Smoke and Persecution in China    (trip report)

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First-time visitors to China are usually surprised by what they see. Much of China is modern and prosperous, which doesn’t fit common stereotypes. True, harsh poverty is also readily found in the countryside and the underclass areas of cities, but by most measures, this country is making great strides.

Take trains, for instance. I traveled by rail between Shanghai and Nanjing last week.

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The speed I captured in the photo equals 175 miles per hour, which wasn’t even our top speed, nor was this the fastest train I’ve ridden in China. Comfortable, clean and quick – seemingly far ahead of the United States when it comes to rail transportation.

Equally impressive is the pace at which such improvements are implemented. Allow me to use the rail example again. I was in Beijing in 1999 during celebration of the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic. At that time, this mega city of more than 20 million people had only a tiny loop of a subway system, just the small blue square in the center of the map below. 

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There’s been a lot of development between then and now. Today, 10 million people a day ride the vast Beijing subway. This is typical of the rapid development of infrastructure throughout China.

At the risk of appearing fixated on transportation, I will offer yet another amazing fact. Beijing – that one city – adds 1,400 more cars to its roads each day! Numbers like that accumulate fast. You can imagine the traffic jams and the air pollution that result. Air quality is often extremely dangerous. When I arrived at the big modern airport in Beijing and looked down the corridors of the terminal, it was as if there had been a fire somewhere inside the building. It was filled with what appeared to be smoke, but turned out to be pollution that blanketed the whole city both indoors and out.

Calling it dangerous is no exaggeration. The World Health Organization warns it is hazardous to breathe air with concentrations of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of a type of pollution known as PM2.5. Well, the day I arrived in Beijing, the reading at Tiananmen Square shot all the way to 429, almost 20X safe levels. Fortunately, winds shifted direction on the second day of the trip and a rare snowstorm arrived after that, which did wonders for clearing the air.

In China, nearly everything happens on a massive scale, including its problems. Right before I transferred to Shanghai, another megacity of 25 million, a flotilla of 14,000 dead pigs mysteriously appeared in the river. 

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By the time I got there, authorities managed to clean the mess away so I saw nary a trace of a porker in the water. In fact, the waterfront was as beautiful as ever. Shanghai one of the most picturesque big cities in the world. At night along the Bund, skyscrapers display a light show accented by glowing ferries and tour boats that ply the river.

This is different from impressions many Westerners have about China. While the country was mostly backward and decaying a generation or two ago, now it is advancing quickly. New construction seems to be everywhere. The building boom is equal to creating two entire Chicagos each year. Certainly challenges remain that appear overwhelming, but somehow progress continues.

So, China is an economic miracle, but what about freedom for Christians to practice their faith? Back in February, an alarming claim circulated widely in the United States with the headline, “How China Plans to Wipe Out House Churches.” Christianity Today and other outlets repeated the story that originated from the organization China Aid, a group that alleged the Chinese government had a “plan to eradicate unregistered house churches.” Quite the opposite seemed to be the case according to everyone I met on this trip. I spent time with dozens of ministry leaders from across the spectrum of churches and they spoke freely with me of greater openness than ever. What conclusions should we draw from this contradiction? I have to wonder whether the shrill protest isn’t, at least in part, a ploy to raise funds. Conspiracies and persecution stories are always compelling.

I do not for a moment want to minimize the price some believers pay for their faith. One evening, I had dinner with an older gentleman who spent years in prison during the Cultural Revolution. No doubt there are still, on occasions, serious incidents of conflict between Christians and the government. On balance, however, the situation for churches in China seems to be improving.

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On this trip, I enjoyed meals and lingering conversations with Chinese Christian leaders, from large churches with thousands in attendance to meeting points with fewer than 100. Rather than feeling persecuted or discouraged, they were decidedly upbeat. It pleased me also to hear spontaneous comments in several conversations indicating that relations between registered and unregistered churches are warming. I sensed a level of respect and cooperation far better than I have witnessed before.

My organization, without going into details here, works to support and encourage the whole spectrum of churches. This is going very well. We are encouraged along with our brothers and sisters in China.

One of the most important new opportunities for ministry in China is with migrant workers. Poor people from the countryside come to big cities looking for employment and a chance to better themselves. Their Chinese neighbors nickname them “floating people” because, they spend most of the year in their temporary housing so they can work in the cities, but also routinely return to their home towns. This is necessary because of technicalities in residency regulations. They cannot relocate permanently since they only have access to medical care and education for their children in the countryside where they have their legal residence. This keeps massive numbers of people migrating back and forth throughout the year. How many? This is a relatively recent phenomenon and it is massive - the annual migrating population is about equal to the population of the United States. One migrant community I visited changes 40% of its population each year.

With so many people in flux and with great personal needs, this is a place where Christians can help, and do. One seminary professor pointed out that these days, about half of the people in house churches are transient.

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There’s great need for tutoring of children who cannot attend regular schools because they belong to migrant families. Strained families need education, counseling and other practical assistance. While the churches are nowhere near rising to the scale of those needs yet, their response is growing. I heard estimates on this trip that Christian school planting is becoming as common as church planting in China.


China does everything in a big way. It has over 100 billionaires, nearly as many as the U.S. It’s social media platform, unique to China and similar to Twitter, has many more users than Twitter worldwide and is more advanced in its capabilities. Its Google equivalent is bigger than Google. China is far out front with many aspects of the Internet. It has more than 550 million Internet users, nearly twice the population of the U.S. Within a few years, Chinese will be the most-used language on the Internet.

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China is a fascinating country with well over a billion people who God loves passionately. The Church there is growing and becoming stronger all the time. It is important, however, for us to appreciate the ways it’s different from church as we know it. One distinction is that most Chinese believers are young in their faith. 80% of Christians are first generation and very few have been following Christ for 10 years or more. Listening to the heartbeat of these people was inspiring. We all do well to pray for, support and encourage our Chinese brothers and sisters.

© Eric Thurman 2015