International Students in China: Who will reach this vast and strategic yet invisible group? – Part 1

 Wearing her hijab, “Mounia” from Yemen heard the gospel and felt the love of God in our international church because of her Rwandan classmate’s invitation and her husband’s permission. Without Arabic or visa for Yemen, instead of flying to Sana’a, we walked two meters to welcome her. From a country with 0.03% evangelicals, could she take the gospel back home?[i]

“Lazaro” from Tanzania said with resolve, “While in China, I want to fill my life with the Word of God.” He’s an active member of our fellowship, here with his wife and two little daughters, struggling with racism towards Africans, yet hungry to grow and return home equipped as a disciple of Christ. Could he strengthen the church in Tanzania?

These are some of the almost half a million international students in China, arriving from every corner of the globe into a context where cultural complexity meets contextual limitations and gospel opportunities. They form a mixed, dynamic and growing field of ambitious influencers of the next generation. Among them are the prime ministers, CEO’s, policy-makers and leaders of the future.

How can the global church embrace this opportunity?

Growth in international student population

Who knew that China is the third largest destination for international students worldwide, after the USA and the UK?[ii] With 442,733 international students in China during 2016, up 11.4% from 2015, this number has multiplied over the past ten years. It seems that, with consistent growth, high numbers, and such diversity, China is becoming the “hub of hubs” for impacting the world through international students.


Sending countries

Students come from virtually everywhere. This map from 2016 shows that international students at Tsinghua University were from 116 nationalities.[iii]


Across China, almost 60% of international students come from Asia (including Central Asia and the Middle East). One explanation may be the growing phenomenon of “glocal” students—those who pursue a foreign education while remaining in their country or region.[iv] It is cheaper and culturally more comfortable than going to the West.

However, the staggering growth is from Africa, with a 23.7% year-on-year increase from 2015. Globally, China is the leading destination for Anglophone Africans.[v] Though South Korea sends the most students from a single nation (15.93%), African students in total constitute the second largest group, with almost one in every seven being African. Scholarships from both China and sending countries drive this growth, as does China’s proactive and engaging geopolitical stance especially in strengthening bilateral economic relationships.[vi]

Most of the top 15 sending countries are Asian, and they are incredibly mixed. Eight of these—totaling almost 120,000 students—are classified as “unreached” or “minimally reached” with the gospel.[vii]

Yet, surprisingly, despite China’s reputation for control and constraint, these students can freely visit an international fellowship or engage with believing classmates. The young adult worldview exploration and reassessment engenders great openness. Is this an opportunity to reach the unreached?


[i]      “Yemen” from Joshua Project (viewed 22 January 2018).

[ii]     “China as a Destination: Trends to Date” by (published 8 September 2016, viewed 18 January 2018).

[iii]    Tsinghua “Statistics” (published October 2016, viewed 18 January 2018).

[iv]    Rahul Choudaha, “Know your international student – Global or glocal?” (published 27 April 2013, viewed 18 January 2018).

[v]     Victoria Breeze and Nathan Moore, “China tops US and UK as destination for anglophone African students” at  (published 28 June 2017, viewed 18 January 2018).

[vi]    International Consultants for Education and Fairs (ICEF), ICEF Monitor, “Education and the exercise of soft power in China” (published 13 January 2016, viewed 15 January 2018).

[vii]    Thailand, Pakistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Japan, Vietnam, France and Mongolia. See Joshua Project (viewed 18 January 2018).


First published on the Mission Nexus website on 29 March 2019.

The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

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Phil Jones

Phil Jones (pseudonym) and his wife have been working amongst international students for over twelve years, both in their home country and for three years in China. They are becoming aware of the opportunities to reach the nations who have come to China.



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