Several years ago while teaching a course at the University of Maryland, I became aware of a group of Chinese Americans who took it on themselves to personally welcome every international Chinese student to the school. They’d do airport pick-ups, get-togethers, parties and field trips.
It was a godsend for the new arrivals in more ways than one. First, they instantly had a group of friends that spoke their language.
Secondly, this group was made up of evangelical Christians whose mission was to see that before these students returned to China four years later, they’d gotten exposure to a Christianity they’d never get to see in their native land. I was dimly aware of similar groups doing similar outreaches on other campuses, but not until I saw a pair of articles from Foreign Policy magazine on foreignpolicy.com, did I realize how wide the evangelistic net is spread.
The magazine has come up with two very detailed stories of how Chinese students are flooding into private secondary U.S. schools with the full knowledge and blessing of their atheist parents and how the vast amounts of Chinese studying in American universities have turned out to be an enormous mission field for American Christian groups. The first piece starts thus:
It is no secret that Chinese students are pouring into the United States; over 300,000 of them attended U.S. colleges and universities in 2015 alone, and Chinese are filling up spots in U.S secondary schools in search of a better education and an easier route into U.S. universities. Less widely known is that at the secondary level, most Chinese attend Christian schools -- even though they come from the world’s largest atheist state.
Because of restrictions on foreign student enrollment in U.S. public high schools, Chinese secondary students headed Stateside overwhelmingly attend private institutions. And Chinese parents don’t seem to care if that institution has a Christian underpinning. According to data obtained by Foreign Policy from the Department of Homeland Security via the Freedom of Information Act, 58 percent of the F-1 visas issued for Chinese high school students in 2014 and the first three months of 2015 were for Catholic or Christian schools…it’s nonetheless remarkable that in an officially atheist country, where children are taught to abjure Western religion, so many parents seem willing to send their child to schools founded in religious principles ranging from Christianity, to Judaism, to Scientology.
Now here is a religion story about a topic I’ve never seen addressed in any publication.
The article goes on to say the students (and their parents) are attracted by the high quality of education in private schools; that having to attend mandatory religion classes doesn’t faze them a bit and that when these private schools advertise overseas, they don’t play up their religious aspects.
This piece didn’t give data as to how these schools were affecting students’ spirituality. That was available in the second piece, which came with a headline: “Leave China, Study in America, Find Jesus.”
An aside: Before anyone complains that introducing religion to international visitors is suspect, I’ll remind them of what the Saudis did in the early 1990s when American troops were stationed there during the Gulf War. That’s right: they converted several thousand of them. Finders, keepers, losers, weepers, I guess you'd call it. There's that First Amendment thing, too.
The second article begins with the account of a visiting Chinese student named Cai. Then:
Cai’s path to faith is one followed by thousands of young Chinese who have come Stateside to study, but ended up embracing Christianity. While firm statistics do not exist on the number of Chinese converts in the United States, it’s clear that a rapidly increasing number of Chinese students, including Cai, have come Stateside to pursue higher education; more than 304,000 Chinese studied in American colleges and universities in 2015 alone, many hailing from large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. China is the largest secular country in the world; young Chinese people often identify as atheists, although many may have visited a Buddhist temple to pray for good luck before an exam, or celebrated traditional festivals with roots in Chinese folklore. Public preaching is forbidden there, and the Communist Party-state oversees all religious matters, often with a heavy hand. Meanwhile, the state-controlled educational curriculum emphasizes patriotism and socialism, promoting a purely materialistic and scientific worldview. ...
U.S. universities are the first places that hundreds of thousands of educated young Chinese are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely. Sensing an opportunity, on-campus Christian fellowships and churches have gone out of their collective way to help those fresh from China. At some universities, Christian fellowships and churches assist Chinese student associations with pick-up services from airports and temporary housing at Christian homes before school housing becomes available. Some even take new Chinese students on trips to shopping malls or help them move into their rooms.
What follows is an evenhanded discussion of how Christian groups do everything from providing English discussion groups to Mandarin-language maps, along with a serving of the Gospel. There’s more than enough spiritual choices at most universities and no one is forcing these Chinese to accept the Christians’ overtures. But the chance to discuss a topic that’s banned by their home governments is too good to pass up.
One thing that didn’t get brought up in either article was the reception these newly converted elite students will get when they return home.
Persecution of Chinese Christians is at a 10-year high, so the welcome mat may not be there for these new believers. And when these students go back to China, are they active in a church? Usually students who are sent overseas are the cream of the crop. Is the United States unwittingly converting the people who will lead China in a few years?
The magazine doesn’t tell us all that, but the churching of overseas Chinese has got to be having an effect. I'd also be interested if anyone else other than evangelical Protestants have aimed their sights on newly arrived Chinese.
So let's give a star to Foreign Policy for unearthing such an interesting trend even though we don't know how that's going to change the situation back home.