China and the Restored Church


The attention of the world has recently been focused upon China, since the government of the People’s Republic of China was officially seated in the United Nations, in place of the government of the Taiwan-based Republic of China. Many nations have now recognized the Communist government in Peking as the actual government, and some of these are countries with substantial Church membership—Canada, Mexico, Britain, and France.

While the United States government continues to recognize the government on Taiwan, new diplomatic initiatives have been made in Peking, the most important being the visit of President Richard M. Nixon to China, where he held significant talks with Chinese leaders on a wide variety of international political questions. The visit of the U.S. president to China was the beginning of U.S. withdrawal from involvement in the Chinese civil war, which has been in progress since 1927.

The modern Chinese revolution actually began about twelve years after the establishment of the Church and two years before the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. In 1842 Great Britain, by virtue of victory in a war with China, demonstrated the military superiority of the West to China. Somehow, the Western powers also got the idea that military superiority granted political, social, and cultural superiority as well.

For the next century China’s internal problems were severe. The alien Manchu (Ch’ing) dynasty was crumbling, the government was weak and unstable, the population was growing rapidly, and the whole social structure was disoriented.

In January 1921, Elders David O. McKay and Hugh J. Cannon arrived in Peking for the purpose of dedicating China for the preaching of the restored gospel. Prior to that time there had been only one effort by the Church at missionary work in China. For four months in 1853, three elders had worked in Hong Kong, but they had been defeated by the strange language, the inhospitable climate and food, and other discouragements.

Elders McKay and Cannon were not insensitive to the problems of China. They observed the large numbers of Japanese soldiers along China’s railways, the famine and unrest stalking the land.

Elder McKay, in dedicating the land, prayed that these burdens would be lifted and that the government would be stabilized, “if not by the present government, then through the intervention of the allied powers of the civilized world.” He also prayed that the bands of superstition would be broken.

But the time for the fulfillment of this hope had not yet come. Less than six months after this dedicatory prayer, the Chinese Communist Party was formed. Initially it was composed of a handful of intellectuals influenced by the Russian revolution of 1917 (mainly because the new Bolshevik government had renounced territorial claims in China).

Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the revolutionary movement that overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911, was also influenced by the Soviets and sought aid from them in consolidating his own political movement. Sun had not been successful in unifying China, even though he had led the overthrow of the Manchu. He was literally powerless while China was continually dismembered by Chinese warlords and foreign imperialists.

However, in 1922, with Soviet aid and advice, Sun formed the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), joined with the Chinese Communists in a united front, and began a genuine political and social revolution in South China.

After Sun’s death in 1925, a struggle for power occurred in the Nationalist Party. The winner was a young, energetic military officer, Chiang Kai-Shek, who immediately prepared for a military campaign to unify China.

Chiang began his “northern expedition” in 1926–27 and was overwhelmingly successful in the initial stages. City after city fell to the advancing nationalists; however, more rifts were occurring in the party itself.

Chiang and his closest advisers apparently became convinced that their movement could be successful only if they enlisted the financial support of Chinese entrepreneurs and foreigners; consequently, they turned on the more nationalistic radical elements of the Kuomintang, the Communists, and attempted to destroy them. Thus began a civil war between the Communists and Nationalists that has continued to this day.

For a time the Communists were driven underground. However, scarcely had Chiang achieved nominal political control than the Communists began to challenge him again. The Japanese also began moving increasingly into Northeast China. Chiang initially tried to stamp out Communism and nearly succeeded in 1934, but the Communists escaped his encirclement and moved into North China, claiming that they had declared war on the Japanese and were going to fight.

The anti-Japanese propaganda issued by the Communists was extremely effective in mobilizing public support for their cause. In 1936, when Chiang went to Sian to inspect anti-Communist operations, he was kidnapped by one of his own generals, who had been influenced by the Communists’ anti-Japanese propaganda, and was forced to negotiate with Chou En-Lai. The result was a new united front between the Nationalists and the Communists, this time directed against the Japanese.

The new united front was little more than a paper agreement and was not observed by either side in practice. As the Japanese began full-scale operations against China, the Kuomintang troops were quickly defeated, and Chiang was forced to flee to the remote areas of west-central China. The Communists remained behind the Japanese lines, organizing a guerrilla movement, developing clandestine government, and preparing for the day when the Japanese would be defeated.

During World War II the Nationalists grew progressively weaker, while the Communists grew stronger. Fearing the Communist threat, Chiang committed his best forces to containing them, rather than fighting the Japanese.

When the war ended, Chiang moved, with U.S. assistance, to recover areas occupied by the Japanese. As it turned out, the Communists were too strong. From their rural base areas and with much support among the people, they reversed the tide of Chiang’s movement. It became clear by 1947 that they would be victorious. By 1949 Chiang had been defeated and had fled to the island of Taiwan, where the Nationalists continued to claim to be the legitimate government of China.

Only a few months before the Chinese Communists established the People’s Republic of China in Peking, Elder Matthew Cowley of the Council of the Twelve visited Hong Kong for the purpose of initiating missionary work. The handful of missionaries called to Hong Kong remained only a few months because of the continuing Chinese Revolution and the outbreak of the Korean War. A permanent mission was not established until 1955.

One reason that the Chinese Communists have been successful is that they have strongly identified with two goals held by the majority of the Chinese people. The first goal was based upon Chinese nationalism and sought the independence, territorial unification, and integrity of China. The second goal was that of social reform, which would enable China to become a great power and cause the livelihood of the people to improve.

What many members of the Church may not realize, possibly because people sometimes tend to interpose their own values and beliefs on other societies, is that the Chinese Communists were considered to be legitimate by the vast majority of the Chinese people. Part of this legitimacy accrued because of the violence with which the Chinese Communists eliminated certain segments of the society, namely, the landlords and the big businessmen. To the people these groups symbolized China’s backward society and foreign oppression.

This does not mean that the Communists have always been popular. As from time to time they have turned their efforts from nationalistic goals to goals espousing a Marxist ideology, they have lost support among the Chinese people. However, when Mao Tse-tung said in 1949 that the Chinese people had “stood up,” he was expressing the true aspirations of the people, and as long as the Communists espouse Chinese nationalism, they will likely remain legitimate in the eyes of the people.

In his writings of later years, Elder McKay noted that superstition was the greatest obstacle to the preaching of the gospel in China. The Chinese revolution has also been concerned with superstition, or more correctly, the value system of traditional China.

The Chinese Communists have waged an extensive battle against the traditional value system of China, and they have been partly successful. While many old ideas and attitudes have not been eliminated, in such areas as the emancipation of women, the overhaul of the educational system, and the improvement of the livelihood of peasants, they have begun to change traditional patterns of life. However, they have not been successful in implementing a new value system based on Marxist-Leninist ideology.

As an intermediary to implementation of new values, the Chinese have relied on a temporary belief structure often referred to as the “thought of Mao Tse-tung.” Mao’s thoughts range from profound philosophical treatises on the state of mankind to commonsense exhortations such as “Serve the people.” To the Chinese people they fill a temporary psychological need created by the destruction of old ideas and values. Consequently, it is not unusual in China to see miraculous events ascribed to the “thought of Chairman Mao.”

Many members of the Church are inclined to see the Chinese Communists as evil because of their hostility toward Christianity, which is one consequence of the atheistic nature of Marxist-Leninist ideology. But one of the greatest reasons for Communist hostility in China toward Christianity has been the record of many Christian missionaries there.

Even as early as 1852, Elder Hosea Stout observed that the Christian missionaries in China were “of the upper circles, luxuriating upon the cent [sic] society at home, and the miseries of the people in that region.” While Christianity did accomplish some good in China, it was often considered an arm of foreign imperialism. Humiliations and abominations were committed upon the Chinese people in the name of Christ, and often the missionaries demanded from the Chinese people obeisance normally reserved for Chinese nobility.

Perhaps the attitude of the Communists will soften as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints demonstrates its lack of concern in obtaining temporal and secular power in this world. It will not be an easy bridge to build, but the Church has a good chance of building such a structure in time.

In 1955–56 the Church resumed missionary work in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and this time a more permanent foundation was established. The Church has grown rapidly in both areas, so much so that the members were divided into separate missions in 1971. Presently there are about four thousand members in Hong Kong and five thousand members in Taiwan.

Chapels have been erected, the Book of Mormon has been translated into Chinese, and other scriptures are now being translated. Moreover, local members have increasingly accepted primary responsibility for the building of the Church in both areas.

As the Church has prospered, so have Taiwan and Hong Kong. Both areas now enjoy a prosperous living standard in Asia second only to Japan. Yet both areas also face serious political, economic, and social questions that will have bearing on the future of the Church there.

When the Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland in 1949 and went to Taiwan, several million people were already living there. Some of these Taiwanese resented the incursions of the “mainlanders,” as the refugees were called, particularly when the latter took over the political power.

Today there are about two million mainlanders and eleven million Taiwanese on Taiwan. But while the Taiwanese control much of the economy, they are still not permitted to achieve high political office. Some of the more militant Taiwanese have formed a Taiwan independence movement, which is suppressed in Taiwan but functions in the United States, Japan, and some other countries.

Fortunately, the political gulf that sometimes causes resentment among the two groups of people on Taiwan has not seriously affected the Church. Nearly all of the branches in Taiwan have people from both communities working together to build up the Church. Church positions are held without regard to background and are based upon worthiness.

Perhaps the most pressing questions for Taiwan and Hong Kong are related to how their governments will interact with China in the future. Generally speaking, there are three considerations for Taiwan and Hong Kong that will affect the Church.

The first suggests that they will continue much as they have in the past, remaining independent and continuing to maintain a healthy economic growth rate.

The future position taken by the United States and Japan toward Taiwan will have some impact; if they are supportive, then Taiwan will likely continue to thrive. The same is true for Hong Kong. China has made no effort to ask the British for the return of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong is continuing to prosper. If conditions remain essentially the same, the Church will likely continue to grow steadily in membership and local leadership.

The second alternative is more applicable to Taiwan than to Hong Kong. Taiwan may give up its claim to legitimacy as the government of all China and seek recognition as an independent republic. This concept is opposed by both the present government in Taiwan and the Communists in Peking.

Should the internal and international situations develop and Taiwan become independent, the outlook for the Church would probably not change very much from the present situation; the Church can likely continue to maintain a viable program of growth and development.

Hong Kong almost certainly will not become independent, and that is a problem. Many of the citizens are indifferent to economic and social problems, since they feel that they have no role in community development. They have long since passed the “fight for survival” economic situation that plagued Hong Kong during the early 1950s; however, there are still significant pockets of poverty. Overcrowding is also a problem.

Members of the Church are not indifferent to this situation; as one young member recently pointed out, “The gospel challenges us to seek improvements not only in our own lives, but in the lives of those around us.” Yet, community participation is sometimes difficult and discouraging under a colonial government. Many Hong Kong residents feel that the Hong Kong government still practices discrimination against Chinese in certain phases of policy; nevertheless, many local Church members have become involved in community work.

The third, and perhaps most challenging, alternative is that Hong Kong and Taiwan will be reincorporated into mainland China in the near future.

Many people in Taiwan have given up the idea of going back to China as military conquerors, but not all have given up the idea of going back at all. Both the Communists and the Nationalists would like to have a unified China; consequently, there have been a number of proposals to end the Chinese civil war.

One proposal is that Taiwan should become an autonomous region of China, acknowledging the sovereignty of the Peking government but maintaining its own identity as a province with its present government remaining relatively independent. Another proposal is that Taiwan should gradually become integrated with mainland China, with both sides working out the arrangements.

Some of the most competent political observers in Hong Kong believe that Hong Kong will be incorporated into China in the next ten years. As Peking’s currency gains international reputation and the Chinese Communists develop their own port facilities, much of the reason for Hong Kong’s existence as a separate political entity may be removed. The British do not appear likely to retain Hong Kong if the Chinese Communists seriously want it back.

This uncertainty has produced some tension among the people of Hong Kong, including members of the Church, because the Peking government has been unrelentingly hostile toward religious organizations. Communist newspapers in Hong Kong, for example, have attempted to belittle and discredit the Church.

It must be remembered that the primary goal of the Chinese has been the building of China into a recognized world power. As the Chinese Communists have worked toward this goal, they have made internal and external compromises. Ideology has frequently been changed to fit the situation. For this reason, many observers of China predict that the government will become more moderate, particularly as a new generation of leaders takes power.

This does not mean that China will become more tolerant of religious organizations immediately, but it does offer some hope for the future. Meanwhile, all members of the Church should be united in prayer for the well-being of Church members in Taiwan and Hong Kong and for the ultimate goal of preaching the gospel in China.

Brother Heaton holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. He served as a missionary in Hong Kong and is presently a member of the Tucson Second Ward, Tucson (Arizona) North Stake.