Finding God in Africa: How Chinese expats are changing Christianity

Finding God in Africa: How Chinese expats are changing Christianity

Chinese expats in Africa are becoming increasingly religious, as things come full circle with China now exporting missionaries along its One Belt, One Road initiative.

Just the Basics

  • China continues to be one of the largest exporters of religious literature, and increasingly a builder of houses of worship in Africa

  • As more Chinese live and work in Africa, many are converting to facilitate ties with their African counterparts

  • Chinese missionaries are increasingly viewing China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) network as a means to spread the goods news

In 2017, a young couple - Michael and Christy - left their comfortable home to journey to northern Iraq. Living on the border of ISIS-controlled territory, they came to help the Yazidi people - a minority group targetted by the extremists. Spurred by their strong faith, the couple work with the community, aiding them in any way they can, and hoping their example will persuade the locals to convert to Christianity. You have likely formed a mental image of the kindly couple, but Michael and Christy are not from the Middle America, bur rather the Middle Kingdom: Michael and Christy are Chinese.

China's overseas investment via the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) framework is leading to increasing numbers of Chinese expats residing all along OBOR’s path. Millions of overseas Chinese are drawn by the allure of economic success, and are being ferried to far-flung lands in the service of Chinese companies. Much has been written about China’s growing international influence, with no region generating more analysis than Beijing’s presence in Africa.

The comparative advantage of Chinese construction and resource extraction companies has led to over a million Chinese citizens making Africa (as of 2012- current numbers are invariably higher) their home - a sevenfold increase since 1996. China’s impact on the continent is obvious, from ports to roads to mines sprinkled across Africa. Alongside these traditional investments, an increasingly important element in the portfolios of Chinese construction companies is the erection of religious buildings.

At a time when their compatriots back home are dynamiting the churches that have mushroomed across the country, Chinese construction companies are winning contracts to build churches across Africa. The economies of scale and other logistical advantages which Chinese firms enjoy in other endeavours are being carried over to church construction. “China is now winning contracts to build churches because its corporations out-bid those from elsewhere,” notes Jesse Mugambi, professor of religious studies and philosophy at the University of Nairobi.

Not only is officially atheist China building houses of worship across Africa, its mega-corporations are also playing a vital role in spreading the good news - literally. Despite Beijing’s own misgivings about religion and proselytization, it appears to have no qualms in supplying the rest of the world with religious literature. Specifically, one quarter of all the Bibles printed worldwide are printed in China: the world’s largest Bible printing factory opened in Nanjing in 2008.


Having come to Africa with Beijing's mega-corporations, many overseas Chinese are turning to religion to finding meaning and better integrate into African societies.


Within Africa, China plays an even greater role, as the Middle Kingdom supplies a substantial portion of bibles used in Africa. For instance, some three-quarters of Bibles used in Kenya are printed in China. While initially bizarre, China’s mass production of Bibles is only a logical extension of its export-centric economic paradigm. Ironically, these mass-produced Chinese bibles are finding their way into the hands of overseas Chinese, increasing numbers of whom are embracing religion.

When doing business, it helps having God on your side

As growing numbers of Chinese expats in Africa come into contact with religious ideas in settings devoid of Beijing’s strict oversight, many are choosing to convert. While the Chinese government maintains that only 1.5 percent of the mainland population identifies as Christian, this number is a blatant underestimation given the popularity of underground churches. While a similar ratio of Chinese expats are labelled as Christian, overseas Chinese communities in Africa are seeing an upward trend in the number of the faithful.

Whereas, there are some 350,000 - 500,000 Chinese in South Africa, only fifteen Chinese churches with an average congregation of thirty individuals are documented by South African researchers. This translates into just 0.13 percent of South Africa’s Chinese population adhering to Christianity. Such a miniscule percentage is (if the numbers are taken at face value) dwarfed by Beijing’s extremely conservative estimation of 1.5 percent. The religiosity of South Africa’s Chinese population should at least mirror that of mainland China (according to Beijing’s own calculations) if the former is representative of the mainland.

In such a discussion we should exclude members of the long-standing South African Chinese community, namely those several generations removed from their ancestors in China, and focus on the Chinese expatriate community. One element to consider is the possibility of the replication of China’s underground or ‘house church’ phenomenon among its expat communities in Africa. A growth in home churches among overseas Chinese would complicate any census of religion in Chinese communities in Africa in the same way it constrains tallies on the mainland.


Another element to consider is that with many Chinese entrepreneurs and foreign workers in Africa able to converse in English (and to a lesser extent French) there is less of a need for Chinese-specific churches to arise. By living in societies which are openly religious, Chinese expats are likely to become more religious by osmosis. This trend is aided by the efforts of local African churches to reach out to Chinese expats, such as bilingual Bible study groups. Consider networks such as the Southern African Chinese Outreach Network and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) which engage with the Chinese communities in various African states. “We are praying that many South Africans will continue to learn the Chinese language, culture […]” notes one OMF worker. “[South Africans should] increase their commitment to share the love of Christ with the Chinese.”

By having Afrikaans/English and Chinese churches collaborate, the OMF is moving closer to its vision “for a prayer movement for the Chinese diaspora, for pastors and/or missionaries from China - specifically trained to minister to the Chinese in Africa, for ministry by local churches to Chinese churches, and for support of [Chinese] Christians returning to China.” These efforts have led the OMF to open branches in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

For example, Chinese expats in Kenya report that church attendance breaks down racial barriers and provides them with one of the few means to engage with the local population. “For Chinese residents like us,” notes long-time Kenyan resident Mr. D from Shaanxi province in northern China, “Jehovah’s Witnesses is not only a church that forsakes all kinds of racial prejudices but also an ideal place for interacting with local people.” Shared spirituality also builds bridges and gives Chinese and African parishioners common ground on which to form relationships. Moreover, Chinese entrepreneurs note that by converting to Christianity they are seen as more trustworthy business partners, as well as benefiting from more favourable opinions about the Chinese community as a whole among Kenyans as a result.

In past years, there were surprising overtures by the Chinese government to study and learn from the relationship between overseas Chinese churches in Africa. In 2011, a delegation from China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs toured Uganda and Kenya to learn about how Chinese and local African churches interact with government. Wang Zuo’an, the religious affairs minister in charge of the delegation even noted that he hoped to establish relations between African and Chinese churches. For their part, African religious leaders appealed to the Chinese delegation to improve the treatment of Christians in China.

This meeting came just a year after Beijing blocked a 200-strong Chinese church delegation from attending the 3rd World Congress of Lausanne in South Africa in what would have been the first time participants from Chinese house churches attended since 1949. Consequently the aforementioned 2011 fact-finding mission seeking insights on state-church separation and coexistence looking promising at the time; however, Xi Jinping’s 2012-2013 ascension and ensuing consolidation of power has led to a marked increase in religious repression.

In certain ways, African churches have more success in attracting Chinese converts than some of the established Chinese churches in the region. Primarily run by missionaries from Hong Kong or Taiwan, these Chinese language churches may be viewed with more suspicion by mainland Chinese. Fearing to entangle themselves with both religious and separatist (in the case of Taiwan) links, mainland Chinese may be wary of non-mainland ethnically Chinese church leaders. Any such misgivings are also in line with Beijing’s own rhetoric on the matter, with state media outlets repeatedly highlighting the foreign (read non-mainland) nature of Chinese missionaries abroad.


Indeed, Chinese missionary groups from Hong Kong and Taiwan are looking to recruit mainland Chinese religious leaders in order to capitalize on the success of their house church movement to minister to mainland Chinese in Africa. While current estimates are fuzzy, there are around 1,000 Chinese missionaries serving overseas, with Chinese churches on the mainland hoping to increase this number to 20,000 by the end of the next decade.

Touching on the success of the home church movement, Cui Quan, pastor of the Wanbang Missionary Church in Shanghai notes that “it’s Chinese style missionary work. We don’t build churches and we don’t need much organizational structure. We survived the Cultural Revolution, so we have the experience.” Cui’s church has some 20 missionaries overseas, missionaries which - ironically - are using their experience in the crucible that has been Beijing’s track record of religious repression to cause headaches for the Communist government abroad.

Similar sentiments are expressed by Michael and Christy, two Chinese missionaries in northern Iraq, who until recently were living on the doorstep of ISIS territory. Speaking anonymously to South China Morning Post, Michael explains the fervour that drew him and his wife to aid the Yazidis in northern Iraq: “In China, our faith has been heavily repressed. When faith is hard earned, it is more genuine and sincere.” Mutual experiences of religious repression aid the couple’s efforts in connecting with the Yazidi community. The couple’s story is another indication that Beijing’s effort to stifle Christianity is only breeding more resolute devotees.


African churches are ramping up efforts to appeal to the growing Chinese diaspora in Africa


Unsurprisingly, almost all Chinese missionaries are from underground churches, which makes their foreign endeavours of double concern for Beijing. Firstly, the government’s aversion to power structures outside its control, combined with its suspicion of organized religion makes any links between underground churches and foreign lands / congregations highly suspect. Secondly, the influx of Chinese missionaries into foreign lands put Beijing in the hot-seat when things go wrong.

In 2017, two Chinese missionaries were killed by ISIS in Pakistan after preaching to locals as part of a Korean-led missionary group. State media was quick to paint the deceased as looking for trouble and in league with dangerous foreign elements. In conjunction, the Communist Youth League went on social media warning Chinese of the nefarious and wily ways of South Korean missionaries infiltrating the mainland. The Global Times went further, with the headline “Scoop! The truth behind the kidnapped Chinese people in Pakistan: Sure enough it's Korean people’s fault again.” Korean Christian aid workers had been previously killed in Pakistan, and criticism of Korean groups leading Chinese people astray meshed well with the heightened tensions between Seoul and Beijing during the summer of 2017 over the deployment of U.S THAAD missile defence systems.

The incident in Pakistan also leaves Beijing with egg on its face as it undermines one of China’s key mantras - that of non-interference - which it uses to court other countries. The fact that Pakistan is a major player in OBOR and that the two Chinese in question entered the country with business visas, only to misuse them put China in a difficult position. Concerns about China as a purveyor of neo-imperialism dovetail nicely with this incident: a modern rendition of the 19th century cliche of ‘faith following the flag’ - a phrase describing the religious baggage which (for better or worse) followed on the heels of colonial adventurism.

They let [Chinese Christians] straight through. The last thing they would think [a Chinese person could be] is a missionary.
— Danny Lee, director of Back to Jerusalem UK

This sentiment was echoed last year by a Taiwanese pastor during a Christian convention in Hong Kong: “China [has] made a name for itself as an exporter of capital by becoming a source of foreign investment for Silk Road nations, but [China is] set to become the world’s largest exporter of Christian faith [as well].” The connection between the spread of OBOR and the proliferation of Chinese missionaries is an under-reported one, and one that could continue to develop in the years to come.

Having forced the most fervent portion of its population to disguise its faith, Beijing has created a legion of Chinese Christians highly adept at avoiding detection, making anyone a potential proselytizer in waiting. “We have the Belt and Road policy, so there will be economic entry. Alongside the economic entry will be companies and other groups entering, including missionaries,” notes Cui. The Chinese government must now worry about the kind of subterfuge that so frightened Cold War America, only instead of hidden communists in their midst, the omnipresent bogeyman is the hidden Christian. Chinese Christians seeking to spread the gospel have piggybacked on China’s increasing openness and the lessening of foreign travel restriction. 


OBOR's six proposed trade corridors (in black), Maritime Silk Road (blue) and members of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank - AIIB (orange) | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


Chinese missionaries are also exploiting existing preconceptions about China and the Chinese people, notes Danny Lee, the UK director of Back to Jerusalem, a Chinese missionary organization. “They let [Chinese Christians] straight through,” states Lee - “The last thing they would think [a Chinese person could be] is a missionary.” Lee goes on to mention that his organization’s goal is for a minimum of 100,000 Chinese missionaries working in 51 states along the Silk Road.

This line of thinking is not new - although it is enjoying a revival in recent years. In fact the Back to Jerusalem movement can trace its roots to the 1920s, when Chinese Christians in Shandong province began agitating for a campaign to spread Christianity westwards from eastern China towards Jerusalem. Such a spread is seen as a means to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the campaign gained momentum from followers further inland, such as in Henan province. The growing power of the Chinese Communists in the 1940s led to a crackdown on the movement, with supporters underground for decades.

Growing exposure to Christian teachings and international travel for many Chinese in the early 2000s led to a resurrection of the movement, with groups like Lee’s adopting the name outright. Since 2003, the most vocal proponent of the Back to Jerusalem movement has been Liu Zhenying, also known as ‘Brother Yun’ - an exiled home church leader. It is Yun’s goal for 100,000 missionaries and Silk Road ambitions that Lee mentions above. Overall, the Back to Jerusalem movement has merged with other terms, notably the ‘10/40 Window’ - denoting countries ripe for missionary work lying between ten degrees north and forty degrees south of the equator. This zone effectively overlaps with the scope of OBOR and China’s other Silk Road projects.

The Bottom Line

People and ideas have always accompanied the movement of goods along the Silk Road. The historical trade corridor connecting China to the West has been reimagined by Beijing as the model for its 21st century ambitions. The growing suffusion of Chinese capital and trade links is leading to the growth of Chinese diaspora in many nations. Once abroad, many are experiencing what it means to live in an openly religious society for the first time.


Far from home, and driven by both missionary and mercurial forces, many overseas Chinese are becoming religious. While African churches and established missions from Taiwan and Hong Kong are reaching out to Chinese in Africa, both groups are increasingly looking to the Chinese mainland for inspiration. Such is the nature of faith in China, that mainland religious leaders display zealous ambition, having been tempered by decades of state repression. Experts in creating grass root congregations on shoe-string budgets, increasing numbers of Chinese missionaries are leaving the mainland to Africa and other foreign lands.

Aided by the networks created by the One Belt, One Road initiative, Chinese missionaries are increasingly able to enter foreign countries under false pretenses. They are aided by a lack of awareness among foreign officials, who underestimate the possibility of Chinese visitors harbouring alternative religious motives.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Cui Qian as the pastor of Wanbang Missionary Church in Shanghai; his actual name is Cui Quan.

An abridged version of this article appeared as
China's Belt and Road: Exporting Evangelism? in The Diplomat

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.