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Hard tests for China’s Christian schools

The emerging Christian school movement in China is battling for its future amid government opposition and administrative troubles

Children play outside a church with a sign reading “Notice: Minors prohibited from entry” in China’s Henan province. Ng Han Guan/AP

Hard tests for China’s Christian schools
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The start of a new school year brings varied emotions: excitement to reunite with friends, the dread of homework, or, for parents, the relief of an empty, quiet house. But for students and parents at unregistered Christian schools in China, another feeling reigns: uncertainty. Will their school remain open all year, or will the government try to shut it down?

A shutdown is what almost happened at Beatitudes (Bafu) Kindergarten this past March, when students, parents, and teachers showed up to school one morning to find 50 security guards blocking the front gate. The scene was the climax of a monthslong battle between the church school and the local government, and in the end, school administrators had to split up the school and meet in private residences.

Today, security guards still keep watch over the empty building to prevent the school from meeting, according to Jacob Jiang, one of the school’s founders (WORLD changed his name for his protection). As teachers and parents fretted over the government opposition, Jiang reassured them: “Our name is Beatitudes, and the one blessing we lacked was ‘blessed are the persecuted,’” he said. “Thankfully God has a sense of humor. He allowed us to go through persecution so we could gain all eight blessings.”

In 2015 I visited six church schools (including Beatitudes) and three teacher training centers where I interviewed principals, teachers, students, and parents who were part of the fledgling Chinese Christian school movement. I met parents desperate to give their children a God-centered education, and saw scrappy schools with limited funding and inexperienced teachers. I sensed the palpable excitement of starting an indigenous Christian school movement, the uncertainty of students’ future prospects, and the determination to follow God’s calling in a hostile environment.

Three years later, pressure has increased on the hundreds of Chinese church schools like Beatitudes, with China’s President Xi Jinping tightening control over religion and education. The growth of new schools has stalled, and some existing schools have closed due to financial shortfalls. Schools are dealing with the uncertainty of potential evictions and face internal problems due to the inexperience of teachers and administrators. Despite the serious challenges, the Christian school movement in China is persevering: Chinese Christian education pioneers continue to teach the children however and wherever they can, whether in rented buildings or private homes. Ministry leaders are also working to train local teachers, equipping them to serve their students skillfully and faithfully.

PARENTS AND LEADERS of Beijing’s Agape Church who craved a Christian alternative to high-stress, atheistic government schools launched Beatitudes in Beijing in 2013. It was a typical Chinese Christian school startup story: These parents wanted to ensure their children not only gained academic skills and knowledge, but wisdom, morals, and spiritual growth. In March of that year, the first class of eight began meeting in the choir room of Agape Church. The school, now independent from the church, eventually grew to 150 students in three locations—a kindergarten, an elementary school, and a small middle school.

Most students at Beatitudes come from 20 different churches around the area. Fifteen percent of the students are non-Christian—even unchurched parents see the problems with government-run schools and want something better for their children.

At times, police would visit the school and tell the principal to close it for a few days during politically sensitive times. “There was always persecution,” Jiang said. “Like house churches, it does not exist in an open society … but if we compare it to past generations, things were going pretty well. It was relatively free.”

Big problems started last year when the government pressured the landlord of the elementary school to evict Beatitudes. The landlord offered to refund the school for breaking the contract, and administrators agreed to leave peacefully.

But then in January of 2018, police from eight different departments began showing up at Beatitudes Kindergarten, claiming someone had reported on the school. Jiang said that for three months, authorities came every day, sometimes both in morning and in afternoon. They claimed school administrators were violating three laws: They were illegally operating a business, illegally running a school, and illegally evangelizing to minors.

Parents of the school countered that Beatitudes, like Uber or Airbnb, was based on a sharing economy. Rather than functioning as a private school that views students as customers, at Beatitudes “parents hired teachers and school administrators to teach their children,” Jiang said. The parents also argued they were not illegally evangelizing to minors—they were sharing their faith with their own children, which is legal.

A former Beatitudes elementary school classroom

A former Beatitudes elementary school classroom June Cheng

Authorities conceded that this type of “shared” school didn’t break the law, but still decided they wouldn’t allow it to continue. They pressured the kindergarten’s landlord to evict the school, even though Beatitudes had signed a 10-year lease and spent more than $60,000 to build the kindergarten. When the school asked for compensation for breaking the contract, the landlord refused. On March 25, while most of the school’s staff was attending Sunday service, 20 unidentified men broke into the school, cut TV lines, destroyed the generator, and threw all of the furniture into a park. The parents reported the destruction to police and hired movers to put everything back in order. On Monday, school started up again as usual.

Then early Thursday morning, 50 security guards in riot gear blocked the front gate of the school. Skirmishes broke out between the guards and parents who tried to get back inside the school. One parent was beaten so severely he couldn’t walk afterward and was taken away on a stretcher, according to Texas-based China Aid.

“At first the parents felt wronged, they didn’t understand why this was happening, and they were afraid,” Jiang recalled. “But slowly they were willing to stand up and face these attacks. … Worse come to worse, they’d go back to teaching their children in private homes since this is something no one can control.”

Since the March incident, the school has hired lawyers to sue the landlord for the destruction of property, although the success of the case is uncertain.

Today Beatitudes has returned to its roots: Instead of eight students in a choir room, classes of 20 meet at the homes of parents or in rented apartments—one grade per location. Students need to quietly enter and exit apartments in order not to disturb neighbors who might complain and report them. Of Beatitudes’ 150 students, about 20 left the school after the eviction, but the rest are continuing their Christian education.

Evictions and disruptions are common among church schools unable to officially register with China’s Ministry of Education due to their Christian foundation. One person with knowledge of the situation said that most schools move to new facilities about every 18 months due to government harassment. The bigger the school, the more difficult it is to move and the more likely it is to catch the eye of authorities.

AT CHINA’S YOUNG CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS, the external problems of persecution and harassment can lead to internal problems, including a difficulty in recruiting and maintaining staff. Jerry Wolfe (name changed for his security), the founder of a bilingual school serving multiple house churches, said the constant government pressure makes it difficult to develop teachers and create an environment where the staff can see a future.

“If you constantly have to deal with existential challenges, it makes it difficult to devote the time and energy that it takes to grow,” Wolfe said. “I think the government understands … they don’t have to raid you consistently if they can create an environment that is so hard for you to flourish in, then they believe that Christians would just crack under pressure.”

In this oppressive environment, the typical learning curve for a new Christian school is exacerbated: Because they are unregistered, the schools can’t openly recruit students or teachers. And there are no legal Christian colleges that can educate teachers on how to teach from a Biblical worldview. Most teachers have attended Chinese government schools their entire lives.

Security guards block the gate to the Beatitudes Kindergarten campus.

Security guards block the gate to the Beatitudes Kindergarten campus. Facebook

For the past eight years, Margaret Zhou (not her real name) has taught at a training center in China for teachers at church schools, and she has witnessed both the challenges and blessings of this young movement. The founders of many of the schools were individuals who were passionate about giving children a Christian education, but who had no experience running a school. Groups like Zhou’s try to provide teacher training, but because of the immediate demand for teachers, most don’t have time to get more than a few weeks of training.

Zhou has seen a lack of experienced teachers who are also mature Christians. “The great need in China are teachers whose minds are transformed,” she said. “People become Christian and know the Lord, but developing a Christian worldview is a lifelong process.” The teachers who end up working in church schools often must contend with low pay, little support, and inexperienced school leaders with high expectations. The result is burnout, personality clashes between teachers and administrators, and a high turnover rate.

Some schools struggle to stay afloat financially: Zhou noted it’s common for schools to start with 20 to 30 students and six teachers. Administrators assume they’ll be able to balance the books once they attract more students. But in China, the government may take notice of and crack down on Christian schools that grow larger than 50 students. Many church schools maintain an extremely low student-teacher ratio of 3 to 1, draining the school of resources.

‘I think the government understands ... they don’t have to raid you consistently if they can create an environment that is so hard for you to flourish in, then they believe that Christians would just crack under pressure.’

Further heightening this problem, the wave of schools that started around 2010 with only a kindergarten class now have middle-school students on their hands. Middle schools require more teachers since each teacher typically specializes in a subject—and trained Christian middle-school teachers are difficult to find. Currently only a handful of church schools around the country include a middle school and high school.

Zhou believes one possible solution would be to create Chinese online middle schools, potentially solving the issues of finding school meeting spaces and finding qualified teachers in every city. Yet online education is difficult even for the teachers themselves, Zhou has found, as few have been taught how to self-study. Elementary schools would need to prepare their students for self-study so that the students could transition to online schools.

Despite the difficulties, Zhou has seen great growth. At her teacher training center, more and more experienced Chinese teachers have stepped in to lead the trainings, reducing the center’s reliance on foreign teachers for the classes. The classes cover educational basics, like how to manage a classroom of children, and provide lessons on Biblical worldview and education philosophy.

The center has also found ways to better serve schools’ needs: Instead of focusing on yearlong training programs that can help only a small number of teachers, it instead partners with several key local schools and sends a trainer there every few months for in-service coaching. In 2016, it started an online training program to reach teachers in more rural areas, and in the future it hopes to explore new areas such as special education.

As teachers come through Zhou’s program, she tells them to expect a learning curve and reminds them that the church school movement has only existed in China for two decades.

“Nobody knows how it’s going to work … you are going to create it,” Zhou tells the teachers. “Our trainees will be the future experts on how to do Chinese Christian education.”

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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