How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power


David Aikman

Regnery Publishing Inc., 2003, 344 pp. 



David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine has spent much time in China over the past 30+ years.  In the summer of 2002 he spent three months with key Christian leaders in China gathering the final information for this book.  While the subtitle may be over ambitious (the publisher decides) I found it quite encouraging.


This book contends that “Christianity will change the nature of China in many different ways over the next several decades, and in doing so, will change the world in which we live.” (292)


“In 1949, the world’s most populous nation adopted the materialist philosophy of a nineteenth-century German and a twentieth-century Russian in its search for wealth and power after a century of foreign encroachments on its government and culture.  That philosophy turned out to be bankrupt and China is almost self-consciously casting around for something to replace it.  Christianity has not yet been embraced as that replacement by the Chinese people, but today it is in a very good position to do so.” (17-18)


A two-ton stone tablet in the Forest of Steles Museum gives an official account of the first major Christian mission to China by the Nestorians in 635 AD.  It was uncovered in 1623.  (20-22)


The first Protestant missionary on Chinese soil, Robert Morrison in 1807, won only 10 converts in 27 years.  (35)


At the peak in 1926 there were 8,325 Protestant missionaries in China. (43)


Morrison and Protestant successor “coincided with the most violent period of expansions into Asia by all of the Western imperialist nations.  Gunboats had indirectly enabled missionaries to penetrate the remote fastnesses of China’s teeming inland.  But the message of their barking cannons deafened many Chinese to the serene sounds of the Gospel.” (44)


“At the time of the missionary departure in 1949, Chinese Christians were numbered at approximately 3 million Roman Catholics and three-quarters of a million Protestants.” (44)  However, together they had founded 429 middle schools and high schools, 16 universities, and 538 hospitals.  Up to 40% of all qualified physicians had been trained at missionary-founded medical schools.  “The cultural influence of such Christians in positions of social prestige and influence was considerable.”  (52)


Aikman visited a seminary isolated out in the countryside and found it was bit one of an estimated 200 underground seminaries serving the four main house church networks among rural and urban communities throughout the country.  There may be 100 in Shanghai alone.  (126, 128, 132)


Some 15-20 million Chinese attend 13,000 Three Self churches (the officially registered and recognized church).  There are only 3,000 authorized clergy to serve these churches.  Most of these churches teach orthodox, evangelical Christianity and the overwhelming majority of its clergy are evangelical in their faith.  “Chinese evangelicals from Three Self churches are as eager as evangelicals all over the world that all human beings should hear and receive the Christian message.” (136-37)


However, “the Three Self continues to live at the beck and call of the Religious Affairs Bureau….” (175)


“Thought persecution of Christians is sporadic rather than uniform, it still exists in vicious forms across the country.  It is a grim and cruel reality, but an important aspect in the growth of China’s Christianity.” (178)


House church leaders in Henan and Wenzhou have a daring vision of taking the Gospel west, some going back along the Silk Road to Afghanistan and some taking the ocean route to the Persian Gulf.  It is referred to as “Back to Jerusalem,” and it has become familiar to the Christians of China’s house church Christian networks.  (191-92)


An idea has between circulating through house churches for at least five years, of raising 100,000 Christian missionaries to send out to the world on a global evangelization expedition.  (195)


The Gospel has spread, for the most part, in a westward direction: from Jerusalem to Antioch, to all of Europe, to America, to the East, from the southwest of China to the northwest, “until today from Gansu on westward it can be said there is no firmly established church.  You may go westward from Gansu, preaching the Gospel all the way back to Jerusalem, causing the light of the Gospel to complete the circle around this dark world.” (quoting church leader, Mark Ma  195-96)


“We believe that now that the Gospel has reached China it will follow the old Silk Road back to Jerusalem.  Once the Gospel comes back to Jerusalem, it will mean that the Gospel has been preached to the whole world.” (quoting church leader Zhang Rongliang, p. 203)  See


“Globalization is indeed here to stay, and the Christian component of it, more and more, will have a Chinese accent.” (205)


“The story of Catholicism in China under Communism is tragic and heroic, pragmatic and sophisticated.”  “In some ways, it is a miracle that Catholicism survived the onslaught from China’s Communist rulers in the 1950s.”  “By the end of 1955, some 1,500 Catholics in Shanghai alone were in custody….” (208, 209, 212)


“Those Christians who are arrested and imprisoned often still face severe torture at the hands of the authorities.”  (229)


Yuan Zhiming produced a six-part documentary, River Elegy, aired by Beijing Central Television.  Yuan’s objective is “to change the perception of China by the Chinese.  If you go to any city and ask the average person, 99 percent of the people don’t understand Christianity.  They don’t even know what the question is.  Some people in China don’t even know that there are Christians in China.” (248)

“Yuan’s goal is to expose Chinese intellectuals to the broadest range possible of historical and contemporary Christian theology.”  (250)


“Liu Xiaofeng has a gigantic ambition with his theory: To promote the expansion of Christian scholarship in China’s university system; and at the same time, present his intellectual views through book series and periodicals in order to build a foundation for Christian scholarship in the midst of tension and competition in Chinese intellectual cultural space, so that the values system of the ‘sacred’ may have its own cultural capital.” (250)


“From modest beginnings at Peking University in the early 1980s, institutes for the study of Christianity, or similarly named academic entities, have appeared in more than twenty Chinese campuses.  None of these is permitted to ‘teach’ Christianity—in that sense it is not unlike a contemporary U.S. college campus—but scholars who openly profess their Christian faith staff many of these institutions.”   “One Chinese graduate student estimated that there were at least two hundred Christian students at Peking University.” (252)


“Reports after 1989 showed that as many as 10 percent of students on many Chinese college campuses where Christian….” (253)


“With globalization and post-modernity, we cannot find a clear value system and clear definitions and judgment.  In this case, Christianity would find a very wide space.  It is one of the strong points of Christianity to set up an absolute value system.” (254)


“In December 2001, the Forbidden City Concert Hall held the first performance of Handel’s Messiah, in Chinese, since the Communist takeover of 1949.” (258)


About 2400 foreigners worship in Beijing’s largest Christian church and about half are in China for the purpose of advancing Christianity among the Chinese.  (264)


“The great Christian revival in China that started when the Cultural Revolution was still under way in the 1970s and caught fire a decade later was entirely Chinese.  Other than diplomats, very few foreigners of any kind were permitted to reside in China from the mid-1960s until the 1980s.”  (265-66)


No foreign missionaries are permitted to work in china but two or three thousand do anyway under the guise of teaching English.  “Almost every urban young Christian I met in China had come to the Christian faith through a foreign, English-speaking teacher.”  (278-79)


“China is in the process of becoming Christianized.”  China may be 20-30% Christian within 30 years.  “If that should happen, it is almost certain that a Christian view of the world will be the dominant worldview within China’s political and cultural establishment, and possibly also within senior military circles.”  (285)


This could result in a profound Christian “sense of restraint, justice, and order in the wielding of state power.”  (285)  “No nation has ever been totally unselfish in employing its national power.  But some nations have been unusually generous and mindful of a real responsibility—in effect before God—to act wisely, justly, and generously in the international arena.” (286)


“However, the possibility of China’s emergence as an aggressive global superpower menace should not be discounted.” (287)  Periodically China has rejected turned violently and fanatically against the influence of outsiders. 


China’s think tanks estimates China will match the power of the U.S. by 2020 and their strategic planners are envisioning the probable emergence of China as the number-one global superpower with a few decades.  (288)


“They aren’t sure if they have the needed civic virtues that all political democracies need in some measure.  Can you have a viable democracy if you still have massive corruption?  Can you deal with corruption effectively without first constructing a system for implementing due process sunder the rule of law?  Which comes first, civic virtue or a new legal system?  How do you ensure that you have a decent legal system without a solid core of people who are, well, virtuous?”  (289)


“Under hardship the Chinese church will be healthy.  I am concerned that some day when things are totally open there will be corruption.”  (quoting a Chinese student leader, 290)


“It is worth considering the possibility that not just the numerical, but the intellectual center of gravity for Christianity may move decisively out of Europe and North America as the Christianization of China continues and as China becomes a global superpower.” (291)


[I heard David Aikman speak this month.  He noted that more than 50,000 Chinese graduate students are studying in the U.S.  He point out “Never before has a country entrusted its future leadership to another country to this degree.”  How are we doing in befriending these future Chinese leaders and helping them to find Christ?  dlm]


Further reading:

For another “balanced” perspective, see THE GLOBAL CHINESE: Rethinking Kingdom-Building and Nation-Building, Keynote Address for EFMA-AFMA-ISFA Joint Gathering September 17, 2003, by Carol Hamrin, 25 year senior China research specialist at the U. S. Department of State, in Missions Frontiers, November-December 2003 or at 06/PDFs/HamrinWebsite.pdf


China: The Church’s Long March, David Adeny

Back to Jerusalem, Paul Hattaway