Understanding Legalities in China
Happy Monday to you all! I hope you all are well! Although my blog is primarily focused around the Great Commission, I have had 20 years experience in China, so in relation to my international experience, it’s mostly come from my work with China Resource Center in China. Since I often continue to get comments like “I didn’t even know you could do what you’re doing in China!” I thought I would re run a section of my book that deals with coming to China and learning how the game works there. This is from Chapter 3, with several changes. Please read it with an open heart and learn from the people I’ve learned from.
‘The onslaught of foreign companies who have set up operations in China is staggering. Since China’s reopening to the West, over three decades ago, over 600,000 foreign companies have been lured to invest in China, and many of them set up offices and operations in China. I can guarantee one thing about every one of those 600,000 companies: each one had to register with the appropriate State agency that oversaw their area of industry, and each one had to pay the appropriate taxes and file the appropriate annual reports with State agencies. They also had to learn and abide by the Chinese laws dealing with their industry. By following these steps, the Government allows them to legally stay in China and continue their operations. They know this process is a reality for doing business in a foreign country.
Given this reality, I have always found it odd that only the foreign Christian community thinks it is acceptable to work outside of the laws of China.Over the last thirty years, thousands of Westerners have taken the Gospel to China. Most of these foreigners have taken a clandestine approach to ministry, due to their perceptions of their inability to openly work and live in China. By working full-time in a non-Christian job, which gives them legitimacy to legally live in China, they conduct Christian ministry during their free time.Normally, their sending agencies instruct them to be very careful about their speech, because Chinese governmental authorities listen to their phone conversations or to conversations they have with others in public. They must watch what they say to whom, because they don’t know when they will be ‘found out.’In my opinion, the fear of danger and the concept of safety have caused people to take the will of God back into their own hands. In the discussion of changing Western perceptions, I believe this is an important missing piece of the puzzle: when a Westerner comes to China, he has his ‘Western goggles’ on. He views life and discerns situations differently. The culture and environment in which each of us grew up helps us to see life from a certain perspective.
The Western concept of law implies that there is a direct relationship between the laws and how they are implemented. For example, when a person exceeds the speed limit and a policeman tracks his speed on a radar gun, a definite penalty is set by the law for that infraction. If the person is traveling twenty miles over the limit, the penalty is X; it’s always going to be X – no questions asked.
In China, where relationships take precedence above everything else, people are the rule of law, not words on paper. In any given situation, the person with authority has the right to implement the law or policy of his own choosing; he can even implement a law that conflicts with the written law. Most of the Chinese assume that this liberty is a right belonging to the person in authority. The application of laws is fluid in nature. In some cases, the Chinese know that the application is more relaxed, and in other cases, the application is more restrictive. A Westerner who has arrived in China deduces one of two things:
1. Comply with Chinese laws or policies with Western rigidity; or
2. Disregard all Chinese laws, assuming they are all equally arbitrary, and assume that any individual has the right to exploit them for personal benefit.
The problem here is that the Westerner doesn’t have the context within which to discern which laws are flexible and in which situations. Why do they lack the context? It’s simple: they are not Chinese! The Chinese people, of course, have grown up in this environment, and they completely understand this interpretation of the law. They find it interesting that we Westerners would think of these things differently.
Given this context, it seems to me that the onus is on the Westerner to figure out this situation, upon arriving in China. The foreign workers must assume their positions properly within the confines of the written law. We are the guests and newcomers, and it is therefore our responsibility to understand and abide by the laws. Due to our lack of experience, we do not yet know the degree of flexibility in the application of these laws. This is further complicated since that the application will change from one Government department to another. As we begin our ministry, we must wisely act within the solid line of the letter of the law. Once we begin to understand the language and culture, we can begin to push out a little and test the application of the laws.
As you try to understand this concept, there is a great quote from a Chinese pastor as he was helping me understand China:
“If there are fifteen Government regulations out there, you foreigners should follow all of them, since you are guests in this country. However, we Chinese might choose twelve of them that we follow carefully, but three of them we’ll challenge, and try to get our Government to reconsider. If you foreigners challenge the Government, you force us to choose between loyalty to our Government or to a foreign group. Because of the history of foreign Christians in China, it is better if you stay here long term, building relationships, supporting and encouraging us as friends, as we, the Chinese, lead the way for change in China.”
If the outsiders are the ones challenging and disobeying the laws, it puts our new Chinese friends in a tough situation.
Let these truths sink deep into your mind and heart, because I know they are not intuitive for the Western Christian. It is possible to come to China as a learner, to take a back seat for awhile while you learn which laws are interpreted in what ways and who you can trust. Be careful when coming to China to be aware if your actions are a blessing or if they are a curse to the local Christians. I’d welcome additional questions about this and I will be dutiful to respond to your questions!