Getting Better or Getting Worse?

shanghai community church px (Small) (2)Those of us who work in China are often asked if we think that the situation for the church in China is getting better or worse. I have always found that to be a problematic question.

First of all, “better” and “worse” are relative terms, so the first response has to be “better or worse in comparison to what?” Compared to the standards that we are accustomed to? Compared to a certain time in the past? By what standard should the question be answered?

The second problem with the question is that it assumes only two possibilities: better or worse/ good or bad. It’s an extremely dichotomous question that leaves little room for the potential of a complicated reality.

If we are comparing the situation to what we are accustomed to, then it certainly isn’t good. There are far too many restrictions on religious practice, and regulations that either permit or restrict activities are arbitrarily enforced. This certainly isn’t good, but is it really “worse” than the situation that existed during the Cultural Revolution?

If, however, we are comparing the current situation to what it used to be, then there is ample evidence that things are better (even if they are not good). Thousands of house churches operate openly without harassment, Christian books are being published, Bibles can be freely downloaded to computers and smart phones, Christian celebrities are open about their faith, and ordinary Christians are using the Internet for evangelism. All of those things would have been unthinkable even as recently as ten years ago.

I have come to the conclusion that when people say that “things are getting worse” in regards to China, what they really mean is “things are not improving at the rate and scope that I would like.”

That is not the same as “getting worse,” and it’s a distinction that we need to be clear about.

This was originally posted on the ChinaSource website.


If I were in Beijing This Weekend

I’m not in Beijing to experience the Chinese New Year celebrations, but if I were, this is what I would be seeing outside my living room window:

That clip was filmed on New Year’s Eve, 2010 — from my living room window!

Part of me is glad to be missing that and part if me wishes I were there.

Story of my life, I guess…

Here are some interesting articles about the New Year celebrations in China.

From The Guardian: Chinese new year: mass holiday exodus underway – video

The world’s largest annual human migration reaches its peak on Friday, as millions in China travel home for the lunar new year. With around 200 million people on the move, pressure on the transport network is reaching a critical point. One traveller has devised a head-support sleeping aid to make the long journey home more pleasant.

From NPR: Chinese New Year: Dumplings, Rice Cakes And Long Life

About 3,000 years ago, give or take a couple of decades, the Chinese people began celebrating the beginning of their calendar year with a joyful festival they called Lunar New Year. They cleaned their homes, welcomed relatives, bought or made new clothes and set off firecrackers. And there was feasting and special offerings made to the Kitchen God for about two weeks.

From the BBC: Behind the scenes as Chinese TV prepares for New Year Gala

More than 200 million people are on the move in China to be with their families for the Lunar New Year this weekend. Many will be watching the carefully co-ordinated Lunar New Year Gala, where hundreds of acts will be expected to perform. The BBC’s John Sudworth has gained exclusive access to plans by Chinese state television for this weekend’s New Year gala programme.

Again, from the BBC: Boyfriends for hire to beat China’s wedding pressure

In the basement of an office tower in central Beijing, a cloud of gloom hovers over the canteen at lunch time. Groups of young women huddled over large bowls of noodles look depressed when asked about the February’s impending Chinese New Year holiday. “I’m pretty old – I’m almost 30 – but I’m still single,” explains Ding Na, a woman hailing from China’s northeast. “I’m under lots of pressure. My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I’m not married. When they call me, I’m scared to pick up the phone.” […] Luckily for some, China’s most popular online marketplace, Taobao, offers a band-aid solution: the rental of fake boyfriends. For as little as $50 (£32) a day, dozens of classified adverts promise to provide a male companion for the holidays, pretending to be a single woman’s plus-one.  

And one more from The Guardian: New Year Celebrations Around the World — in Pictures

From Beijing to Bangkok, Stockholm to London, communities around the world get ready to celebrate the Chinese New Year and welcome in the year of the snake.

Finally, I recommend the movie Last Train Home.

Every spring, China’s cities are plunged into chaos as an astonishing 130 million migrant workers journey to their home villages for the New Year’s holiday. This mass exodus is the largest human migration on the planet – an epic spectacle that reveals a country tragically caught between its rural past and industrial future. Working over several years in classic verité style Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan (with the producers of the hit documentary Up the Yangtze) travels with one couple who have embarked on this annual trek for almost two decades. Like so many of China s rural poor, Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin left behind their two infant children for grueling factory jobs. Their daughter Qin – now a restless teenager – both bitterly resents their absence and longs for her own freedom away from school, much to the utter devastation of her parents. Emotionally powerful and starkly beautiful, the multi-award-winning Last Train Home’s intimate observation of one fractured family sheds unprecedented light on the human cost of China’s economic ‘miracle’.



The Corner of Stalin and Freedom

In the 1990’s I studied and worked at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, Jilin Province. We always got a chuckle out of the fact that the school was located on the corner of Stalin and Freedom.

There wasn’t much on that corner — our university entrance, the Friendship Store, and some government offices. Today there is a MacDonald’s.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia asked China to change the names of streets and other locations around China that were named after Stalin and Lenin. Stalin Street became People’s Street (Renmin Dajie).

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the same comedic value.

Stalin Street in 1990

I read with interest, then, this article in The Christian Science Monitor about a Russian Communist Party attempt to change the name of Volgagrad back to Stalingrad. They want the name permanently changed, but the city council has only agreed to change it for 6 days a year, to commemorate the battle of Stalingrad.

Russia’s Communist Party has submitted a petition to President Putin, signed by 50,000 people, asking for the name of Stalingrad to be permanently restored.


Volgograd’s city council, which is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, decreed the name change after receiving “numerous requests” from Stalingrad veterans, almost a thousand of whom still live in the region.


The city was renamed Volgograd in 1961, after then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tore the veil off the vast crimes committed against the Soviet people by Stalin’s secret police, including mass executions and the Gulag, a sprawling system of political prison camps that held millions of people at its peak.


The new name change will take effect for six days each year, all of them associated with key turning points in the war. The council decision says that the Stalin-era title “Hero City of Stalingrad” will be used as a “symbol officially in our speeches, reports, and while conducting public events.”


The battle for Stalingrad began in August 1942 and lasted six months, during which it turned the city’s name into a byword for total ruination. A staggering 2 million people died on both sides before the ragged remnants of the Axis forces surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943.

I’m guessing that no one, save the nutty foreigners who lived in Changchun in the 1990’s, as well as a few local old-timers, will be clamoring for a return of Stalin Street in Changchun.