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Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom
Summary:Proselytism remains officially illegal in China, yet many Christian missionaries are saying they’ve never felt more welcome. They’re pouring in both legally through the official church and clandestinely through other channels. But among both Chinese public opinion and official policy, the line of acceptable missionary behavior remains hazy.


By Eric Fish

In a public square at one of China’s top tier universities, dozens of young Chinese gather each week to practice English with native speakers. Several people surround each foreigner, discussing everything from sports to politics. But the largest crowd congregates around an American in his 40s who goes by his Chinese name - a transliteration of “Hallelujah.” Each week the topic is the same: The Bible.

Dressed in a suit and tie adorned with a crucifix pin, he shouts into a belt-mounted megaphone and holds up an iPad to illustrate biblical concepts. He preaches the Ten Commandments, decries abortion, blasts evolution, mocks Buddhist idol worship and discusses “the gift of speaking in tongues.” Hallelujah has been detained by police three times and, thanks to him, the square now has several metal signs warning that religious activities are prohibited. But after preaching in the square nearly every week for the past three years, Hallelujah is still in China.

Proselytism remains officially illegal in the country, yet many Christian missionaries are saying they’ve never felt more welcome. They’re pouring in both legally through the official church and clandestinely through other channels. But their rocky, sometimes violent past synonymous with western imperialism sticks with them. Both Chinese and foreign critics claim that Christian missionaries indeed continue to step over ethical boundaries in trying to win converts, and are even bringing a new kind of cultural imperialism. But among both Chinese public opinion and official policy, the line of acceptable missionary behavior remains hazy.

“Everyone’s impression of China is about 20 years older than it really is,” says Hallelujah. “It’s a lot more open than I thought before coming.”

When he preaches to his groups of 15-30 people, they listen politely for the most part and ask earnest questions, only occasionally challenging him. Foreigners who pass by are usually the only ones that get angry, he says, but that changed about a year-and-a-half ago when an upset Chinese Buddhist called the police and he was brought in for questioning.

“I realized the police didn’t actually care,” Hallelujah says about his interrogation. “They just had to follow orders and take a report. It ended with them basically saying, ‘Well you’ve got to be careful, but you’re welcome back.’ When they said that I was like, ‘Goodness, that’s it? That’s the dragon’s bite?” I came back the next week and had no issues.”

He was taken in again twice more over the following months after calls from the same Buddhist, until eventually the “no religious activities” signs were put up, which Hallelujah interpreted as the police washing their hands of the matter. “I’m like a spiritual policeman,” he says. “I stop people before they do evil. Police stop them after they do evil. We’re doing the same thing. Once they realize the gospel is actually good for China, they’re very pragmatic.”

Historical Baggage

Hallelujah estimates that about 10 percent of the people he preaches to take his sermons seriously and eventually convert to Christianity. It’s numbers like this that have prompted the Evangelical community to focus “The Great Commission” on China’s predominately atheist population. The country falls in what’s been labeled by evangelists as the “10/40 Window” – an area between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude in the Eastern Hemisphere that also includes Northern Africa, the Middle-East, India and Southeast Asia. According to one professor at Southern Nazarene University, “90 percent of the people living in the 10/40 Window are unevangelized.”

But with this wide open field of potential converts comes historical baggage to contend with.

In the mid-to-late 19th century, American and British missionaries enjoyed immunity from Chinese law under treaties forced upon China after the First Opium War, which emboldened them to step up their presence. By 1897, local resentment had reached a tipping point, leading to the killing of two German missionaries. The incident was used by Germany and other nations as a pretext to forcefully seize Chinese territory.

This foreign occupation was one of the factors leading to the Boxer Rebellion, where afflicted peasants and martial artists swept through Northern China killing hundreds of foreign missionaries and tens of thousands of Chinese Christians. An alliance of eight nations formed to suppress the movement, under which looting, rape and murder by foreign troops was widespread. The episode led to intense anti-foreign sentiment in China and ultimately hastened the demise of the Qing Dynasty.

After coming to power in 1949, Mao Zedong labeled missionaries “spiritual aggressors” and expelled them from China along with all other foreigners. Christian missionaries had been marked – perhaps permanently - as agents of imperialism.

After Reform and Opening Up in the late 1970s they began to quietly trickle back in. By the late 1990s, religious control had eased significantly and some estimates said there were around 10,000 foreign missionaries in the country. However, they’ve never completely escaped the imperialist brand. In 2009, China’s 4th ranking official called for “firmly stemming foreign infiltration in the name of religion.”  

Getting In

Since proselytism is barred by law, China remains a “creative access country” in the evangelist lexicon – a place where visas must be obtained through other pretexts. In China, the easiest route is through teaching English.

By day Hallelujah teaches at a Kindergarten. But unlike many of the missionaries who come to China, he works independently without the aid of an organization back home. “Other missionaries have to write these reports – how many people they baptized and how many people become Christians - because they’re getting funding,” he says. ”They have to justify to their home church that they’re actually having an effect.”

Many missionaries find English teaching jobs on their own or with small groups. One job listing on Ministryjobs.com posted by a foreigner seeks an English teacher in Hunan saying:

“-No college or teaching degree required.
-Native English speaking ability.
-Experience not required but welcome.
-Heart to serve the Lord overseas where the Gospel is not freely shared.”

It continues, “Sharing your faith is the goal. Ministering to those who are new converts here as well.”

Christian missionaries have long-recognized English teaching not only for its ability to help in penetrating creative access countries, but also for its use as an evangelizing tool. A 2002 article in Christianity Today declared that “Teaching English may well be the 21st century's most promising way to take the gospel to the world. Start an evangelical church in Poland, and no one will come. Start an English school, and you'll make many friends.”

One 21-year old student from Nanjing recounted how her foreign teachers held low-key Bible studies for interested students.  “The class will finish and they’ll ask whether you want to accept god,” she said.

In some cases, these Bible studies are advertised to students as free English lessons. According to several students at the same university in Nanjing, an American teacher once had them over to watch “an Easter movie,” which turned out to be The Passion of Christ. A few of the girls began crying during the bloody crucifixion scenes and some converted soon after the teacher told them that “Jesus did this for you.”

“She kind of took advantage of her position since teachers are pretty powerful in China,” said one student of the teacher. “I remember at some point she figured out that I wasn’t interested in Christianity at all then just became distant.”

Shelly Shiner, an American English teacher who taught at Nanchang HongKang University (NCHU), recalled that when she first started at the school in 2008, one teacher had his students put on a play about the seven deadly sins, which featured a boy lugging a wooden cross across the stage.

“[Those missionary teachers] don’t interact with other teachers and they’re pretty secretive about it,” she said. “They would always have students over to cook and have Bible studies. Then some strange things would happen. My students would start quoting the Bible to me, saying that if I drink alcohol I’m a sinner.”

Students and teachers from six different universities across China reported similar instances with teachers from English Language Institute of China (ELIC), a Colorado-based non-profit Christian group that’s been in China since 1981. It reports having over 600 teachers throughout Asia.

ELIC teachers are paid as little as 40 percent of what other independent teachers are paid from their schools. Much of the difference is made up through tax-deductible donations that ELIC receives, which amounted to $15.4 million in 2011.

“When we left some of us voiced our concerns [about the proselytizing] and I’m not sure what’s happening with them now,” Shiner said. “But they were cheap labor and good teachers so I don’t think it was pursued.”

When contacted, the administrator of the foreign teachers at NCHU – who’d just recently taken her position – said that she’d heard of proselytism happening several years ago before she took her job and ELIC began its cooperation with the school in 2010. But now she says the school “always keeps an eye on this aspect.”

She said students now must sign in to visit foreign teachers’ apartments and they’ll later be found and asked what they talked about. “We respect teachers' faith,” she said. “But we never allow them to proselytize.”

In an email response, ELIC Communications Director Andy Brennan said that no ELIC teacher has ever been accused of breaking the law, nor have any teachers been fired or asked to leave.

“We do encounter critics occasionally and we understand and accept that not everyone shares our perspective,” Brennan said. “We acknowledge this and are very committed to upholding the laws of China because of it and because this is in keeping with our ethos.”

When asked if ELIC recommends religiously themed teaching materials for its teachers or encourages them to hold religious activities with students, Brennan declined to answer.


How aggressively missionaries should proselytize in China is a source of controversy among Evangelicals. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, some groups planned to use the games as an opportunity for evangelizing. In response, Franklin Graham, head of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told the Charlotte Observer that he supports evangelism but was wary of the Olympic plans. 

"I would be against any groups that would be coming in and encouraging people to break Chinese law," he said. "As foreigners, we can come in and make some mistakes that would hurt the (Chinese) church. Then, long after we're gone, they suffer for it."

In the run-up to the Olympics, over 100 foreign missionaries were reportedly expelled from China. Deportation is a constant worry among evangelists. One man contacted for this piece, who admittedly evangelizes illegally, reported being expelled from China last year; though he’s now been allowed back.

However, for critics like Franklin Graham the concern is more for Chinese technically worshipping illegally who might be compromised by the stigma of foreign contact.

One foreign missionary who runs The Gospel in China blog wrote last year that 20 police showed up to the illegal house church he’d been working with and took four Chinese members in for questioning. He said  that the police had four major lines of questioning for them:

“What kind of religious group are they?
Where does their money come from?
What role do the foreigners have?
What are they preaching?”

They were released after a few hours without further incident.

Another blogger at China Ramblings! wrote to fellow missionaries addressing the issue of complicating things for Chinese Christians. “This may seem like a harsh saying, but, if they persecute the national worker, it is not because of you,” he said. “He can deny Jesus and not be persecuted. He is persecuted because they hate Jesus!”

Finding Welcome

There are dozens of foreign Christian groups in China that teach in rural areas, build churches, train preachers and do aid-work completely legally through official channels. Several people from these kinds of organizations - who were unwilling to speak on the record for fear of complicating their relationship with the government – said that the environment for them has been constantly improving, and that many local officials are even anxious to have them.

One source who’s worked with legal Christian groups in China since 2007 said his organization once reached out to local government officials in a predominately Buddhist area of Sichuan Province. There, they were actually urged to convert locals.

“[The local government] said they could help, and that they thought it was a great way to spread Christianity,” the source said. “But my boss said that he didn't want proselytizing connected with the projects, and the deal fell through.”

“One researcher [at the organization] said stuff like that happens sometimes with lower religious bureaus so the officials have more people to take kickbacks from,” he continued. “But I think in this case, they thought Christianity offered more stability.”

Similarly, a retired researcher from the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that in 2006, Christian missionaries were dispatched to Yunnan Province with government approval in a desperation maneuver to curb drug trafficking.

26-year-old Hefei graduate student Jia Qi, who was converted to Christianity by Korean missionaries and regularly attends Bible study with American teachers, agrees that the religion brings much needed stability to China – both at a national and individual level. He says that since converting, his mind has cleared and he’s become a better person. He’s even become an evangelist himself and has gone on missions to Buddhist areas of Gansu Province. 

“If we’re real Christians we have a responsibility to convert others,” he says. “But we think it’s to share the good news.” 

Back at the university square, Hallelujah began describing how the Holy Spirit speaks to him. A Christian girl in her late 20s approached and whispered in his ear, asking why she hasn’t been able to hear the spirit speak to her.

Another girl in the crowd said that she’s not Christian, but is becoming interested in the Bible. She’s begun coming to listen to Hallelujah somewhat regularly. 

A 25-year-old teacher from Beijing named James wasn’t so moved by Hallelujah’s sermon though. “I think he’s insane,” James said. “But I think he’s a good person. Some people are insane but don’t know it – like being drunk.”

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