Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China, at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm. It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music. In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.
In my previous post, I shared how China has shaped me to remember the struggles of our past and rejoice in the resurgence of the past two decades. But I must admit that behind this phenomenal effort to make China great again, there are also many people who were overlooked and neglected. Although at times, I, too, wanted to ignore and overlook them – because they are a smack in the face of our hard-won national pride – my faith in our Lord Jesus Christ has opened my eyes to see these people and grieve for them. As I have begun to see and interact with them, they have fundamentally shaped my own beliefs. I certainly do not pretend to speak for all the Chinese people that have felt left behind by their own country; I only want to offer here a glimpse of some people that I have come to know.
When I traveled back to China in 2011, I witnessed the astonishing growth of my hometown Guangzhou. I also traveled up north to the ancient capital of Xi'an and climbed Mount Hua, one of the tallest mountains in China, but the images that were seared most deeply in my mind were moments of sharp contrast between wealth and poverty. I remember an elderly lady picking through the trash in the middle of Guangzhou's busiest shopping street, while no one paid attention to who she was or what she was doing. I couldn’t forget the image of two tall residential skyscrapers right next to a dark, crumbly apartment building. I watched an old man in his 70s climbing up the steep steps of Mount Hua, while two heavy loads of food weighed on his shoulder by a bamboo stick. He was one of the locals hired by businesses and restaurants to ferry merchandise up the mountain to satisfy the demands of thousands of tourists each day. Too often in Chinese society, extreme poverty and extravagance exist side-by-side, providing a visible contrast between those who benefited from China's recent prosperity and those who are left behind.
I have a relative who came to the United States in 1990. He was extremely fortunate to be able to leave the country because only a year earlier, he was part of a national student protest movement that eventually culminated in the Tiananmen Affair on June 4, 1989. He came as a poor international student, earned several masters degrees from American universities, and is now earning a six-figure salary from his home. By both Chinese and American standards, he has made it to the Promised Land, but it would not take long for anyone to notice the anger and bitterness he feels toward China. He was part of a youth movement filled with hope and pride for their own country, only to have their hope and pride dashed overnight as their country turned the guns on them. Disillusioned by this event, he carried his distrust for authorities overseas and trusted only in his hard work and money. Although many have drifted overseas and come to faith in Christ, many more are still trapped in their anger and bitterness.
Thanks to WeChat, I’ve been able to reconnect with many of my classmates from elementary school. Some of them have studied overseas and are having successful careers, while others are hoping to catch the wave of prosperity and make a decent living. But material wealth has not removed the doubts that cloud their sky: can we ever make enough money to afford our own home? What is happening to the moral fabric of our society? Is material pursuit all there is to our lives? While they are not overlooked in the same way as the first two groups of people – in fact, China may even point to them as models of prosperity – they have a hunger that no material wealth has yet able to satisfy. Each time I go back and meet up with them, our conversations quickly turn spiritual and reflective, and not by my own doing. As they hear about my life in America, and know that I am a Christian, it does not take long for them to genuinely ask, “What is missing in our lives here?”
All of these people have been overlooked by the rise of China in different ways. Some of them are neglected and disillusioned by their country’s actions, while others have lingering doubts about the direction in which they are heading. Whether they are busy scraping together a living or adding to what they already have, China's gospel of prosperity and international respect have little impact on the poverty of spirit in their lives. This material gospel has not only failed to fulfill the spiritual hunger in their hearts, but it has also sacrificed on its altar the many traditional virtues that held Chinese civilization together for millennia.
China has risen to be an economically rich country, but it lacks rich social and moral fabric; the alarm bell rang through the hollow body of a little innocent girl. In the early evening of October 13, 2011, a two-year-old girl nicknamed Little Yueyue was playing outside her family's hardware store in Foshan, China. She was run over twice by different vehicles. As she lay injured in the middle of the street for nearly ten minutes, security cameras captured at least eighteen different pedestrians passing by and ignoring her. Some stepped around her, some spotted her and picked up their pace, one motorcyclist stopped, looked at her, and kept going. When she was finally discovered and taken to the hospital, it was already too late. The two-year-old girl died of her injuries eight days later.
This incident stirred reactions across China. Many saw it as a sign of the apathy and moral depravity in modern Chinese society, while others reflected on what they would have done in that situation. As it shook the conscience of the Chinese people, even up to the highest levels of government, almost everyone was forced to ask, “What has happened to the souls of the Chinese people?”
And yet this incident also brought me back to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5. The 19th pedestrian that evening was a 55-year-old lady named Chen Xianmei. She saw Little Yueyue lying on the street and quickly went over to remove her from danger while searching for her parents. After Little Yueyue was taken to the hospital, Chen visited her parents and even offered the family money to help with the medical bills. Chen was not wealthy or educated. Out of all the pedestrians that evening, she was perhaps the poorest. She was a garbage collector on her way to collect more cardboard papers to sell. Like the little girl lying on the road, she was perhaps often overlooked and neglected by people. Like the Good Samaritan, she was perhaps not well respected by her own society, but in her own poverty she saw the poverty of another, and in her act of compassion, she reminded a nation what has been lost in the pursuit of wealth and success.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). These individuals are overlooked by their society in different ways, but they shared the same poverty in spirit, and our God calls them blessed. “We have this treasure in jars of clay” that far supersedes any prosperity and international respect. Our Lord laid down everything, including his own heavenly glory, so that the imperishable treasures of his kingdom can be given to the poor. Jesus was condemned, betrayed by his own friend and neglected by his followers, to demonstrate God's faithfulness toward the disillusioned and embittered. Jesus took men upon himself and they weighted him to the ground, so that we may rise and hear God’s cheer and love for us as his children.
I rejoice for China and I grieve for China, and I pray, I pray, I pray for the people in China, that “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)
RMB is not needed here, dollars are not necessary; all that the Lord asks in exchange is our full reliance on him, and all that belongs to him will be given to us.