Like US exporters eyeing a potential 1.4 billion person market, the Church entering China is one of those white whales for hopeful, growth-minded Latter-day Saints (except with the everlasting gospel of the living God instead of widgets, but you get what I mean).
Every so often (sometimes rather sophisticated) rumors will spread about how China is in the process of opening up and the MTC is revving up to train missionaries in Mandarin full speed. There have been enough of these rumors that hopefully people have learned to take them with a grain of salt. However, on a deeper level the fundamentals just aren’t there, and probably won’t be for a while. First a caveat: I’m certainly no sinologist. While the track records of area specialists are notoriously bad for predicting major, disruptive political events, I have no reason to think I’m any better, so here we go…
First, the on-the-ground political reality is that, even if they play by all the legal rules (like the Church is scrupulous about doing), the PRC simply does not allow religions the kind of freedom necessary for a religious opening up. If even the Vatican still doesn’t enjoy full freedom in appointing its own bishops, I’m not super optimistic about mission calls to Beijing any time soon, no matter how skilled the Church’s government affairs people are.
Ultimately, in a very centralized, authoritarian government like the PRC, there’s only one person that matters. The PRC isn’t even like the late-20th century USSR, with a version of “balance of powers,” with different sources of power that could be played off each other and make decisions unpredictable (like opening up a temple in Easter Germany). Consequently, for China to open up the short run, Xi Jinping has to have an unexpected, significant change of heart. However, Xi keeps doubling down on the idea that you can run a successful world class economy without small l liberal values, so I’m putting the odds of that at very low.
In terms of a successor, I’m assuming he’s also going to stay in power until death. While an unspoken rule against lifetime, single-power rule settled over the ruling class in China in the aftermath (or rubble) of Mao, Xi has dispensed with that, so now we have one person who matters followed by hundreds of high level sycophants and yes-men who essentially try to channel the leader, so there’s little success of cracks opening up between shifting power structures to allow more religious freedom to slip through.
So, assuming that he’s not going to change and not going to retire, that means we have to wait for a changing of the guard. How long will that take? Xi Jinping is 68. According to the World Health Organization’s life tables, a Chinese man at that age is expected to live for about 15 more years. Of course, given that he has access to the best medicine money can buy, it’s likely that he’ll live for longer.
What happens after his successor takes over is more speculative. Within 15 years my conjecture is that it will become clear to the Chinese people that their attempted alternative to liberal capitalist democracy will not be able to get them out of the “Middle Income Trap.” Getting the kind of economic development China has enjoyed so far is relatively easy, launching into highly-developed country status is not. Once this becomes apparent and growth stagnates, the CCP might still be in power, but like the Soviet command economy in the 1980s there won’t be a lot of true believers, just careerist apparatchiks, and that might open up the possibility for small-l liberal reforms.
Of course, maybe not. While there is a possibility that Xi’s successor will be a Juan Carlos and take advantage of sclerotic growth and ideology to make liberalizing reforms, for every USSR or Francoist Spain there is an illiberal Castro or Mugabe figure who stayed in power much longer than people were expecting. It is very possible that an illiberal CCP will govern over a declining China for decades, and those rumored proselytizing mission calls won’t be issued for a while.
Of course miracles do happen (one of my favorite images in the D&C: “As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints”), but they don’t necessarily happen. For whatever reason, there have been many countries shut off from the gospel long periods of time for political reasons, so skepticism about the gospel in China in the short or medium term future is not a matter of lacking faith. There are many other deus ex machina, political change possibilities around the world that haven’t materialized, and it’s not our place to impose timetables on God. When it happens it happens, and there are many other places our missionaries can serve and be productive in the meantime.