How a Chinese-Born Research Scientist Became a Daring Online Ev…

I was born in southwest China, in the Ganzi (Garzê) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. Only a few days after birth, I was sent to Chengdu, the province’s capital city. My sister and I were raised by our grandmother while my parents, both medical doctors, were sent by the Communist Party to the rural Tibetan area many high mountains away from the city, where children could not get a decent education.

I knew at a very young age that I had to get outstanding grades to enter college and avoid living in the cold and poor mountainous area. I studied hard and excelled in school.

At age 16, I went to Shanghai to study chemistry at Fudan University, one of China’s top schools. This was in the 1980s, after China had opened its door to the world. At this time, Chinese universities were quite liberal and tolerant of free thinking, and Fudan was known as one of the most “Westernized” universities.

In college, I began to rebel against indoctrination into official Communist ideology, and I wanted to learn more about Western thought and culture. But my worldview had been influenced by years of atheist education. I thought I did not believe in anything and had no interest in any religion.

After graduation, I went back to Chengdu and started to work in a research institute as a polymer scientist. After work, I played a lot of mahjong, gambling late into the night, but I was unhappy in my heart. After the crackdown on the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, I was heartbroken and lost. (I witnessed similar forms of violent suppression on the streets of Chengdu.) I sank into deep darkness and hopelessness. I could not find an answer to my heart’s questions, and life became meaningless and unbearably painful. I decided that I would leave China and go to America for graduate study, and I began preparing for the relevant tests.

Meanwhile, I started reading a lot of books on philosophy and religion. Most of the books I found on Christianity treated it negatively, but I also became friends with a few Christians at the “English corner” by the Jinjiang River in the center of Chengdu.

Arriving in America

In 1990, to make some extra money, I went with a British expedition team to the source of the Yangtze River in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai Provinces, serving as their interpreter. Out of 30 people on the team, 27 were Christian, and they used hovercrafts to go upstream on the Yangtze and access remote Tibetan villages, where they would do charity work. I spent more than a month with them on the Tibetan plateau.

We traveled on dangerous roads, braving snowstorms, mudslides, and other forms of severe weather. The team’s official Chinese hosting company, whose primary interest was making money for themselves, created additional difficulties on top of cultural, political, and natural challenges. But I observed how the British Christians prayed when facing adversity, and how they worshiped God joyfully, singing guitar-led hymns in their tent. I was moved by their genuine and selfless love for the Tibetan people, and I found myself wishing for their kind of life and faith.

In the summer of 1992, I received a graduate school admission letter from the University of Alabama, and I waited outside the US consulate in Chengdu for four days and four nights to apply for a student visa. The I-20 paperwork certifying my admission was lost when the school mailed it the first time. I had to make a very expensive international phone call to request another copy, which I finally received on the third day in line outside the consulate.

In August 1992, I arrived in America with $42 in my pocket (that was all my savings—one of my relatives bought me the flight ticket). I was ready to start pursuing the “American dream” of freedom, democracy, happiness, and scientific achievement.

But what I found was salvation in Christ. I joined a Chinese Bible study group on campus and became a Christian soon thereafter. Because I had no car, I relied on Chinese friends to take me around for shopping and other things. Christians from the fellowship offered their help, and on Friday nights they would take me to their Bible study, even though I was there mostly for the Chinese food.

Early on, I often debated with the Christians about theories of creation and evolution. Yet I was increasingly moved by the Christian charity these friends showed to me, especially because of the sharp contrast between Christian love and the “we should hate our enemy” teachings I had absorbed from my Communist education. I realized that their ability to act out sacrificial love came from faith in God, the same faith that inspired the British Christians’ love for the Tibetan people.

I also began to realize the hatred and other darkness in my own heart, and my need for salvation. On a Sunday in October 1992, I was sitting in a pew at Tuscaloosa First Baptist Church. The pastor preached an evangelical sermon about Christ’s cross and God’s love. I was moved to tears. When the pastor asked if anyone would believe in Christ and go forward to the pulpit, I stood and walked to the front, and the pastor held my hands as we prayed. I was baptized in that church only two months after arriving in the US.

Internet evangelism

After I graduated with my master’s degree in 1995, I started working in the US chemical industry, first as a scientist, then as a research and development manager. The work brought me to Arizona, then New Jersey, and then Maryland. At the same time, I grew spiritually and served in local Chinese churches.

It was also in 1995 that I started writing about Christianity on the primitive Chinese internet. Pretty soon I began engaging online with non-believing Chinese intellectuals in China and overseas. This made me one of the earliest Chinese Christian apologists on the internet.

Even though there were only a few online Christians then, Christianity was one of the hottest debate topics on the early forums that sprang up on the Chinese internet during its infancy. Debates about science and Christianity appeared on a list of “Top 10 Chinese Internet News” in 1996 and 1997, and I was one of the few Christians named on the list.

In 1996, I became one of the earliest volunteer coworkers for the ministry Chinese Christian Internet Mission. We uploaded apologetic and evangelistic materials on our website for people in China (the government hadn’t yet erected its “Great Firewall” of censorship). I also started my own personal gospel website, “Jidian’s Links,” in 1998. (Jidian is my penname, and in Chinese it is the name of the biblical figure of Gideon.)

At the end of the1990s, many Chinese online forums became popular. Christians, including myself, were active on those platforms, dialoguing with intellectuals in China about Christian faith. Many influential Chinese intellectuals were involved in such conversations.

When more useful internet platforms such as blogs, Douban, Weibo, Zhihu, and WeChat became popular in the 2000s and 2010s, Chinese Christians quickly took them up for evangelistic purposes. I started writing blogs, gradually expanding my focus beyond apologetics to cover culture and current affairs. In 2012, a collection of my blog essays, The Search and the Return, was published in China. In an official Chinese Communist Youth League journal article published that year, the author called me one of the most influential “internet missionaries” that Chinese youth should be aware of.

Protection and providence

But my evangelism in China was not limited to online writing. Before the Chinese government tightened its control on religions in 2018, there was a golden window of 10 or 15 years when evangelism was possible inside the nation itself. During this period, I went back to China two or three times each year, giving evangelistic “free and public seminars” at Christian bookstores and coffee houses run by house churches while meeting Christians and seekers in many Chinese cities.

In 2011, I became a full-time Christian worker. I joined the Chinese media ministry Overseas Campus Ministries (OCM), based in California, to serve as director of its evangelism division and chief editor of its magazine and media platforms. Through our WeChat account, we reached more than 70,000 subscribers before government censors blocked and deleted it. And we organized a Christian blogger “circle” in China to inspire and foster more Christian authors. I answered nearly 300 faith-related questions on Zhihu before my account was censored in January 2020.

While with OCM, I also served diaspora Chinese churches in North America, Asia, and Europe as a speaker and preacher. In 2019, I joined an international mission organization as a “diaspora and returnee missionary.” In January 2022, I was “seconded” to Christianity Today to serve as Asia editor. In my two years at CT, we have published not only hundreds of Chinese translations from English, but also dozens of articles originally written in Chinese. I will continue to serve the global Chinese churches through my mission work as well as my media ministry.

When I came to the US 32 years ago, my parents expected that I would become an outstanding scientist. I did well as a scientist in the chemical industry, but my parents never anticipated that I would give up that career and become an internet missionary writer and editor. Many of the Chinese forums I frequented no longer exist today, but occasionally I still get direct messages from Chinese Christians who say they knew me through my online presence when they were still atheists. Some have gone on to become full-time ministers or missionaries. They are amazed that I am still actively evangelizing on the internet and through Christian media.

Thinking back on my journey of life, I am more convinced than ever before that I have nothing to boast in except God’s grace. He worked in my heart when I was struggling in China. He led me onto the internet, and into apologetics and missions, in his own timing. My journey has been full of his protection and providence. As one hymn puts it, in words I can heartily affirm, “by his own hand he leadeth me.”

Sean Cheng is a Christian writer, media editor, and diaspora Chinese missionary based in Maryland. In 2022, he published a book in Chinese, Above All Things, on the topic of science and Christianity.

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