Thousands of migrants from mainland China are trying to enter the United States illegally through various countries in Latin America. The desperate “route runners” (走线者 in Chinese) are deeply disillusioned and dissatisfied with the political and economic realities of today’s China. They desire to flee the country but lack the capital or ability to seek legal immigration by investment or as skilled professionals.

The migrants occupy lower socioeconomic levels in China. To migrate to the US, they fly to a South American country that does not require a visa for visiting Chinese citizens, then cross the dangerous mountains and deserts of the American continent, avoiding border police and trafficking mobs, hoping to smuggle themselves across the US-Mexico border into the US and then apply for political asylum. The success rate of such “route running” is usually low, carrying a high risk of denial of entry, deportation to China, or even loss of life.

Although the number of people in this group is small (3,855 Chinese migrants crossed the Darién Gap in the first three months of 2023 according to a Wall Street Journal report), it has caught attention from Western and overseas Chinese media because of the desperate and extreme measures these “runners” employ to flee to the US.

A new wave of immigration quietly rises

This group of border - crossers is only part of a new wave of Chinese immigrants. In the last two or three years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new term has quietly become popular on Chinese social media: 润 (run), along with its derivatives run xue (润学, the study or philosophy of run) and run chao (润潮, the wave of run). The Chinese pinyin for 润 is “run,” so it is a homophonic pun meaning “to flee” or “to run away from” China and to immigrate to developed countries such as the US, European nations, Australia, and Japan.

Behind this new wave of flight are disillusioned Chinese people, desperate for better economic prospects and more freedom in today’s China, suggested a Radio Free Asia (RFA) report. Even though nationalism, patriotism, and anti-American, anti-Western sentiments have grown in recent years under Xi’s rule, these dissident Chinese citizens are choosing to “vote with their feet” to “feel safe, be free and be a normal human being.”

While many of the Chinese who unobtrusively migrated before the pandemic were economic elites or successful professionals, the most recent cohort is a less educated, more grassroots assemblage, possessing fewer resources. But whether it is through wealth, skill, or the more desperate “route running,” the new wave of Chinese immigration is changing the composition of the Chinese population in the US.

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Chinese immigration history and the Chinese church in the US

In his presentation at the annual mission conference of the Chinese Bible Church of Howard County, Maryland, Yeou-cherng Bor, president of the Chinese ministry Ambassadors for Christ, pointed out that the development of the Chinese church in America has been closely linked to the history of Chinese immigration to the US. It was intertwined with the Chinese Exclusion Act (enacted in the 1850s and repealed after WWII) and the arrival of Chinese students and scholars from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia in the second half of the 20th century, who established Bible study groups and fellowships on university campuses across the US.

After the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989, a large number of students and scholars from mainland China immigrated to the United States, and a wave of “conversion fever” rose among them, gradually increasing the proportion of believers and leaders of mainland background in American Chinese churches. In the first two decades of the 21st century, another wave of students from mainland China, mostly from well-off families, arrived on the doorstep of the Chinese church. Campus ministry and returnee ministry have continued to play an important role in the diaspora mission of the Chinese church. (“Returnees” are those who came to the US to study or work for a period of time and then returned or planned to return to China.)

Because of this historical background, in the decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese churches and fellowships in the US were predominantly composed of intellectuals or professionals, and Chinese church evangelism and missions corresponded with this reality. For example, evangelistic sermons or seminars often started with the Big Bang (i.e., the relationship between science and Christianity), and church training for Christians frequently discussed Christian testimony and calling in the professional marketplace.

Challenges and opportunities for Chinese churches

The new group of immigrants from mainland China is very different from Chinese immigrants of the past decades. Are Chinese churches in the US aware of this new trend? Do they have plans to adapt mission strategies and approaches in response? Several Chinese church and ministry leaders in the US told CT they are paying attention to the new challenges and opportunities this trend brings to the evangelism and mission of diaspora Chinese churches and are already thinking about corresponding church initiatives.

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Agnes Tan, editor in chief of Behold magazine of Overseas Campus Ministries, said that the Chinese church she is involved with in California was established and led by scholars and students from Hong Kong and Taiwan in its early years, so it may not have recognized the new wave of immigration. But recently the church has been giving open seminars on topics that address the needs of new Chinese immigrants (such as how to help their children apply for admission to American universities). Tan believes that such activities are a “good outreach attempt,” but she would like to see the church “reexamine the needs of the new wave of Chinese immigrants, adjust its outreach and discipleship strategies, rekindle its passion for evangelism.”

Other leaders agree that the new trend is a good reminder for the Chinese church’s missionary strategy. “Chinese churches that are predominantly intellectual need to … broaden their mission boundaries and engage in near-cultural and cross-cultural missions, in addition to continuing to reach out to professionals, students, and visiting scholars (which is basically same-culture mission),” said Rumin Zhang, an elder and evangelist at Rutgers Community Church in New Jersey.

Zhang gave a few examples from his church’s ministry.

“Our church used to have ministry helping illegal immigrants and Chinese restaurant workers and, in recent years, has started to reach out to Indian, Jewish, and Muslim immigrants in the community,” he said. “Hopefully, in the near future, the church will also pay special attention to the new route runners and do evangelism to pay the debt of the gospel to our fellow Chinese.”

Daode Chen, a Southern Baptist pastor in Los Angeles, told CT that in his own church’s area, Chinese Christians “do notice more new immigrants coming.” From the pulpit, Pastor Chen himself has encouraged his congregation to “seize the moment” to reach out to the new immigrants. But he also believes it will be a challenge, because “in the past, the congregation was relatively unitary, mostly composed of intellectuals or middle-class professionals, whereas the new immigrants have a more diverse background. It will bring a challenge to pastoral care and the way brothers and sisters with different social status and education levels get along under the same church roof.”

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To meet such challenges, Chen reminded diaspora Chinese Christians “to raise their cultural quotient for the sake of evangelism and to actively participate in the church’s community service ministry to help new immigrants.” He has also noticed that some believers in his church have spontaneously set up “organic modes of reaching out to new immigrants,” such as running English-learning classes and organizing hikes and Chinese dancing classes.

Pastor I-Ming Huang of the West Houston Chinese Church in Texas believes that family ministry to help the new immigrants “will be an excellent opportunity for evangelism.” The Chinese church can show its concern for its neighbors by providing legal and other counseling services to new immigrants or by encouraging Christians to open their homes to welcome and build friendships with new immigrants in the community. “In response to the needs of new immigrants, our established family ministry and pre-evangelism work will need to make adjustments, especially for these recent route runners. The church must figure out new ways to minister to them.”

Charlie Wang, the Chinese congregation pastor of CrossPoint Church in Chino, California, reminds the Chinese church to become more aware of, understand, and get familiar with the “ecology niche” of the recent Chinese immigrant community. A concept developed by Harvard Chinese studies scholar Philip A. Kuhn, “ecology niche” is about “the mode of existence, main livelihood skills, and community structure of immigrants in a particular historical period and in a particular natural, social, and economic environment,” Wang explains.

“It helps the Chinese church to generate ministries appropriate to the new group of immigrants so that they can receive practical care and pastoral care and the church can bring them the benefit of the gospel,” Pastor Wang said. He also reminds us that even before this new wave, the Chinese church needed to think about mission and discipleship strategies for Chinese people from different cultural backgrounds:

Indeed, the Chinese church has long been made up of brothers and sisters from culturally diverse backgrounds who differ because they come from very different places—mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Even in the places where they used to live, there are cultural differences due to geographical and ethnic diversity and urban-rural differences. There are also cultural differences between the first, “1.5,” and second generations of immigrants in the Chinese church.

Chinese churches need to strengthen their understanding of “unity in diversity,” which the Bible has rich teachings on, and Chinese pastors need to improve their ability to pastor congregations of diverse cultural backgrounds.

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Sean Cheng is CT Asia Editor.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]