It is beyond the scope and purpose of this short article to outline the different viewpoints on a complex international dispute. But this controversy is likely to continue for a long time. Whether or not we agree with China’s position, we hope more Christians will better understand the Chinese people and pray intelligently for the different stakeholders in the restive region of the West Pacific.
To reach any people group, we need to learn about their worldview, which is shaped by how they interpret history and contemporary events, among other things. We also need to realize how people around the world react to the U.S. and her diplomacy will influence how they receive us. We do not have to agree with their views. But if we could articulate understanding for where they are coming from, it will open the door for dialogue and meaningful conversations.
Disturbing News from Asia
September 11, Japan announced plans to “nationalize” three islands that are part of the Diaoyu-Senkaku territorial dispute with China since 1971. This came one week before the 81st anniversary of Japan’s occupation of N.E. China in 1931, which was the first step to full-scale invasion of the country as part of WWII in Asia. In terms of cultural trauma for a nation, 9-18 to the Chinese is what 9-11 is to Americans.
By September 15-16, anti-Japan demonstrations in China deteriorated to riots in many cities. On the 18th, protests occurred in over 180 Mainland cities as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
September 22, the U.S. and Japan held their first ever joint amphibious assault drill in Guam to “retake an island occupied by enemy forces”.
October 14, as demonstrations in China quieted down, the U.S. and Japan announced another plan for a 12-day, 47,000-men joint military exercise in Okinawa. The “island retake drill” was later cancelled after strong protests from the Chinese government. But the large scale exercise proceeded on November 5 as “routine U.S. protocol” with her Asia-Pacific allies.
Rumors and Facts
It is widely believed that demonstrations in China Mainland had tacit approval from the government, perhaps even supported by certain factions in the Party. However, protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan were grass-root initiatives. Those in Hong Kong were led by pro-democracy activists critical of Beijing.
While not much public attention was given to the Diaoyu-Senkaku dispute on the Chinese Mainland until the last decade or so, it has always been a hot issue in Hong Kong and Taiwan, surfacing every few years since the 1970s. In January this year, a visit to one of the disputed islands by right wing Japanese politicians triggered a series of incidents as activists from Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong all made their trips to the islands. In July, coast guard vessels from Taiwan and Japan even collided as they patrolled the area.
In September, the Japanese government’s move to “nationalize” the islands escalated the conflict. With the transition of national leadership for China in November and Japan in December, politicians in both countries needed to project strong leadership in foreign affairs as they struggled with their troubled economies and other domestic problems. So stoking the fire of nationalism and playing right-wing politics should not surprise anyone.
How Chinese People Feel about the U.S.
As the unfolding saga hit news headlines across China, a 60 year-old chauffeur in Shanghai said to a Chinese American couple, “I have always seen Americans as friends. Why are they joining Japan to bully us? Doesn’t the world need better Sino-American relations?”
In Hong Kong, when thousands marched in anti-Japan protests in September, an American flag was burned in the former British colony for the first time that anyone could remember.
While journalists and academics across Greater China denounce the violence that has disgraced all Chinese people and damaged the legitimacy of the protests, many also criticize their own government for ineffective diplomacy. And there is general disappointment that the U.S., with her influence and professed neutrality on the territorial issue, has failed to be a peacemaker by holding repeated military drills with Japan during this sensitive time. Some also question whether the U.S., cognizant of the dispute by 1971 whether the islands were historically a part of Taiwan, had intentionally “planted a bomb” in Sino-Japanese relations when she returned the islands to Japan as part of Okinawa in 1972.
Given the backdrop of long-standing Sino-American tensions over issues from currency exchange rate to the much publicized American ploy to “contain” China, an intensified Diaoyu-Senkaku dispute in the years ahead could raise anti-U.S. sentiments among the Chinese as the U.S. continues to support Japan in honor of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the two countries. A 52 year-old policy from the Cold War era continues to impact the 21st Century world order. The conflict between two Asian powers is further complicated by U.S. involvement.
How This Could Affect the Church in China
In light of these events, some Chinese Christian leaders are concerned that the cause of the Gospel in China could suffer. How so?
To begin with, most Chinese people still see Christianity as a foreign religion. Worse yet, the Chinese government basically views Christianity as a tool of infiltration by the West that is potentially hostile to China for a variety of reasons. Sadly, in the eyes of nationalistic compatriots, Chinese believers are adherents to Western culture and sympathizers of the West until proven otherwise.
Although Christian influence is declining in the U.S. and there are more Christians in the majority world than the West today, America is still perceived by much of the world as a champion of Christianity. So it is understandable that Sino-American tension or conflict leading to anti-American sentiments among the Chinese people could translate into anti-Christian sentiments directed against the Church in China. This happened in the 1920s.
A Lesson from History
In the early years of the Republic, many Chinese intellectuals were attracted to Western models of democracy. But when the 1919 Treaty of Versailles gave former German colony, Shandong, to Japan, incensed Chinese intellectuals turned to the newly founded Soviet Union that promised a path to end global imperialism. Former admirers of Woodrow Wilson founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
A year later, when the World Christian Student Federation met in Beijing, Chinese students and intellectuals launched the Anti-Christian Movement (1922-27) as part of an anti-imperialist campaign around the country. Influenced by Marxist doctrines, religion was denounced as opiate of the people, and Christianity as cultural imperialism. The saying “one more Christian, one less Chinese” still haunts the Chinese Church today.
Despite warnings by quite a few prominent Chinese intellectuals, nationalism is on the rise in China. Will anti-U.S. and anti-Christian sentiments also grow with more territorial conflicts like the Diaoyu-Senkaku dispute in the days ahead? It has been observed that whenever Sino-American relationships are tense, the Church in China feels the heat from both the government and the general public. Thoughtful Chinese Christians are praying that history would not repeat itself.
How to Pray for China, Japan and the U.S.
We need to pray for Sino-American relations. They impact the entire world. The international community has reasons to be concerned that the Chinese and Japanese governments could both turn increasingly nationalistic in the foreseeable future. The consequences are grave if conflicts escalate among the world's top three economies.
In obedience to I Tim 2:1-4, let us pray that leaders of these nations will be worthy of their offices. Pray that the U.S. will be an effective peacemaker as a world leader. Pray also that men and women of peace, versed in history, culturally sensitive, impartial and committed to international justice, will have key roles in their respective governments.
In Xi Jinping’s first public address as the new General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, he appealed to the international press community to promote mutual understanding between China and the world. Let us pray that public opinion will be guided by fair-minded journalists who respect history.
Let us pray that public opinion will be guided by fair-minded journalists who respect history.
Let us also pray for cultural and educational exchange among the Chinese, Japanese and American people to further understanding, friendship and good will. Public opinion matters, especially in this internet age.
Pray that good scholars with academic integrity in China and Japan will produce good research and engage in productive dialogue to determine what is true and just as they uphold the cause of international justice and peace above their respective national interests.
Instead of flexing military muscles to back their stance, pray that Chinese (Mainland and Taiwan) and Japanese governments will be willing to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal For the Law of the Sea. Pray that public opinion in both countries and internationally will promote this.
Finally, let us pray that Christians in both China and Japan will be effective messengers of the Gospel that brings repentance and forgiveness, so there could be healing and reconciliation even between historic rivals.
Reason for Hope in a World of Chaos
The Diaoyu-Senkaku conflict is but one of many territorial disputes that China has with her neighbors. Meantime, Russia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, even Thailand and Cambodia, not to mention India and Pakistan, are all embroiled in disputes with each other over water and land that involve maritime routes, oil, natural gas reserves, and more. The U.S. is involved in most of these conflicts because of her interests in this region.
Moving forward, the Pacific Century will be anything but peaceful, even as the Muslim World stretching from Afghanistan to West Africa is also torn apart by ethnic, political and religious clashes. These places are home to many unreached people groups. As we enter the Advent season under gathering storm clouds, why are we not to despair? Let us be reminded that history is God’s story:
“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places... And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24: 6-8, 14)
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace! (Psalm 29:10-11)
There is never a good time for missions. But God sent his faithful servants to China in the midst of chaos, tragedies and injustice—Opium Wars, Boxers’ Uprising, 709 unequal treaties. The Chinese Church survived and grew even during the Cultural Revolution. With his sovereign promise, we look to the Lord of the harvest, pray for workers, and stand ready to be sent.