Signs of hope in China
Signs of hope in China

Signs of hope in China

Understanding the dangers and opportunities of the Central Kingdom.

December 1 st 2008
Appears in Winter 2008

John F. Kennedy delivered this statement in a speech in Indianapolis on April 12, 1959: "When written in Chinese the word crisis [weiji] is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity." Noting the potential for danger in China, Napoleon said: "Let China sleep. When she awakens the world will be sorry." For China and the world, dangers and opportunities are massive.

The Central Kingdom is now open for business. The hype on China is ubiquitous: "opportunities abound" and "fortunes made every day"; "Made in China, Olympics 2008"; "the largest untapped consumer population in the world." Huge numbers are becoming followers of Jesus. Dangers also abound: poisoned dog food, defective drugs, lead-painted toys, owning US$541 billion in U.S. Treasury bills, the world's largest armed force in terms of the number of active troops. If China achieved the ability to deliver nuclear bombs to North America, support rogue states and bully its neighbours, the Central Kingdom could become North America's central crisis in the 21st century.

China's door has swung open and banged shut often in history. In my lifetime, China has walled out foreigners or executed them as foreign devils, walled people into the "workers paradise," banished them to "re-education through work" farms during the Cultural Revolution. Now, China gives foreigners tax breaks to come and set up businesses.

In 2000, my wife and I slipped through the most recent China "opening" when I left the position of Deputy Attorney General of Virginia to teach law in China. Having raised three children and becoming empty-nesters, the most radical thing we thought we could do was to teach the rule of law in a land where there is no rule of law. After three months at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., we plunged into Asia following the lead of Chinese and American friends who said, "Come and it will happen."

It did. We met an American lawyer practicing in China whose firm had established a "chair" of law at major Chinese law school. He introduced me to the dean who permitted me to teach American law and procedure, trial practice, and constitutional law. Students all spoke English and most carried a heavy class load. Despite thirty credit hours of law classes, they flocked to this non-credit course. We studied how to establish the truth in court through admissible evidence and competent witnesses, how to crossexamine a hostile witness, and argue to a jury. At the time, none of these skills was taught at the law school. We joined the ranks of thousands of English speakers who travelled to China and found people eager to learn the secret to Western success: learning English. China's huge demand for English speakers is a wonderful opportunity for North Americans.

The Tiananmen generation

We met men and women who were at Tiananmen Square crisis in June, 1989, when tanks rolled into Beijing. They are a discrete generation of people, now 35-45 years old, who have become disenchanted with communism. They claim that the regime killed the "best and brightest" Chinese students at Tiananmen because students asked for democracy and an end to corruption. Their memories are China's living history. While the rest of the world knows much about June 4, 1989, very little is on the books in China. Even today, people use hushed tones when referring to "The June 4th Incident." Young people are acquainted with only the official version of the "incident" in their text books. The government that sponsored the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward (both unmitigated disasters), and Tiananmen Square lost its ideology but remains in power. From the ashes and tears of Tiananmen emerged a generation of educated men and women, many of whom, surprisingly, found Jesus.

Many Tiananmen Chinese became our friends. They opened up their homes, their lives, hopes, and fears. We found that we were considered "safe" and could be trusted with details of life in China. Why? Perhaps because we were older (grey hair is respected in China) or simply because we had no ability to communicate with other Chinese. Almost immediately, we were entrusted with their mostly sad life stories. Our very first encounter with our young hostess who met us at the airport led us to a KFC restaurant where she poured her heart out. Getting to know one Chinese helped to understand all of China better. China is a place of deep friendships.

The relationships

Relationships or guanxi are a key to understanding China. guanxi is as valuable as money. Such a high premium is placed on friendship that in the market places you hear: "This is efriend price,'" meaning the best price given only to friends. Loyal friendships were a great source of help with getting along in China as well as a source of clues about what people really think, and why they act the way they do. Our landlord and landlady were our best friends before becoming our landlords. I suppose our Chinese language malapropos let our friends see how really helpless we were. For instance, the word for landlord in Chinese is fangdong. It was easy for us to get syllables and accents mixed up. So, introducing our landlady to another friend I introduced her as my dongfang which apparently means "honeymoon night." The look of reserved astonishment on their faces gave way to laughter as we found out the meaning of my words of introduction. The opportunity for fun and friendship seems unlimited.

The foreign devils

In Old China, foreigners were known as "foreign devils." We appear and act so strange. On a threehour train trip to coastal Qingwangdao, we found that our presence on the "hard seats" attracted lots of attention from the common folk who used that part of the train. We wanted to practice our limited Chinese with people and had learned the phrase: "Wo xiang xue nide yuyan." "I want to learn your language." No one could understand us. Repeating and repeating this phrase with charade gestures, we were relieved when their faces lit up because they had finally figured out what we were saying. Hoards of passengers then came around and pointed to things to teach us its name in Chinese. If a student of English was in the group the intense curiosity led to questions about our favourite basketball or athletic team and whether we knew the basketball player Yao Ming. A three-year-old on the train helped us to learn to count in Chinese. At every stop, passengers left and new ones got on the train and the same drill was repeated. Intense curiosity, staring, suspicion, initial contact, lack of understanding our Chinese, a breakthrough, three-year-olds becoming our teachers—followed by smiles, acceptance and friendly faces. We were the "foreign devils" taking the opportunity to become human.

The migrants

Millions and millions of migrant workers build and staff China's bourgeoning cities. They earn less than $800 each year, work twelve hours per day (seven days per week)—without residence cards, without schools for their children, without life and health insurance. The economic miracle of China is built on the backs of migrant workers. The greatest imminent danger to the present regime is its dissatisfied migrant labor force whose protests exceed 80,000 incidents each year. Never before have migrant workers had the opportunity to carefully observe on TV how the country leaders and monied class live in luxury.

We were fortunate to find a lovely woman from a distant province for our housekeeper. Our housekeeper, maid, advisor, cook, bill-payer, and friend—all in one—made it all possible. With a cash economy, one must stand in line at various places to pay one's bills. While it is not impossible for non-Chinese speakers, it is difficult and time consuming. She did it all with a smile. She is a member of the migrant class who makes it a pleasure to return to China.

The foot massage: for twelve dollars, an eighty-minute back and foot massage starting with warm tea water and ending with joudzi (dumplings) and soda pop. Then the complete back massage: six dollars for an hour of finding the knots in my back and pressing them away—with hands, elbows, feet and knees. At first, I was determined not to cry out or even whimper when my masseuse bore in on those knotted muscles and non-compliant flesh. But that was nearly impossible. With green tea and massages, one could live forever in China. Danger or opportunity?

A legal aid in our city established for migrant workers tries to rectify some wrongs done to these people. One Chinese legal aid lawyer asked his new client to come into his office and have a cup of tea. The migrant worker, a small man with gnarled hands and a stolid, sundarkened face, began to weep. He had never been asked by anyone to sit down and have a cup of tea. The migrant situation is a powder keg ready to explode.

The neighbourhood

We decided to move into a Chinese neighbourhood rather than a district reserved for Westerners. We found that Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter were good excuses to invite friends and neighbours (migrants and their children) over to explain the meaning behind these "Western" traditions. Sometimes my wife and a translator would go to the shops in our neighbourhood and invite migrant workers there to visit our home as guests on these important days of celebration. They would first take off their shoes in the hallway, slowly enter the apartment and gaze with wonder at the inside of our home. The mix of ancient Chinese and modern furniture, carpets and Chinese art with along with photos of our family allowed them to gain a picture of life in an American family. For the average Chinese family the home is a utilitarian place where one takes quick meals and sleeps, but entertains others at a local restaurant. This visit allowed our neighbour to assuage a curiosity about Westerners.

Soon kids on the street (many taking English in school) were calling us "uncle" or "auntie" instead of "lao wai," "old foreigner." Children were eager to practice what they learned in school and to read the elementary reading books we brought from home. Sometimes we visited the restaurant where their parents worked—a small room, three tables, chairs and noodles for sale, on a dusty, unpaved street.

While the average tourist is impressed by sky scrapers and modern appliances, a short trip off the super highways will reveal Old China. Just a mile from Starbucks and Wal-Mart is a part of town which looks like it could have been Jerusalem in A.D. 30. Hot water is carried home in large thermoses from a central boiler, usually by aging grandparents. Narrow, crowded streets absorb the wastewater and all the detritus is pitched out or left about. Last year's garbage, cement telephone poles, and motor parts are in the dust which flows out of the desert on to the cities. Slowly the street level rises and artifacts are trapped for archeologists of the 23rd century to discover. When it rains in Beijing, for instance, (which is very seldom) these streets gush with ooze composed of the latest "stuff."

The time

Except for Chinese characters on signs, everything seems familiar when you first land in a major east coast city. Without venturing further west, one could conclude that China is much like cities everywhere with skyscrapers, clover-leafed super highways, and fast food chains. But upon further investigation one finds that everything is different. In China, even time is different. People plan to bear children with reference to the Chinese lunar year. Being born in the Year of the Dog may be better than being born in the Year of the Rat. Such superstitions have persisted even under suppression in the 20th century. We naturally assume that there is a past, present, and future—a beginning and an end. In English there are twelve grammatical tenses including passive and auxiliary verbs. In Chinese there are far fewer tenses, some of which can only be determined by the context of a sentence. Time is not linear as in the west with a beginning and end, but cyclical conforming to changing seasons or phases of the moon. In the Central Kingdom time is subject to command. Why, for instance, are school and work schedules dictated by the Central Committee in Beijing? Everyone knows that a vacation will occur during the first week of October, but it is a state secret as to the exact day on which it will begin and end. Why is there only one time zone in a country which spans at least four time zones? The differences in thinking and assumptions are so substantial and subtle that you will not recognize them at first but will be unable to adequately describe them to friends. Even our most basic assumptions about life may be different in China.

The history

Do you know the dates, causes, and results of the Opium Wars or the Boxer Rebellion and the Rape of Nanjing? Every Chinese school child knows the answers to these questions. All of these events in Chinese history mean foreign intervention, defeat, and humiliation of the Chinese people. Since government owns the media, textbook publication, and education facilities, the government has stressed certain events and eliminated others from memory. Every spring reminds Chinese of the humiliation China took at the hands of the Japanese in Nanjing. Despite numerous apologies and foreign aid from Japan, gifts of technology to fight pollution, enormous trade, and common ancestry—including roots of language—government continually urges anger toward Japan. The only public demonstrations permitted have been against Japan.

Then there is Taiwan: Never mention it. It is a crisis about to happen. The subject of Taiwan is emotional, and a flashpoint for world tension. Party propagandists have painted themselves into a corner by making Taiwan's amalgamation into Mainland China a raison d'etre for the regime. The Straits of Taiwan is one of the most dangerous stretches of water on earth. Should Taiwan formally declare its independence, war is likely.

The change

Rudyard Kipling wrote: "A fool lies here who tried to hustle the east." Many have come to change China and failed. The Yale professor Jonathan Spence concludes in his book, To Change China, that while many have come to China with the object to change her, she takes the new technology and rejects the new ideology. From Mateo Ricci of the 15th century to the Russians of the 20th, they have tried and failed.

However, one man, not mentioned by Spence, may have succeeded where others failed. He is the father of the China Inland Mission now known as OMF. Hudson Taylor went to China in 1858, moved into the neighbourhood, learned the language, and adopted Chinese dress. He and his co-workers led many to faith in Christ so that today there are millions of Chinese who look to him as their spiritual father. Recently our Chinese language tutor invited us to his little apartment where he lived with his wife and young daughter. After serving delicious hand-made noodles, and hearing a concert by their little girl, our teacher brought out a wad of newspapers from a secret spot in his room. Carefully unwrapping those newspapers, he let us touch his Bible, handed down through four generations of followers of Jesus (probably a gift of Hudson Taylor's OMF missionaries). During the Cultural Revolution, his parents hid this Bible in a hole in their back yard, digging it up in the evening to gain strength and comfort for the day ahead.

No one knows the full extent of these Chinese followers of "The Way," but reliable estimates are from 50 to 100 million believers. One recent authority, David Aikman, believes that with the present growth in China, this country will be the biggest missionary sending country by the mid-21st century. Yet in the last eighteen months before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China has expelled over a hundred foreigners accused of "illegal religious activity."

The treasures

The treasures of China are not limited to the Great Wall or the Forbidden City. The treasures of China are in many North American cities. In the U.S. alone, over 60,000 mainland Chinese scholars spend one to five years. Many come with great expectations for meaningful relationships but are never invited into a home for dinner. Over 70% of the foreign students in the U.S.A. never see an American family in their home. Hospitality and relationships are easily understood by Chinese guests who find much in this culture to be very strange indeed. One friendly person can make all the difference. Inviting a Chinese student home for dinner could open a new world for you. Walk the streets of any university or major city in North America and you will find that the world has come to you yielding unprecedented opportunities for friendship and good will. Look: the world has "moved into your neighbourhood." And remember the Gospel of John (1:14, in The Message paraphrase): "And the word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood."

Bob Metcalf
Bob Metcalf

Bob Metcalf has served as an Adjunct Law Professor in Beijing for most of the past decade, including teaching and lecturing at Peking University, Tsinghua University and China University of Law and Political Science. Prior to that, he served as the Deputy Attorney General in Virginia, as the Cabinet Secretary (Health and Human Resources) in Virginia's Office of the Governor, partner in a law firm, and Executive Director of the Virginia Medicaid Department.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?