What Can a Christian Do in China? And What Gets Foreigners Thrown Out?

This morning as I sat down for my morning reading session (check suggested sites for a partial list), I came across two more articles full of misinformation about Christianity in China. One took the experiences of a foreign Mormon in China as representative of what happens to Chinese Christians (Mormonism is not recognized by the gov’t, so it faces more restrictions).

So today I thought I would share with you some of the activities I have taken part in without any problems from the gov’t, and give a few examples of how they can cause trouble for the foreigners involved.

Note: These restrictions DO NOT apply to Chinese Christians


During my first year in China I had a student approach me asking to pray for her mother who was ill. She said that she wanted me to pray because I was a Christian, and she didn’t know how. I offered instead that we pray together for her mother, which was a great comfort to the student. A few months passed and she started attending church regularly.

I’ve heard many foreigners talk about getting into trouble with their schools for holding prayer meetings, which are completely different. By taking a leadership role in the students conversion instead of a passive role the schools get very concerned (some ignore it because they want foreign teachers).

If you pray with one or two students privately when they ask for you to do so, it will almost never be an issue with the school or gov’t.

Share the Gospel

When I taught in universities I always taught Christmas and Easter lessons. Sharing both the secular and Christian versions of the holidays. By presenting the information as a kind of cultural lesson I am following Chinese law (which prohibits foreigners proselytizing, it’s in every work contract).

The difference between “Jesus is the son of God,” and “Christians believe Jesus is the son of God,” is a very small one, but has kept me out of trouble in the schools. Many of the deans were even grateful for these lessons that they understand are an important part of western culture. My wife was even asked to do an introduction to the Bible lecture series (which was optional for the students).

On the other hand I’ve known foreigners who simply read from the Bible for entire classes, and present everything as fact. These actions are generally reported by students who are trying to join the Party, or by the ones who get bored listening to the foreign teacher read.

These aggressive tactics are often ineffective, and are a sure way to lose your visa.

Support Baptism

This was one of my proudest moments in China.

Baptism in China

Two of the students from my school were baptized at a local church. They had been attending services for almost 6 months before they were baptized, and continued worshiping in that congregation for the remainder of their college years. It was something that they discussed with the preacher, and I supported them in, but I did not push them to take this step.

The following year a “missionary” came to town for one week and convinced another eager student to be baptized in his hotel bathtub. This happened to be a student who was overwhelmed by the “awesomeness” of foreigners. Since this baptism occurred outside of a community of Christians, he had little support afterwards, and did not continue in the faith. After I heard what happened I talked with him and found that he had little understanding of what Christianity was.

Another student had been in the same hotel, but had refused to be baptized, since the foreigners could not answer her questions about why they supported the war in Iraq, but railed against abortion. I talked with this student over a number of months and tried to help her better understand what Christians believe.

After I moved to Chengdu months passed without hearing from her until I received this email:

     We haven’t contacted for a long time. How are you? Lana told me that you are going to  married this summer holiday. Congratulations.
     I want to tell you something, I know you will be suprised and contradictory. I am one of your sisters now. I am honest and I really feel so lucky to know this world.

Tomorrow we will be looking at Mission in China at the turn of the Century

12 responses to “What Can a Christian Do in China? And What Gets Foreigners Thrown Out?”

  1. Chopstik says:

    Tom, I think another way of putting this post is that things done singly or in small, private groups is fine with the government. The larger concern (and something addressed previously) is the continuation of “social harmony”. A certain “cult” now was fine more than a decade ago – until they time they conducted a mass protest near Beidaihe (I think that’s where it was) at which point they became a known threat and their persecution began.

    It is curious, though, how people “convert” with so little knowledge of what they’re actually professing to believe in. Of course, I suspect that is something that is not limited to just China…

    • Tom says:

      I’ve seen many of these conversions with little knowledge, and I think a lot of it has to do with the power relation between the teacher and the student. In China what a teacher tells you is fact, and many of them are eager to please their foreign teacher. This is why I encouraged taking a more passive role.

      I talked with a man who had been doing missions in China for the past 20 years, and his organization has been moving away from trying to convert students, to just giving them a basic introduction to the gospel before introducing them to local churches. He said this has resulted in much better retention rates.

      I think the government is also very concerned about “foreign influence”, which has been mentioned in connection with almost all of the social unrest this year in China.

  2. Joel says:

    During the orientation for our NGO they gave us a helpful visual to explain this. First, a big circle: inside is what the law says it allows, outside is what it says is illegal. This is pretty clear. Then, a very squiggly circle is drawn along the rim of the first circle, sometimes the second circle sticks out over the original boundary, sometimes it dips into the original circle: this is the law in effect; what usually is and isn’t actually tolerated. In some cases this is tighter than the law on the books, sometimes more lenient. And of course the point was made that the exact contours of the squiggly circle are always fluctuating, dependent on a long list of factors of which “law” is not at the top.

    And then they drew a tiny circle in the middle and labelled it “Tianjin”. And from the perspective of living in this city for a couple years (I realize Tianjin’s situation is somewhat atypical), one key facet of the Three-Self that you haven’t emphasized yet is its systematic marginalization; Three-Self churches are not allowed to have a real public presence or voice, they are deliberately kept out of mainstream consciousness as much as possible. Interesting that despite all this, and despite the stodgy style of Tianjin’s Three-Self churches, they’re literally overflowing on Sunday mornings. (I’ve also visit Three-Self churches in other cities that had an eye-popping amount of public freedom, but then I learned that there are actually different kinds of Three-Self churches.)

    • Tom says:

      It’s true that they are over flowing on Sunday mornings. The church I visited in Chengdu had 10,000 on Sunday mornings. Excellent point that they are kept out of the mainstream, I alluded to that point yesterday mentioning my student who couldn’t even put a sign outside of the door of the church, but thank you for really emphasizing that.

      • Joel says:

        yeah, I saw you’d mentioned that. I just wanted to emphasize it because, from my experience in Tianjin, the deliberate, systematic marginalization is a key feature of Three-Self Christianity in China. And you see it in all kinds of other areas: contestants on FeChengWuRao being told they can’t say anything “religious”, horror movie writers writing technicalities into the plot to side-step the supernatural, etc. The Party goes way out of its way to keep religion/spirituality out of the minds of the general public, imo. (And there are interesting parallels with this to Canadian culture’s public, official attitude toward religion and religious people — the idea that it’s OK for you to “pray at home” but that it is wrong to allow your “beliefs” to make an explicit difference in your public speech and actions. Since I grew up in that culture, I now have to consciously practice not obeying/perpetuating that unfair double-standard because the culturally prescribed self-censorship is just how Canadians are programmed; if we don’t think about it, we do it automatically.)

        Are you going to talk about the different kinds of Three-Self? There’s the traditional Three-Self, but then there are the ones that started independently and later registered with the Three-Self, and then still a third kind that started independently and “register” with the Three-Self, but in practice are Three-Self “in name only.” I found it interesting that this last option was apparently extended to Shouwang, according to one of their more recent statements (in which they explain why they refused the offer). I was also curious to find that of the four Thee-Self churches in Tianjin, at least two of them were re-started as late as 2003 (after being shut down shortly after Liberation).

  3. Jin Zhao says:

    I still remember “crashing” a Christian wedding in Beijing when I was in college. I read some time ago that Chinese government has actually increasingly supporting Christianity, as long as it’s contained within the perimeters set by the government. I guess that Chinese authority realized that religion can be used as a tool to mitigate the conflicts between classes, regions, and ethnics in today’s China.

    • Tom says:

      You are right in some sense, the gov’t does it is as a tool, just so long as no one organizes in a meaningful way outside of the party.

  4. alabasterjones@gmail.com says:

    I think you see a wide range of beliefs in Chinese Christians for a variety of reasons. One is the language gap that separates some missionaries from the people they’re trying to convert. I worked with an underground missionary a while ago who couldn’t speak any but basic Chinese. When he tried to turn me on to Christianity using what I assume was the same sales pitch he used with Chinese people, it came out fairly bizarre because he was trying to explain more complex concepts in really basic English using some bizarre metaphors that he had come up with himself. I’m sure there are missionaries that do speak good Chinese, but I’ve run into a great number of them who speak little to none (I’m sure this is because those that do speak good Chinese aren’t hanging out in the places where I’d run into them).

    Then there’s the background cultural assumptions that Christianity gets inserted into – so in God In Chinatown, an ethnography of Christian groups in NYC’s Chinatwon, David Guest describes a lot of people being henotheist in their approach to Jesus. That is, worshipping Jesus is not choosing between true and false gods, but it involves picking favorites among a larger range of deities.

    And then there’s the fact that a strong understanding of the underlying beliefs of a religion is not always that important for adherents. I grew up Catholic with an interest in theology, and found that in my conversations with Christians in the US a lot of them were unfamiliar with the actual content of the Bible (beyond the big stories). In the West belief is taken to be central to religion, so having the right beliefs is important to being a good Christian. But this is not universal to all religious traditions, nor has it been true throughout the history of Christianity. It was only with the Protestant reformation that the internal beliefs of individual Christians became more important than their participation in practices (e.g. Confession, the Eucharist) inside the institution of the Church.

    But none of that is any different than when you talk to Buddhists and Taoists in California, and get versions of those traditions that are very, shall we say, unique.

  5. […] Seeing Red in China The Middle Kingdom Made Easy Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← What Can a Christian Do in China? And What Gets Foreigners Thrown Out? […]

  6. […] week we looked at many of the misunderstandings about Christianity in China (1, 2,3, 4), so today I thought we would wrap up by looking at mission in China just before the fall of the […]

  7. vanessa says:

    Do you think it is safe for foreign Christians to send emails to family and friends in the west that contain information about missionary work? Do you know if the gov’t is allowed to access gmail accounts?

    • Tom says:

      Google does not comply with the Chinese gov’t in the way that other companies have, but that doesn’t mean that it is 100% secure. For the most part, I would say that the gov’t cares far less about what foreigners say and do than Chinese people. I have received dozens of emails about mission work during my time in China and it never created a problem for me.

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