A few months ago, I wrote about why America couldn’t afford to boycott China, and in light of all the human rights incursions and trade disputes since that time, I offer an interesting article that lends a little more credence to my claim.
The AP reported today that Dallas Theological Seminary is responding to the growing number of Chinese Christians and the dearth of theological training in the Asian nation by offering government-approved online distance courses in Mandarin Chinese. The article, which appeared in Saturday’s AJC, began with an anecdote about a female Bible study leader living in Hong Kong, so I naturally assumed that the courses would be limited to that city, which operates under the “one government, two systems” policy.
As I kept reading, I was surprised to find that a group of students from Beijing—the Communist Party’s center of power—has enrolled in the courses. According to the article, it took years of talks with the Party to the go-ahead from the strict government.
With the launch of the program this fall, the 2,000-student, nondenominational seminary could only accommodate 30 students in the program, but capacity is expected to double in the spring, due to the high level of international interest it attracted.
The seminary received hundreds of applications, and Chinese-speaking students in Malaysia, Australia and the Ukraine are currently enrolled.
The online courses allow students to follow video lectures of normal class periods in Texas, conducted in English. Chinese subtitles scroll across the bottom, allowing students to follow along. Christians looking to learn both English and theology get the double benefit of being able simultaneously work on their language comprehension and study the Bible.
A quotation at the end of the article left me a little wary about the government’s intentions for letting this program penetrate the “Great Firewall of China.” Chinese laws guarantee religious freedom, but it’s a freedom tightly regulated by the government. Religious groups must be sanctioned by the government and, at least in the case of Christianity, must register churches with local officials meet at approved locations. House churches and other groups meeting in undisclosed locations, like Tibetan Buddhist groups, are banned.
Of course, every positive development in China must be taken with a shaker-full of salt. Amid concerns voiced by a China Aid Association representative that the government would try to exert its influence over the teachings of the program, a DTS spokesperson offered this answer:
Yarbrough [the spokesperson] added there have been no recruiting restrictions. "We asked that question, and the government representative made the phrase, 'As long as they can access the computer, what can stop them from taking the course?' And he said that in a positive light."
Having been to China a few times and studied the language, I know that the Chinese rarely say what they mean. For that reason, the above statement is dripping with irony, as the government goes all-out to censor dissent as the Olympic Games approach. I presume that the government will be watching DTS’ program, and if it doesn’t lead to exponential proliferation of believers, they’ll continue to allow it as an example that they are opening the doors to religious freedom and outside influences. It may be all for show, but I still stand by my belief that enough feet in the door will eventually pry it open. And maybe with theological training, the Chinese will begin to send missionaries to America.
On a related note, last week I did a video interview (now posted on YouTube) for GlobalAtlanta with a U.S. special envoy to China, Ambassador Alan Holmer, who was visiting Atlanta to spread the word about the economic issues that would be discussed during his upcoming trip to China. To read or watch the video, which addresses the trade imbalance, product safety issues, and the U.S. role in speeding China’s economic reforms, click here.
Photo by Brad Kinney, 2006