Bribery and the Church in China

A number of Christian ministries in China consistently pay bribes to have local officials look the other way. This practice is widespread enough that some have suggested that missionaries to China must look past their ethical qualms and embrace this practice out of sheer necessity. Aside from the obvious objections to the pragmatism of this approach, a recent secular blog post has cast doubt on the effectiveness of bribes in China.

The post was written by a businessman and argues,

All of the foreigners I know who have given bribes have done so at the advice of their Chinese partners of staff.  Most of the foreigners I know continue to believe that bribes have helped them get more done more quickly in a corrupt system.  However, it’s clear from talking to them and comparing their experiences to the “clean living” lifestyle practiced both by me and a small handful of other foreign businesspeople I know that they are not only not gaining an advantage from bribing but are possibly setting themselves up for a pattern of repeat extortion.

The author does note that bribery is common in China, but he suggests that foreigners should consider playing by different rules.

Of the Chinese businesspeople I know who have specifically told me about situations where they have given expensive gifts it sometimes works to their benefit and sometimes has no obvious result.  However, unlike foreigners doing business in China, they are working from within a system that they grew up in.  One presumes that they know whose palm to grease and how to do it.  That or they only tell stories about the times that it worked.

In the case of the church in China, we should be slow to condemn the actions of house churches that use bribes to provide safety in the midst of religious persecution. However, western missionaries should also take careful thought before they adopt the practice.

Attorney Dan Harris rightly identifies pride as the driving motivation making Westerners willing to pay bribes. He writes, “I am convinced that there are companies that almost want to pay bribes so they can act like they ‘really know the system’…. I am not saying that all companies can function in China without paying a bribe at some point, but I am saying that most foreign companies can and do function in China just fine without ever paying a bribe.” Perhaps the same is true for Christian ministries in China.

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