China: Expatriate members, branches building bridge of trust
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China has allowed expatriate Church members — those holding foreign passports while residing in China — to meet together and worship while following a handful of specific guidelines and restrictions.
The expatriate members are organized into international branches and groups, under the organizational umbrella of two international districts in mainland China, with some branches comprised of members of nearly two dozen nationalities.
"China has been a great place to raise our family in the gospel and to build relationships with saints throughout the world," said Elder Anthony D. Perkins of the Seventy and first counselor in the Asia Area presidency, based in Hong Kong.
Elder Perkins' assignment is a continuation of his own experiences in China, the country being part of the Church's Asia area. Before his call as a General Authority, he resided with his family in Beijing for eight years while helping build the Chinese operations of a leading international business consulting firm.
Expatriate Church members first started arriving in mainland China in the late 1970s as diplomats with the embassy or consulate staffs of foreign countries, followed by those assigned in Chinese offices or branches of major international corporations expanding into the new People's Republic of China market.
Increased educational opportunities and exchanges followed, bringing additional foreign members as English teachers, students and guest instructors and professors to the international branches. More recently, the latest wave of expatriate members coming to China includes entrepreneurs and owners and operators of small businesses.
Currently, the Church totals 11 international branches located in nine cities for its expatriate members in China. That excludes Hong Kong, which in 1997 was returned to China and is a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China.
Overseeing a majority of the expatriate members in China, the Beijing China International District covers most of the mainland and includes the two international branches located in Beijing (the original branch was divided last year) as well as single such branches in Tianjin, Qingdao, Xi'an, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
Split off from the Beijing District this past March, the Shanghai China International District was created to give the local expatriate Church leaders a smaller number of Church units and the ability to be closer to the members in a tighter geographical area.
The Shanghai district includes the two international branches in Shanghai and one each in Suzhou and Nanjing.
Both districts have responsibility to oversee small expatriate "groups" located in other cities — the groups containing only a smattering of expatriate members, usually a household or two or a handful of individuals.
Elder Perkins said the expatriate Church members who come to work in China are here because of diverse skills — government relations, education, business, leadership and linguistics — and contribute to the rapidly developing, ever-changing nation.
"There are outstanding people being assigned by their employers," he said. "This is [China's] economy attracting the people."
But since most of the expatriate members are in China on a temporary assignment — with foreign governments, with companies based elsewhere or with education institutions or exchange programs — the turnover rate in membership is high. Local leaders estimate the average stay is about two and a half years.
China recognizes freedom of religious belief, but it requires any religious activities comply with Chinese laws and regulations. Only certain religions are legally recognized in China.
Understanding and complying with the unique restrictions on religious activities in China has enabled expatriate members of the Church to gain the trust of the Chinese government — a trust resulting in the members here being allowed to meet together much like others throughout the world.
The restrictions for expatriate members in China include no proselyting of any kind, no distribution of religious materials and — similar to other foreign religious groups — no invitations to Chinese nationals to join the international branches' meetings or activities.
Other differences include the branches meeting in homes or rented halls since there are no Church-owned facilities in mainland China as well as the restriction against shipping religious media materials into the country.
Church leaders in China regularly remind the expatriate LDS members here of the importance of adhering to the accepted policies and procedures, so there are no misunderstandings or missteps.
The members are also reminded there are no restrictions on Christlike living, service to others and setting a good example and that their efforts to abide by the government guidelines for religious activities while in China help the Church as it continues to build bridges of trust in China.
Church members who reside on temporary assignment in the People's Republic of China speak positively about their cultural experiences and the friendliness of the Chinese people.