8 Myths About China Today

In order to understand China today, it’s helpful to understand this simple rule: nothing is as it seems. In fact, I would say this rule applies when observing and analyzing nearly all segments of life in China: politics, economy, social relationships, and even religion. To put it another way, whatever China seems to be at any given moment, it is in fact the opposite. This can be difficult for Westerners, because we tend to be dichotomist in our thinking, wanting something to be either this or that. We don’t do well with this and that.

Rob Gifford, in his book China Road, expresses well the confusion and bewilderment that await those engaged with China when he writes:

China messes with my head on a daily basis. One day I think that it is really going to take over the world and that the Chinese government is doing the most extraordinary thing the planet has ever witnessed. . . . The next day it will all seem built on sand and I expect it to all come tumbling down around us.

To illustrate this principle, I would like to highlight eight myths or misconceptions that abound regarding China today.

Myth #1: China is a communist country. 

What I mean here by communism is a Communist or Marxist belief system. Although the Communist Party of China (CCP), with its 72 million members, remains firmly in power, the reality is that communism is no longer a unifying ideology. China today is essentially a consumer society. Every human being is hard-wired to want more stuff; the Chinese are no different. The economic reforms of the past 30 years have significantly raised the standard of living of most Chinese, and China’s participation in the global economy means that anything can be purchased for a price. Most Chinese today are concerned with bettering their economic condition and/or accumulating wealth.

Myth #2: China is a capitalist country.

Capitalism here refers to a particular economic system where the means of production are in private hands. While private enterprise flourishes in China, many sectors remain under state control. These include key sectors such as education, media, resources, and transportation systems. The official line the Chinese use to describe their system is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” When queried about this Chinese friends usually say, “It means capitalism, but we’re still uncomfortable with the word.” What it really describes is a system where the economy is increasingly ordered along free market principles, but the political system remains authoritarian.

Myth #3: China is a wealthy, modern country.

Since most visitors to China spend their time in cities, this is usually the overwhelming impression. To be sure, many cities are extremely wealthy and modern. However, trips to the rural areas of China reveal a different reality, namely that China is still very much a developing nation, where millions of people live in poverty with lifestyles that differ little from their ancestors of a century ago. Recent statistics indicate that only 24 million people in China earn more than RMB 2,000 per month (approximately $300), the minimum tax exemption threshold. In other words, more than a billion Chinese still make less than RMB 2,000 per month.

Myth #4: China is a poor, backward country.

China has many characteristics of an emerging modern nation. There is extreme wealth, with China now lagging behind only the United States in the number of billionaires. There is a sophisticated telecommunications system, with more than 900 million cell phone subscribers. China has an ambitious space program that aims to put a man on the moon by 2025. These are not typically characteristics of a poor and backwards country.

Myth #5: People live under severe oppression.

While there was a time when fear was the dominant feature of the lives of Chinese people, the reality in China today is quite different. As the state and party continue to back out of personal lives (not entirely, mind you, as evidenced by the one-child policy) people today have many choices that were not available to them 10 or 15 years ago: choosing majors and jobs, buying homes and cars, and traveling abroad, for example. In some ways the government has made a bargain with the people: we’ll give you space and freedom to prosper economically, and you leave the politics to us. “So long as you don’t challenge the authorities, you can say and do anything” is how a friend has described it to me. It’s also important to remember that people in China are very patriotic, and they love their country deeply.

Myth #6: People live in freedom.

While Chinese people enjoy many personal freedoms today, these freedoms do not extend to the political sphere. Freedom of expression is severely limited, with no room for criticizing the government or the Communist Party. Citizens do not participate in choosing the leaders; rather, they are appointed and selected within the personnel system of the party. Further, since China’s legal system is still weak, and the party sits outside (and above) it, people are often subject to the whim of local political leaders accountable to no one.

Myth #7: Religious persecution is the normal experience for believers of all faiths.

Many people have the false impression that no religious activity is permitted in China and that believers (particularly Christians) are severely persecuted. While there was a time when that was true (1950s to 1980s), persecution is not the normal experience for most believers in China today. Religious belief has made a significant resurgence in the past 30 years. There are five “approved religions” in China: Buddhism, Daosim, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but Buddhism claims the most adherents, with Protestantism being second (perhaps 50 million to 70 million). Christianity is the fastest-growing religion, with that growth taking place in both the registered and unregistered churches. In addition, the church’s role in society seems to be expanding, with opportunities for church involvement in meeting social and humanitarian needs. In addition to the approved religions, Chinese traditional folk beliefs and superstitions are also common, especially among the rural population.

Myth #8: There is religious freedom.

While the government says it offers “freedom of religious belief,” it reserves the right to set the boundaries within which religious activities can be practiced, and those boundaries expand and contract in response to the political environment. Religious activities are supervised by the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Self-Funding, Self-Governing, Self-Propagating). All religious activities must be registered and approved, and unregistered groups are often harassed and/or shut down. The government is fearful of allowing space for competing ideologies and belief systems that may pose a threat.

If you find all of this confusing then consider, once again, this observation from Rob Gifford: “If you’re not confused then you simply haven’t been paying attention.”

  • david bartosik

    Its hard to believe but it has already been 6 years since my trip to China for a direct studies program where we interacted with think tanks, government officials, telecommunication and bank executes, and even the local church. Everything you mentioned I def. remember seeing.

    I think the things that stood out to me most was as we moved from hotel to hotel and city to city there was a grip of communism with a undercurrent of capitalism vying for power and control. It wasn’t overt. It was under the surface. Tiananmen Square reeked of communism with patrol units, portraits of world leaders, and the hisorty of the square, but in the midst of it were people selling tourist paraphernalia from their coat pockets attempting to go undetected! It was def. an inevitable tension that both existed and it wasn’t one or the other.

    Thanks for the succinct article and exposing some of these ideas for the rest of us :)

  • CG

    May God pour out his Spirit on China for his glory.

  • joe

    1.) According the China Aid, the # of persecuted Christians has been on the rise over the last 5 years.

    2.)Doesn’t the government force the removal of any reference to Christ being the king of the world?

    I recently read, Safely Home, by Randy Alcorn. It is a fiction novel, but he goes to great lengths to include factual circumstances that the Chinese underground church faces daily.

  • John Leek

    This is a good reminder of something a former Baptist ministries director said to me.

    “Nothing is true everywhere in China and everything is true somewhere in China.”

  • CEA

    @Joe I think the point of the article is to demonstrate that while China Aid may be correct in their numbers, there are also many Christians who enjoy a relative freedom from persecution. China is a big country, and the freedom that pastors have speak/teach varies from place to place.
    I hear what you’re saying about the second coming of Christ, and it’s true that “officially” that’s not supposed to be a part of their teaching. But, it’s important to know that this might not mean anything at times in certain places. I lived in China and helped lead worship in a 3 Self Church, and anytime I led, I made a point to talk about the Gospel in very explicit terms, trying to talk as much about Jesus as I could. I never was told, “You can’t say that,” or removed from my position of leadership on the worship team. But, if I had been at another church, I might have been treated differently. China is HUGE, and their legal system operates on a different system than our does, in good ways and bad ways!
    You’re very right to point out that people are facing persecution, but I think the point of the article is to point out the complexity of the situation in China. Thanks for posting this, Joann!

  • Howard

    Are there any sources that can be cited for each of these myth busters?

    • Collin Hansen

      The source is someone who has lived and worked in China for decades.

      • James

        So anecdotal then?

        That’s not a citable source, that’s hearsay.

        Don’t get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly with the article (in the same way you could apply those arguments to every country on the planet), but anecdotes aren’t evidence.

        • Collin Hansen

          Anecdotal? If someone asked me about the country I spent decades studying on a personal an academic level, where I grew up and worked and socialized, I would dare say I could speak with some authority without needing to cite The New York Times or World Book Encyclopedia.

          • Jim Pemberton

            That is the definition of anecdotal. It’s one thing to experience something firsthand; It’s another to cite a study that produced statistics that are accurate within a margin of error. Both are authoritative on different levels. Both can also be inaccurate.

  • Brian

    I’ve been living in China for 6 months or so now I find most of this to be true. The one part I’ve encountered that maybe I don’t think might be true is students being able to pick their own universities and majors. I’ve been told from my friends that depending on where you live depends on what colleges you are able to go too. And I don’t know anyone who has picked their own major, most don’t even like their majors.
    But it definitely can’t be emphasized enough for us Americans how much control and arbitrariness comes from the local government officials. Different areas have different laws and enforce different laws in varying degrees.So while in some areas the official 3 Self Church doctrines must be preached (which I hear is pretty much just moralism) in other areas the local leaders don’t care to stop the pastors from saying other things.
    Like I attend a registered international fellowship that the government has allowed us to have and freely say whatever we want, but no local Chinese are allowed to attend, only foreigners.

    • Joe Kappel

      Hi, Brian. Just thought I’d pass on what I’ve learned about major-choosing in China (at least in Beijing where I live). I teach spoken English and writing classes to both English and non-English majors at a local university. I’ve done so here in Beijing for 4 years and elsewhere in China for an additional 2. It’s taken me a while to learn what they go through from senior year middle school to freshman year university. So much depends on their college entrance exam (which they all hate!) score. In registering to take that exam in their home provinces, they can apply to the schools they’d like to attend and put down some preferences about which major they’d like to study. Depending on their score, they may get into the school of their choice and pursue the major of their choice as well. But more than likely, they’ll end up getting the second or third major choice and a university that they only sort of wanted to attend. But that can all change (even with a low score) if their parents have some money and/or connections to people with influence in the Chinese university world. That’s “guanxi,” which I’m sure you’re learning all about here, right? :)
      On top of that, some of my students took a really difficult exam at our university last semester to change their major into something they really want to study. It’s just as or more difficult than the college entrance exam, but some of them did better on the exam last semester because they didn’t feel all the pressure they felt when taking the college entrance exam.
      And then I have students who don’t even have a major yet, because they’ve enrolled in a special program where they study major subjects for a year in both English and Chinese before they declare a major in the second year. They get in that program because their college entrance exam scores were near perfect.
      That’s just some of the stuff I’ve learned about major selection for the upcoming generation of Chinese. Perhaps it’s very different where you are. And if that’s so, wouldn’t it in some way serve to verify what Joann had to say in her article?
      Blessings to you as you serve here!

  • Heather E. Carrillo

    This is really helpful. I’ve pretty much accepted #1, #5, and #7 as fact without really knowing anything about it. Thank you for this.

  • CitationSquirrel

    At any given time, you can make an observation about China that is true somewhere in the country.

    • Joann

      Yes, it is. And that’s essentially the point I was trying to make in my essay.

  • Matt Smethurst


    As one who’s had the privilege of living in China and who possesses a deep love for its people, I’d like to express my appreciation for your many years of faithful labor.

    Blessings in Christ,

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  • Lin

    I live in China. I’m a disciple of Christ and this article is full of more lies than our government. I feel you’re acting as typical, arrogant, western disciples.

    • Zhou

      Lin, how is this article full of lies?

      Your charge and judgement of the writer does not appear to befit that of a mature disciple of Christ. Are disciples of Christ not disciples with grace? I have lived in China long enough to appreciate what the writer has shared from her many years here. Sure, there are some people who would fall into your category of “typical, arrogant, western disciples” – sadly so. But Ms Pittman’s article hardly places her in such categorization, even if you disagree.

      • Melody

        Thank you Zhou, cause I definitely felt hated by Lin and I didn’t even write the article.

        Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

  • Erin

    Lin, what’s it like then?

  • Daniel Szczesniak

    Very interesting. This helps explain why I hear so many conflicting things about China.

  • Joe Kappel

    Joann, thanks for this insightful article. You’ve helped me as a pastor to expats living in Beijing to put into words what we all feel living here. And I plan to pass it on to some fellow believers back in the USA who often have questions about China. Your article would clear up most of their (and our) misconceptions.
    Blessings to you, and thanks again!

    • Joann

      Thanks. It’s not a definitive description of China, by any means. But a paradigm that has helped me navigate the paradoxes, and can hopefully help others as well.

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  • Jim Pemberton

    The Chinese economic impact on the US is equally as mythological. It’s true that the Chinese are manufacturing what we used to and we are importing much of it into the US. But the fact is that the greatest economic challenge for China is the creation of jobs for its burgeoning population. They are as dependent on the Unites States to provide these jobs as we are indebted to them for propping up our government spending. The money they loan to our public sector is a portion of the money they made off of our private sector.

    So the strategy of our government to use economic means to influence Chinese politics has partially worked although the result we see today is largely confusing. But it has resulted in some opportunities for the gospel in China, and for that I’m grateful.

  • JCS

    I used to live in China as well and think this article is very accurate. I always found it ironic that–on some level–China’s capitalism drives its communism. What I mean by that is that for most college students, being in the CP is akin to an honor’s program. If you’re in the Party in college, it will mean better job placement, higher salary, and more stuff in general. Most student I knew were eager to be in the Communist Party for purely capitalistic reasons.

    • Joann

      And Communism (or at least the Communist Party) manages the capitalism. Which is the point of my article, I guess…China is confusing!

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  • ALT

    Why is that if I write a missionary in China that there are certain rules as to which words I can say and not say. Like, I can’t even say “Bible” in an email to some missionaries I know there. How is that remotely supporting the idea that Christian persecution is not an element of China?

    • Joann

      My article does not put forth the idea that persecution is not an element of China. My point is that it is not the MAIN element, something that I believe is a misconception in the west.

      • Zhou

        I believe another general misconception in the West is that the home/underground churches are the “good” churches and the 3-self churches are the “bad” churches. This is not always the case. There are good and bad churches in both spectrums. There are some 3-self churches where the Bible is more faithfully taught than some churches outside China. Please pray that God will raise up more faithful biblical preachers and teachers for His church in China.

  • Lee

    As someone who lived in China I find that more often than not conversations revolve around these 8 myths and people tend to be shocked. The country is so big and changing so fast that whatever someone knows of the country is only true in parts of the country. The tension between “progress” and tradition plays out differently in every part of the country. Because of this tension anecdotal evidence is more accurate than some fact book or report, they simply can’t keep up with what is happening. Stats take time to collect, analyze, and process and that’s if you can even collect accurate samples. Unless you have spent time there among the people you would probably never truly understand the complexity of that nation. Christian in North America can learn a lot from Chinese Christians and vise versa. We need that relationship between fellow believers.

    • mei

      Well said, both Joanne and Lee! I am a Chinese Christian born, raised and lived in China. One thing I’d like to add is that the one rule at the beginning of this article needs to be applied to the last statement of Myth # 5 too. :)

      Oh, regarding Lin’s comment — Most likely Lin is just earning his/her 5 Mao.

  • chelsea

    I was just in China this summer on a college campus. The majority experience is that they can preference majors, but the experience Chinese college students can either choose to study what they want at a lower rated school OR a major chosen for them at a higher ranked school. Unless they happen to want to study what their testing says they should study.

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  • Franken0

    “Myth #7: Religious persecution is the normal experience for believers of all faiths.

    Many people have the false impression that no religious activity is permitted in China and that believers (particularly Christians) are severely persecuted. While there was a time when that was true (1950s to 1980s), persecution is not the normal experience for most believers in China today. Religious belief has made a significant resurgence in the past 30 years. There are five “approved religions” in China: Buddhism, Daosim, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but Buddhism claims the most adherents, with Protestantism being second (perhaps 50 million to 70 million). Christianity is the fastest-growing religion, with that growth taking place in both the registered and unregistered churches. In addition, the church’s role in society seems to be expanding, with opportunities for church involvement in meeting social and humanitarian needs. In addition to the approved religions, Chinese traditional folk beliefs and superstitions are also common, especially among the rural population.”

    Can’t believe TGC published such a cruel article. Registered churches are liberal, rejecting the true Gospel of Christ. These churches are not allowed to proclaim the sovereignty of God over the China government. And now, TGC made it as if registered churches are alright. They are not! (In fact, it seems you are contradicting yourself with Myth No.8).

    Presecutions are still the normal things to happen to true believers of Christ. Tons of believers are presecuted everyday. I thought TGC claim to restore the understanding of the true Gospel in today’s society? Then please, don’t say that registered churches in China are alright!

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