Bishop Tony Nichols was one of nine from the Diocese of Perth who visited China in April. The main purpose was to visit the Amity Press in Nanjing, the largest publisher of Bibles in the world. The tour was organized by Dr Khoo Kay Keng and led by Archbishop Roger Herft. Tony, who admits to being a China watcher since his youth, reflects on his two visits to China, 50 years apart.

1963, first visit

Mao Zedung, ‘the Great Helmsman’, was at the height of his powers and piloting this great nation onto the rocks. Up to 50 million are thought to have starved to death in his ‘Great Leap Forward’.

Christians were no longer visible. They had numbered nearly a million in 1949 when the Communists took power. Church leaders had been executed or sent to labour camps. Church properties were confiscated and became factories or warehouses.

The Bible was banned (mine was confiscated). Christianity was declared to be a tool of Western imperialism. All Protestant churches had been merged in the ‘Three Self Patriotic Movement’ (TSPM) and placed firmly under Party control at every level. Subsequently, Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966–76) brought a further wave of persecution for Christians and plunged society generally into chaos.


2013, second visit

Thanks to Deng Xiaoping (1979–97) and his successors, Mao’s disastrous economic policies have been reversed. Capitalism under Party control has delivered millions from poverty and eased totalitarian repression. However, the Tiananmen Square massacre set limits to political dissent.

Most Chinese seem to accept the focus on food before freedom and are proud that the nation has become the manufacturing hub of the world and a super power. It is also un-Chinese to question authority. Nevertheless, there is increasing criticism of greed, corruption, repression, inequality and pollution.

The changes since Deng Xiaoping have had great consequences for the church whose staggering growth has no parallel in history:

• There are probably now 100 million Christians divided equally between the TSPM and unregistered churches.

• 100 million Bibles have been published since 1988 by the Amity Press in Nanjing, a joint venture of the TSPM and the United Bible Societies. The Bible is said to be a best seller.

• The Government’s attitude to the church is changing. As one official recently commented: ‘Previously we said: “One convert to Christianity is one less Chinese.” Now we recognise that Christians are part of the fabric of Chinese society.’

• Christians are often admired and commended for their honesty and love for others. Social programmes once provided by the Government are increasingly absent in a privatized economy. Christian NGOs sponsored by the TSPM often address these needs.

• The TSPM, established to extend the rule of the Party over churches, is now subverting the system. The leadership is probably still largely liberal. But the grassroots membership is overwhelmingly evangelical. Over half a million converts are baptized into it every year. Some TSPM congregations openly run Sunday Schools and youth groups, which is illegal. Many Christians belong to both TSPM and unregistered churches. TSPM resources such as Bibles and Christian literature find their way to unregistered churches.

• Unregistered churches probably have 50 million members. Many like Watchman Nee’s ‘Little Flock’ have survived decades of persecution. The Lord has raised up great heroes of the faith like Wang Mindao, Yuan Xiangchen and Lin Xiangao (Pastor Lamb). There are some groups that are completely heretical like the ‘Eastern Lightning’ cult which follows a female messiah.

How did it happen?

• 150 years of Protestant missionary work (and 300 years of Roman Catholic witness) had left a Chinese Bible and much praying and living and suffering for Jesus. Many seeds had fallen into the ground and died.

• Mao’s Communists had wrapped China in roads and railways, taught literacy, and made Mandarin the national language.

• Mao destroyed the old religions of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Marxism became the official religion and was ruthlessly inculcated. Mao himself became a God-like figure.

• Communism established one sort of equality: everybody suffered. Christians suffered with the nation, but with more purpose, meaning and hope. The light shone in the darkness.

• The ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966–76) and then Mao’s death left a vacuum. Deng Xiaoping and successors filled this with state-controlled capitalism. Greed flourished. With both ancient religions and Marxism discredited, there was nothing for the soul.

• Deng restored a measure of religious freedom, depending on the arbitrariness of local officials. Theological seminaries were allowed to reopen. The church has been bold in creating even more space.

• Christians take for granted the authority of the Bible. Chinese Christianity is a gospel movement. The cross of Christ and his resurrection speaks powerfully to those who have been betrayed and suffered under a ruthless political and religious establishment.

• Christians are admired for their honesty and loving service to others, such as in recent earthquakes. TSPM NGOs provide social services increasingly neglected by the State in a privatized economy.

• The astonishing revival in the TSPM is hard to explain in view of longstanding liberal leadership in the State Church. But I was struck by the fact that congregations had memorized their liturgy. Psalms, hymns, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer were all recited without any books. The public reading of Scripture was also preserved. Does this have implications for our services?

• Above all the Chinese Revival reminds us that ‘The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he wills’ (Prov 21:1). We see this in the tyranny of Mao and the liberalisation under Deng Xiaoping, just as the Bible demonstrates its truth in the policies of Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Caesar. We are also reminded that God’s Spirit works where he wills. We need this perspective
in our own discipleship and ministry.

Tony Nichols is a retired bishop of North West Australia and former principal of St Andrew’s Hall (CMS Training College)and Nungalinya College