China’s Belt and Road: Exporting Evangelism?

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China’s Belt and Road: Exporting Evangelism?

Aided by the networks created by the Belt and Road, Chinese missionaries are heading abroad, much to Beijing’s dismay.

China’s Belt and Road: Exporting Evangelism?

A Chinese man prays during a mass on Christmas eve at the South Cathedral official Catholic church in Beijing, China (Dec. 24, 2014).

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

At a time when their compatriots back home are dynamiting churches that have mushroomed across the country, Chinese construction companies are winning contracts to build churches across Africa. The economies of scale and other logistical advantages which Chinese firms enjoy in other sectors are being carried over to church construction. “China is now winning contracts to build churches because its corporations out-bid those from elsewhere,” notes Jesse Mugambi, professor of religious studies and philosophy at the University of Nairobi.

Not only is officially atheist China building houses of worship across Africa, its mega-corporations are also playing a vital role in spreading the good news — literally. Despite Beijing’s own misgivings about religion and proselytization, it appears to have no qualms in supplying the rest of the world with religious literature. One-quarter of all the Bibles printed worldwide are printed in China, and the world’s largest Bible printing factory opened in Nanjing in 2008.

Within Africa, China plays an even greater role, as the PRC supplies a substantial portion of the bibles used in the continent. For instance, some three-quarters of Bibles used in Kenya are printed in China. While it seems bizarre, China’s mass production of Bibles is merely a logical extension of its export-centric economic paradigm. Ironically, these mass-produced Chinese Bibles are finding their way into the hands of overseas Chinese, increasing numbers of whom are embracing religion.

By living in societies which are openly religious, Chinese expats become more religious by osmosis. This trend is aided by the efforts of local African churches to reach out to Chinese expats, such as bilingual Bible study groups. Consider networks such as the Southern African Chinese Outreach Network and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), which engage with the Chinese communities in various African states. “We are praying that many South Africans will continue to learn the Chinese language, culture […]” notes one OMF worker. “[South Africans should] increase their commitment to share the love of Christ with the Chinese.”

By having Afrikaans/English and Chinese churches collaborate, the OMF is moving closer to its vision “for a prayer movement for the Chinese diaspora, for pastors and/or missionaries from China — specifically trained to minister to the Chinese in Africa, for ministry by local churches to Chinese churches, and for support of [Chinese] Christians returning to China.” These efforts have led the OMF to open branches in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.

In certain ways, African churches have more success in attracting Chinese converts than some of the established Chinese churches in the region. Primarily run by missionaries from Hong Kong or Taiwan, these Chinese language churches may be viewed with more suspicion by mainland Chinese. Fearing to entangle themselves with both religious and separatist (in the case of Taiwan) links, mainland Chinese may be wary of non-mainland, ethnically Chinese church leaders. Any such misgivings are also in line with Beijing’s own rhetoric on the matter, with state media outlets repeatedly highlighting the foreign (read: non-mainland) nature of Chinese missionaries abroad.

Indeed, Chinese missionary groups from Hong Kong and Taiwan are looking to recruit mainland Chinese religious leaders in order to capitalize on the success of their house church movement to minister to mainland Chinese in Africa. While current estimates are fuzzy, there are around 1,000 Chinese missionaries serving overseas, with Chinese churches on the mainland hoping to increase this number to 20,000 by the end of the next decade.

Touching on the success of the home church movement, Cui Qian, pastor of the Wanbang Missionary Church in Shanghai, notes that “it’s Chinese style missionary work. We don’t build churches and we don’t need much organizational structure. We survived the Cultural Revolution, so we have the experience.” Cui’s church has some 20 missionaries overseas, missionaries which — ironically — are using their experience in the crucible of religious repression at home to cause headaches for the Communist government abroad.

Unsurprisingly, almost all Chinese missionaries are from underground churches, which makes their foreign endeavors of double concern for Beijing. First, the government’s aversion to power structures outside its control, combined with its suspicion of organized religion makes any links between underground churches and foreign lands or congregations highly suspect. Secondly, the influx of Chinese missionaries into other countries puts Beijing in the hotseat when things go wrong.

In 2017, two Chinese missionaries were killed by the Islamic State in Pakistan after preaching to locals as part of a Korean-led missionary group. State media was quick to paint the deceased as looking for trouble and in league with dangerous foreign elements. In conjunction, the Communist Youth League went on social media warning Chinese of the nefarious and wily ways of South Korean missionaries infiltrating the mainland. The Global Times went further, with the headline “Scoop! The truth behind the kidnapped Chinese people in Pakistan: Sure enough it’s Korean people’s fault again.” Korean Christian aid workers have been killed in Pakistan in the past, and official claims of Korean groups leading Chinese people astray meshed well with the heightened tensions between Seoul and Beijing during the summer of 2017 over the deployment of the U.S THAAD missile defense system.

The incident in Pakistan also leaves Beijing with egg on its face as it undermines one of China’s key mantras — that of non-interference — which it uses to court other countries. The fact that Pakistan is a major player in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and that the two Chinese in question entered the country on business visas, only to misuse them, puts China in a difficult position. Existing concerns about Chinese neo-imperialism dovetail nicely with this incident: a modern rendition of the 19th century cliche of “faith following the flag” — a phrase describing the religious baggage which (for better or worse) followed on the heels of colonial adventurism.

This sentiment was echoed last year by a Taiwanese pastor during a Christian convention in Hong Kong: “China [has] made a name for itself as an exporter of capital by becoming a source of foreign investment for Silk Road nations, but [China is] set to become the world’s largest exporter of Christian faith [as well].” The connection between the spread of the BRI and the proliferation of Chinese missionaries is an under-reported one, and one that will continue to develop in the years to come.

Having forced the most fervent portion of its population to disguise their faith, Beijing has created a legion of Chinese Christians highly adept at avoiding detection, making anyone a potential proselytizer in waiting. “We have the Belt and Road policy, so there will be economic entry. Alongside the economic entry will be companies and other groups entering, including missionaries,” notes Cui of the Wanbang Missionary Church. The Chinese government must now worry about the kind of subterfuge that so frightened Cold War America — only instead of hidden communists in their midst, the omnipresent bogeyman is the hidden Christian. Chinese Christians seeking to spread the gospel have piggybacked on China’s increasing openness and the lessening of foreign travel restrictions to make this a transnational fear for Beijing.

Aided by the networks created by the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese missionaries are increasingly able to enter foreign countries under false pretenses. They are aided by a lack of awareness among foreign officials, who underestimate the possibility of Chinese visitors harboring alternative religious motives. Chinese missionaries exploit existing preconceptions about China and the Chinese people, notes Danny Lee, the U.K. director of Back to Jerusalem, a Chinese missionary organization. “They let [Chinese Christians] straight through,” states Lee. “The last thing they would think [a Chinese person could be] is a missionary.” Lee goes on to mention that his organization’s goal is to have a minimum of 100,000 Chinese missionaries working in 51 states along the Belt and Road

This line of thinking is not new, although it is enjoying a revival in recent years. In fact, the “Back to Jerusalem” movement can trace its roots to the 1920s, when Chinese Christians in Shandong province began agitating for a campaign to spread Christianity westwards from eastern China toward Jerusalem. Such a spread is seen as a means to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the campaign gained momentum from followers further inland, notably in Henan province. The growing power of the Chinese Communists in the 1940s led to a crackdown on the movement, with supporters driven underground for decades.

Growing exposure to Christian teachings and international travel for many Chinese in the 1990s and early 2000s led to a resurrection of the movement, with groups like Lee’s adopting the name outright. Since 2003, the most vocal proponent of the Back to Jerusalem movement has been Liu Zhenying, also known as “Brother Yun,” an exiled home church leader. It is Yun’s goal to have 100,000 missionaries along the Silk Road that Lee mentions above. Overall the Back to Jerusalem movement has merged with other terms, notably the “10/40 Window” — denoting countries ripe for missionary work lying between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator. This zone effectively overlaps with the scope of the BRI.

People and ideas have always accompanied the movement of goods along the Silk Road. The historical trade corridor connecting China to the West has been reimagined by Beijing as the model for its 21st century ambitions. The growing suffusion of Chinese capital and trade links is leading to the growth of Chinese diaspora in many nations. Once abroad, many are experiencing what it means to live in an openly religious society for the first time.

Far from home, and driven by both missionary and mercurial forces, many overseas Chinese are becoming religious. While African churches and established missions from Taiwan and Hong Kong are reaching out to Chinese in Africa, both groups are increasingly looking to the Chinese mainland for inspiration. Such is the nature of faith in China, that mainland religious leaders display zealous ambition, having been tempered by decades of state repression. Experts in creating grass root congregations on shoestring budgets, increasing numbers of Chinese missionaries are leaving the mainland for foreign lands.

Jeremy Luedi is a freelance writer and the editor of Asia by Africa, a blog highlighting how the world’s two most dynamic regions are interacting. His writing has appeared in The Japan Times, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Courrier International, Yahoo Finance and Asia Times, among others.