Christopher Rhodes
Dr Christopher Rhodes is a Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies.
February 13, 2019

Several years ago, I spent a significant amount of time in East Africa, researching the involvement of local Christian denominations in politics. While in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, I learned that China was engaged in significant infrastructure building, including a major roads project that locals referenced with a nickname that I could never quite make out: they were either calling it “the Confucian Road” or “the Confusion Road.” Both labels accurately apply to the impact of China’s growing presence in Africa, not only for the African nations, but also for China itself.

Much has been made of the influx of Chinese money and workers into Africa over the past two decades, as China has become the primary economic partner for the continent. Both the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company have compiled the numbers – and they’re staggering. China-Africa trade reached a high of $215 billion in 2014;  $143 billion in Chinese loans have poured in to Africa between 2000 and 2017, and annual inflows of foreign direct investment have exceeded $3 billion in recent years.

McKinsey says there are around 10,000 Chinese-owned firms operating in Africa.  CARI’s data shows over 227,000 Chinese workers in Africa as of 2016, though others say the number is nearer 1 million.

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Much of the commentary on this relationship has focused on whether this is good for Africa; cash infusion and needed infrastructure development versus the danger of long-term debt and Chinese neocolonialism. Equally important, though largely overlooked, are the impacts that this growing relationship will have on China. The intention is to import much-needed natural resources for China’s huge economy, but this link is also causing China to import something that it has been trying to eliminate at home: religion, and particularly Evangelical Christianity.

From the days of Confucius until now, Chinese governments have been consistently focused on social order, and the Chinese Communist Party is downright obsessed with maintaining stability. This October, the CCP will celebrate 70 years in power, which may seem like a long time, but China measures its history in millennia. The CCP also remembers the Soviets celebrating 70 years of Communism – they did not make it to 75.

The immediate worry for the CCP has been economic stability. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, his successors abandoned ideological purity in favor of economic reform, enacting a hybrid system of state enterprise and capitalism that has achieved phenomenal economic growth and lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.

The CCP has replaced a legitimacy based on Mao’s charisma with one based on performance, and points to double-digit economic growth as its justification for staying in power. In recent years, however, the Chinese economy has slowed down, and increasing economic ties to Africa is part of a global strategy to jumpstart another round of remarkable growth.

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Hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa, where they have encountered foreign cultures that leave many of them feeling alienated. For some of these disaffected Chinese workers, a source of comfort has come from religion, most notably the Evangelical Christianity that pervades much of sub-Saharan Africa. Evangelicalism prioritises conversion of non-believers, and the Chinese, heavily discouraged from practicing religion at home, are attractive potential converts.

Many local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services.  A number of Chinese, in turn, have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. And a small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries are specifically targeting Chinese nationals in Africa, preaching to them with a freedom they’d never be allowed in the People’s Republic.

Many of these Chinese workers are returning home, and they’re bringing their newfound religion with them.  Visitors to the coastal province of Fujian, for example, now hear South African accented English and see houses adorned with crosses.  African migrants are also moving to China in larger numbers, many of them practitioners of very evangelistic forms of Pentecostal Christianity who are willing to flout the rules placed on religious activity in China.

This new dynamic is creating a headache for the Communist Party, which heavily regulates state-recognised religious bodies and considers non-sanctioned religious activity illegal. The CCP has always been anti-religion, but after Xi Jinping assumed Party control in 2012, China enacted a level of religious persecution not seen since Mao attempted to eliminate religion and other sources of dissent during the bloody Cultural Revolution.

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Under President Xi, Chinese officials have literally exploded churches, arrested entire Christian congregations, forcibly removed images of the Dalai Lama from Tibetan Buddhists’ homes, and detained up to one million Muslims from the minority Uighur ethnic group in ‘reeducation’ camps.

This repressive approach is largely a reaction to intense growth among virtually every major religious group in China. International observers, including the NGO Freedom House and the US State Department, estimate that between a quarter and half of the Chinese population now believes in one religious tradition or another, and the CCP fears any large group of organised and ideologically motivated citizens who could challenge the Party.

Twenty years ago, the CCP faced just such a challenge from the Falun Gong movement, a spiritual philosophy of meditation and exercise reminiscent of tai chi or even yoga. When thousands of members of the Falun Gong movement assembled in Beijing in 1999 to demand the government stop harassing its members, the CCP responded with a crackdown that detained hundreds of thousands of people and which continues to the present day. Nonetheless, Falun Gong maintains a growing membership of millions of followers in China.

Falun Gong, though, is a small problem for the CCP compared to Christianity, which has several times as many adherents in China, and has much older and deeper international connections.  Under Xi, state-sanctioned Christian churches have had their services restricted and the content of their public messages heavily censored, while unofficial “house churches” have increasingly been subject to police raids and demolitions.

And yet, to the dismay and confusion of the CCP, Christianity keeps growing; many Christians take persecution as a sign that they are doing something right. If US State Department numbers are to be believed, there are nearly as many Chinese Christians (70 million) as the 90 million CCP members reported by Chinese state media, and at current growth rates, China will soon have more Christians than any country in the world. Despite its best efforts, China is losing its fight against Christianity, and the growing influx of citizens returning from Africa is shaping up to be another hopeless front in that war.

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The CCP may be risk-averse, but it is also practical; one need only look at its adoption of economic reforms post-Mao to see the Party willing to bend principles in the name of survival. Last year, President Xi pledged a new package of $60 billion worth of loans, aid and investment for Africa, showing that China’s economic interests in Africa have not changed. Facing the reality of the continued Chinese presence in Africa, the growth of Chinese Christianity through conversion abroad, as well as other international pressures from sources like the Vatican, has forced the CCP to modify its repression-heavy strategy concerning Christianity.

Moving from repression to accommodation would not be without precedent. The CCP has already embraced and rebranded Confucianism and Taoism as cultural expressions, stripping the official versions of these traditions of their more “religious” elements. The Party has even taken the extraordinary step of putting a government-chosen candidate in the position of Panchen Lama, the second most important role in Tibetan Buddhism.

And just last year, the Chinese government and the Vatican concluded an agreement by which it will allow a state-sanctioned merger of the official and underground branches of the Chinese Catholic Church (each of which holds about half of China’s seven million Catholics as members), in exchange for the Government having a say in the future election of bishops.

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Might the CCP find a way to accommodate Evangelicals and other Protestant Christians (the largest branch of Christianity in China), whose growing ranks will only swell further with the influx of now Christian Chinese coming back from Africa?

China has been compared to ancient Rome, which saw its persecution of Christians give way to Christianity, eventually subsuming and outlasting the empire. If the CCP has its choice, it might instead go the route of 17th century England, which allowed its dissident Christians to emigrate and serve as colonial emissaries while practicing their religion far away from home.

The CCP could conceivably adopt a two-pronged strategy relating to Evangelicals and other Protestant Christians: relax repression, which could satisfy the majority of underground Christians who merely want to be able to worship without harassment, and allow the most fervent Chinese Evangelicals, who want to evangelise someone, to carry out their mission in Africa instead of China.

The CCP could use the presence of this latter group abroad to strengthen economic ties, institutionalising strategies already adopted by some Chinese businesspeople in Africa who have recognised the strategic benefits of adopting Christianity as a useful way to gain social capital and tap into local networks that can open the doors to further economic opportunities.

While this may not be a permanent solution for either Evangelicals or the CCP, such an arrangement could create breathing room to figure out a long-term resolution, – and turn the current situation into a rare win-win for Christians and Communists alike.