The Christian exodus from China
“Run” (润) has been one of the hottest words in the Chinese language since 2021. A clever wordplay on both the Chinese pronunciation and English meaning of the word, “run” refers to the recent trend of emigrating from an increasingly restrictive and authoritarian China for greener pastures overseas.
This emigration wave, which began shortly after Xi Jinping amended the Constitution in 2018 to abolish term limits, took off during Covid and has only accelerated since. This can be reflected in the surge of illegal Chinese immigrants arriving at the US-Mexican border. In the 2023 fiscal year alone, US Border Patrol has apprehended 24,000 Chinese migrants at the Southern border, up 1,115% (i.e., 11.5 times more) than the previous fiscal year. Chinese migrants crossing the Darien Gap on their way to the US has become a common sight, with both English and Chinese-language media offering extensive coverage of this new phenomenon.
Amongst the first of these Chinese illegal migrants is a man named Dong Zhao, who lived all his life as a member of an underground Christian house church in Henan Province, which is known to have a large network of house churches and home to many Christians. Dong claimed asylum in the US after a long and arduous trek across jungles and cartel territory; he eventually found refuge in Texas and linked up with local churches there.
Dong is far from alone in his story or journey. Ever since Xi Jinping tightened his control on Chinese society and launched crackdowns on civil society and especially organised religion in China, Chinese house church Christians have faced imprisonment, church closures and state coercion to join the officially sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement. That is nothing new. What is very new, however, is that for the first time in recent history, there are high-profile cases of Chinese Christians, even an entire congregation, leaving the country to seek religious freedom.
Mayflower Church/Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church
The most high-profile case in this recent exodus wave has got to be the story of the “Mayflower church”. A Reformed church linked to China’s new wave of urban Calvinist house churches based in China’s tech capital, Shenzhen, aka China’s Silicon Valley, Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church’s pastor Pan Yongguang had close links to the most high-profile house church pastor in China, Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Reformed church, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion of state power.
Pastor Pan was not nearly as famous as the outspoken Mr Wang, but he led a quiet congregation of around 60 people, and they had their small underground Christian school for children of the flock. However, when Pan realised that the school was no longer going to be tolerated by the authorities as the crackdown on house churches intensified, he and the elders of this small church made a daring decision — to make a run for it and leave China.
This is unheard of in modern Chinese Christian history — an entire congregation leaving China due to persecution instead of opting to stay and endure it, like previous generations of Chinese Christians did. And the Mayflower church, as they were later nicknamed, left just in time for the visa-free destination of Jeju Island, South Korea. This is because two months after they arrived in Jeju, the COVID pandemic took over the world.
Three years later, having had their asylum requests in South Korea turned down, the entire congregation moved to Thailand in the hope of eventually being granted refugee status in the United States. They had their high-profile backers — Republican US Congressman Chris Smith was one of them — as well as Bob Fu of ChinaAid, who himself is an exiled Christian pastor of house church origins. Fu, who has a close personal friendship with former US president George W. Bush, has rescued many persecuted dissidents and Chinese Christians to the US, the most well-known of which is the blind activist Chen Guangcheng.
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It took years of intense lobbying and high-profile reports by major media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press for this daring congregation to finally be granted their wish to be accepted to settle in the United States. But they had to endure one final big scare, as they were detained by Thai authorities and were almost going to be sent back to China, before urgent intervention by the US State Department allowed them to finally arrive in the US in April 2023. The Mayflower Church of China, just like the Puritans before them, finally landed in a land of religious liberty.
People like Dong Zhao and the Mayflower church are definitely the lucky ones. They managed to leave persecution and were accepted into the US, unlike many Chinese Christians who continue to languish in prison, cannot worship in their churches, or have their children forcefully sent to atheist state-run schools for education.
This is why their success has become controversial — a Christianity Today profile revealed that many Chinese house church Christians sympathised with their Mayflower brethren, but did not approve of their decision to dodge persecution and run away from the cross. This may sound strange, but Chinese Christians have a long history of enduring and even thriving during persecution. Therefore, it can be safely said that Pastor Wang Yi has more fans than Pastor Pan, who led his congregation out of China in a modern-day exodus.
A future for their children
However, Mr Wang’s own church also had a high-profile case of emigration. Ren Ruiting’s family, which endured endless harassment from government officials and police in Chengdu, decided to fly to Taiwan on 15-day tourist visas after realising the children in the family will be taken to state school and will no longer be able to receive a Christian education. They were also assisted by the abovementioned Bob Fu and managed to settle in the United States in June 2021. However, unlike the Mayflower church, most of Early Rain’s persecuted members stayed in China. Ren’s family is likely the only family in that congregation to have left China.
Of course, there are myriad reasons that Chinese Christians wish to leave China, and most still approve and are relieved that the Mayflower church has landed in Texas. Debates within the house church movement have raged regarding the existential question: to run or not to run, as the walls continue to close in and the space for house churches to exist in China itself continues to diminish.
Many Christian parents in China can no longer provide even an underground Christian education to their children, and are therefore sending them to overseas Christian schools. Many dissidents who are Christian wish to leave for their own safety, whilst aspiring pastors who can no longer receive a stable seminary training in China need to go to North America to attend seminary.
What does this mean for overseas Chinese churches as well as the future of Christianity in China? Only time can tell, but as the new wave of Christian emigrants arrives in the West, it will replenish once-ageing overseas Chinese Christian congregations and create a community within a community, as this new generation of urban house church Christians are far more politically and religiously educated than their predecessors.
As this wave of emigration continues to pick up pace, sizeable communities and entire congregations will form. Hopefully, this will allow them to continue the Chinese house church movement outside of China, and bring the seed of hope back to China when the environment permits.
William Huang is an avid researcher of China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. A product of China's one-child policy, it was only when he went overseas to study that he realised just how much damage this policy has done to the Chinese nation and his generation.
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