% of all China’s Christians practiced their faith without interference. Through this statistical analysis, we see that persecution is not the main story and is important to remember as we understand Christianity in China.

2.     China’s law and enforcement is still under development and leads to ‘grey area’

Without clear laws on religious activity in China and China’s continued development in the area of rule of law, China’s Christians often operate in a ‘grey area’ where on one hand they are operating without much interference, but they also are operating in this grey area. In Beijing, for example, while officials seem more than willing to allow unregistered churches to hold Sunday services and conduct church activities during the week uninterrupted, there exist several unspoken rules. Pastors now have regular meetings with their local police office, informing them of activities and making sure activities are not hidden. The majority of Beijing officials give the strong impression that they are happy to operate within a gray area by their willingness to ‘look the other way’ when it comes to unregistered church groups and for their part, Chinese pastors are thrilled with the new opportunities this presents.

The Sanjiang Church situation also brings up a couple of concepts that help us understand Christianity in China.

3.     There is often more to these stories than we know

In many of these stories coming from China, there are issues that when seen in context, it helps our understanding. For example, in reading the accounts of what happened at Sanjiang Church, local authorities were upset because additional buildings were built on church properties that were not on the originally approved building permit. In the West, our authorities also require building permits and would also be upset since they have a responsibility to make sure all buildings are built according to building codes. Building permits cannot be altered or ignore in either country due to safety concerns. If Sanjiang Church built buildings not approved, this becomes a safety issue for local authorities, and not just a ‘persecute the Christians’ story. In many cases, there is ‘the rest of the story’ that we many times don’t hear or read and it may take some ‘digging’ to find out the whole story.

4.     Chinese Citizens knowledge about their rights grows

The local response to the threat to tear down the Sanjiang Church has been overwhelming, with thousands of Christians, many of whom don’t even attend Sanjiang Church, forming a ‘human wall’ around the church to prevent the local bulldozers from coming to tear down the church. This response has also included 24 hour prayer vigils, a march of local pastors highlighting the situation and local Christians openly talking to press and media about the situation. Chinese citizens today are better connected to the outside world and to each other due to social media and the internet, and they know their rights under the Chinese constitution. This information has helped them in their boldness and courage to stand up for rights they know are theirs. This is happening all over China and is an encouraging trend.



Joann Pittman: 30 years of experience

I first met Joann Pittman at the 2008 China Challenge Conference in Boston. I was there as an exhibitor with the first edition of my book, The Chinese Puzzle. Joann came up to my table and we exchanged pleasantries as she purchased a copy of my book. About two hours later, she came back to my table and said ‘I just finished your book. If I were to write about about China, your book is the book I would write!’ I felt very honored by her comment, and I knew right then that her and I would become friends. In the 5 1/2 years since that conference, Joann and I have spent time talking and visiting together, both in China and here in the states. I consider her to be one of the most knowledgeable people about China that I know. It is always a pleasure to spend time with her and we always run out of time because there’s just too much about China to talk about. I gain much from our time together and I hope she gains a little from me as well. Today, Joann posted a reflective blog post on her 30 years of experience in China and the 4 things she observed as the biggest changes in China during her time. It is an insightful blog post that should garner your attention because there are few Westerners who have the length of experience that Joann has to offer. It is a ‘must read’ for any who are interested in a deeper understanding of China.

Fostering constructive Western engagement is important work

Happy New Year to you all! I hope you all are well as you trust God for Big Things in 2014! We have a lot cooking here at China Resource Center as we attempt to fulfill our mission statement: Reflecting the relevance and love of Jesus Christ, we exist to equip and strengthen the growing Chinese church and to foster constructive Western engagement in China. I love our mission statement and will be taking time in this blog to detail why I feel like that is God’s purpose for our ministry. For now, I wanted to do two things: First, it’s been awhile since I have written much on this blog or on this website. There are a couple of reason for that (which may also show up here as well), but for now I want to let you know about my intent to be doing a lot of blogging. Blogging is a great way for those who want to know more to find another resource to know more. It’s also a great incubator for potential book ideas! I also want to announce something really big here at CRC. As many of you know, that last half of our mission statement is something that I have a real heart for and want to do well. Fostering constructive Western engagement is important work for those for us wanting to impact China for Christ. When a pastor knows that he’s being invited to China to teach and when a team going to China knows that Bibles are available in country and don’t have to be smuggled, that information helps people engage with China in a way that ensures the highest level. In order to accomplish that second half, we’re starting a new suite of online tools to accomplish our mission. In addition to our blog, the website will also have timely information about our projects, including church building updates. We’re also starting three new video series on You Tube that will help foster constructive Western engagement in China. These videos will be make for sharing and I’m hopeful you’ll find them helpful to share on your social media outlets. In the near future, we’d also like to start a new radio show, with the idea that more ears hearing the message helps us accomplish the mission. We’ll also be relying on a number of our colleagues who also have a heart for this work as well. There are some excellent ministry partners that add a lot to the pool of info that help us Westerners know what’s what in China, so don’t be surprised to see some of their content here as well.

There are a couple of ways for you to stay up to date on our media and blogging updates. If you’re on Facebook, please ‘like’ our Facebook page here. Following us on Twitter helps you keep up with us as well and we’ll have exclusive content on Twitter. If you’re following other blogs, you can add this blog to your blog feeds. Finally, you can follow us on You Tube as well, here.

I appreciate you all and your heart for us and for China. Together, we can truly impact China For Christ!


CRC China Minute Radio Spot

A few years ago, we had the idea for a radio show that eventually evolved into a podcast. We did the podcast for a number of years and we’re now looking at the radio show idea again. Our heart is that by clarifying Western perceptions about China, we’re helping people engage most strategically with the work God is already doing. Here’s a quick preview of a ‘China Minute’ concept we’re running with here at the China Resource Center!

CRC China Minute Example2

CRC Board Member Yufeng Zhao shares his heart!

Yufeng Zhao is a board member with our organization and has one of the biggest hearts for evangelism of anyone we now. He and his wife lead a Bible Study for Chinese Students at the Colorado School of Mines, and God is blessing them with wonderful fruit. We recently asked Yufeng to share his heart for China Resource Center as a native Chinese Christian. Here is his response:

CRC Board Member Yufeng Zhao, in October 2010 with Sister Li

CRC Board Member Yufeng Zhao, in October 2010 with Sister Li

I got to know Mike Falkenstine about 9 years ago, when he served as an volunteer teacher

at our bible study group in Denver downtown area. A couple years later, I was introduced by a fellow Chinese Christian to help out with Mike in a fundraising activity in an American church in Highland Ranch. That was the first time I saw what the CRC mission means. I was deeply touched by the loving hearts of the American brothers and sisters. In talking with the Christians in that American church, I realized that most of them actually did not know much about China except for her huge population. However, for the sake of the Lord and God’s kingdom, many of them love to give. I was greatly encouraged and started to get involved in CRC ministry since then.

In 2010, I joined CRC as a board member and went back to my home country with the bible distribution team led by Mike. The places where we distributed bibles are so similar to my hometown, even in dialect, that I could touch the feeling of the people who accepted bibles from us, by a mere word or expression. Many of them were smiling, thankful, and even weeping when the brand new books of the Holy Word were put in their hands.

As a Chinese Christian, I found that the CRC mission has a profound influence in Chinese churches, going beyond the poor rural areas where CRC currently reaches. First, the way that CRC works cooperatively with the church administrative officials builds up a trustful relationship between the Chinese government agencies and the CRC, which set up a very good example for the western churches to interact with the Chinese government more positively and more effectively. For most western world, the Chinese government controlled by the Communist Party may not be a good government. However, the fact is, if you have a good relationship with the government officials, you can do all kinds of good things in China. Second, I think CRC’s bible giving project is the ministry of choice for rural China. Imagine how false teaching can spread wildly in the places where few well equipped bible teachers can reach. However, with a bible in hands, it could make a big difference for even a poorly educated believer. In 2010, during my trip back to China with CRC, I heard a fascinating story in my home village, two illiterate middle aged women managed to memorized half of the Old and New Testament books simply by asking their grand daughters to read the books for them day by day! And those two ladies are the most respected Christians in the whole village because their lives was totally changed!

We’re starting to heat up!

Over the last few years, we here at the China Resource Center have said very little (outside of a series of YouTube videos we did) about the organization of ChinaAid. For those who are not familiar with China Aid, they are a Midland, TX organization founded by Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese Christian. Of organizations reporting on persecution, ChinaAid is the most high profile agency and an analysis of their information gathering techniques are quite incredible. They must have some kind of apparatus within the government to obtain some of the documents that they get. When I talk or write about ChinaAid, I have no issues with their numbers as it relates to persecution.

On the other hand, ChinaAid also has developed a rampant penchant for overstating their case about persecution of Christians in China. Our issue with them is in their interpretation and analysis of those numbers.  This is not my opinion alone….. The good folks at China Source are among others who agree. You can see their blog post summary here and my last blog post on the issue here. The question we’re now faced with is this: If ChinaAid is purposefully exaggerating the situation of persecution of Christians in China, are we bound by Scripture to point out the exaggeration and call them ‘on the carpet’ since those who study China and work with Chinese Christians would disagree with ChinaAid’s contention that there is a nationwide campaign to persecute Christians. Many organizations, including China Source, Evergreen China and ourselves, have spoken and written many times that in our opinion, their stance is flawed.

You may be wondering at this point why any of this matters: It begins to ruffle our feathers a bit because of the nature of our projects in China. Just as we are trying hard to communicate that Bibles are available in China (our Bible Distribution events) and that Chinese Christians are seeing more openness (to build Churches), ChinaAid comes along and makes it seem like none of that is possible. And since they have the bigger microphone, their message comes through louder. So for us, either we build a bigger microphone (we’re working on that) or we go to the root of what’s going on here and point out that evangelical Christians should work hard to always tell the truth. As for ChinaAid, it seems to me that there’s something else going on here.

So what to do? We’d love to hear from you about this….. Is there anything we and others can do? Are we as Christians called to tell the whole truth? We’re praying about all of this too! God is certainly at work in China and if these stories, in their various shades of truthfulness  prohibit people engaging in God’s work, that seems to be a detriment to the West’s involvement. Looking forward to getting a conversation started!

Eradicate Chinese House Churches?

Over the last week or so, there has been a flurry of emails coming in to me about a report that ran on the Christianity Today and Fox News website that the National level Chinese government has developed a plan to ‘eradicate China’s House churches.’ I intentionally waited to comment on this report, since I knew others would immediately comment and I was actually interested in what others had to say and since that conclusion goes completely against what I know to be true about both the National Government in China and the condition of China’s House Churches. Since several other China watchers have made excellent comments, I’d like to simply point you to their analysis and had a little ‘color commentary’ of my own. This serves partially to show that my opinions about China are held by other China Watchers and it helps me join the choir of others who are pushing for a balance approach on China.

In the original article, Christianity Today (and others) used a report from China Aid, a Midland, TX organization that stated that persecution of Christians rose about 42 percent in 2012 over the previous years. In China Aid’s report, they stated that there were 132 incidents of persecution affecting 4,919 Christians in 2012. For those of you who’ve been tracking with China Resource Center for some time, you’ll know where I go with this: The numbers here don’t support a massive effort to persecute Christians. For example, if only 4,919 Christians suffered some type of persecution out of the 80 million Chinese Christians, that’s a very small percentage. In fact, it’s only .0000614% of all Christians in China, far less than 1%. That certainly doesn’t seem to indicate a great spike in persecution. For the China Aid report to assert that the Chinese government wants to eradicate House Churches seems to go too far since they mention that only 2 of Beijing’s 3,000 unregistered Churches suffered some type of interference. As I write in the second edition of my book, The Chinese Puzzle, Beijing’s unregistered Churches have largely found a way to work with their local authorities and are seeing increasing freedom in worship and activities.

Several days later, my good colleague Brent Fulton with China Source, wrote an article that helps us understand at a deeper level the China Aid report. He asserts what I’ve believed for a long time, that China Aid’s statistics don’t support the conclusion of a nationwide government sponsored campaign against Christianity in China. My favorite part of his article, which I would recommend you read, is when he breaks down the further causes of persecution of Christians in China, namely the broken religious policy in China and the trigger points that incite persecution in China. Brent states in his article, “The larger issues here are an authoritarian regime that is obsessed with maintaining stability at all costs, an immature legal system, and a very well-resourced security sector that has become a law unto itself. All Chinese, whether Christian or not, are suffering the consequences.” His trigger points include directly opposing the Communist Party (especially in a public manner, which embarrasses government officials and is bound to provoke a response); engaging in political activity, openly championing human rights, or being identified with a group that does so; and having foreign involvement.” As I have written in my book, the main unregistered church in Beijing that has suffered persecution over the last several years, Shouwang Church, ran into interference not because they were Christians but because in China they do not have the freedom of assembly. Since they were meeting outside in a Beijing park for Church services, they ran against governmental policy.

The final article I’ll point you to is from Joann Pittman, who recently joined Brent at China Source and is one of my favorite people to sit and talk China with. Joann is a 25 year China veteran, which not only gives her great insight, but also great stories about what it was like living in China in the ‘old days.’ (As a side note, if you’re not subscribed to Joann’s blog, do so immediately! If you love China, you’ll love reading this blog.) In Joann’s article, she helps us see how much of the pressure we in the West put on China to reform their religious situation comes not from within China. Chinese Christians today enjoy a level of freedom that one could not have imagined even 10 years ago. The pressure comes from Westerners impatience about the speed (or lack thereof) that the change is taking place. As Joann writes, I have come to the conclusion that when people say that “things are getting worse” in regards to China, what they really mean is “things are not improving at the rate and scope that I would like.” That is not the same as “getting worse,” and it’s a distinction that we need to be clear about.”

In conclusion, the situation for Chinese Christians, while less than perfect, is certainly not bad. Chinese Christians have largely told me that they don’t see their government has a deterrent to their ability to practice their faith. In addition, Chinese scholars are doing serious research on the place Christianity should play in Chinese society and as they call on the Chinese government to make changes, we in the West should be the ones cheering them on from the sidelines. For it is only when the Chinese themselves call for changes within the country that those changes will take place. As Martin Jacques with the BBC put it recently, The great task facing the West over the next century will be to make sense of China – not in our terms but in theirs. We have to understand China as it is and as it has been, not project our own history, culture, institutions and values onto it. It will always fail that test. In truth such a mentality tells us more about our own arrogance and lack of curiosity than anything about China.”