Myrrl Byler on why the call to peacemaking must not ignore China

For people in Africa to Asia to Latin America, the global reach of China cannot be ignored, and the rivalry between superpowers China and the U.S. threatens to create a bipolar world. Myrrl Byler is one of the world’s leading Mennonite experts on China. The executive director of Mennonite Partners in China (MPC), Byler has been engaged in the country for over thirty years. MPC has brought over 300 Chinese visiting scholars to U.S. schools, sent over 300 English teachers to China from the U.S. and Canada, and facilitated service abroad opportunities for over 40 young adult Chinese. The MCC UN Office interviewed Byler on about how the country has changed over these decades and about building bridges of peace during this time of rising tensions.

Two people seated at a table sharing dinner
Myrrl Byler (right) converses with a government official (name withheld for security reasons) over a shared meal in Beijing, China in 2015. Photo courtesy of Myrrl Byler

MCC UN Office: Why did you first go to China and why did you decide to stay?

Myrrl Byler: I first went to China in 1987. I had just finished my graduate education in teaching English as a second language and back then the place to go in the world was China. I knew absolutely nothing about China, but I went to teach for two years. While I was there the historic protests and violence of April-June of 1989 happened. I got to know Chinese students and teachers who talked to us openly about what they believed and thought, where they wanted the country to go, saying things about the government that we had never heard anybody say before. For a short period of time, the masks came down. I knew I had to get more involved. Looking over the past 30 years, it is the dynamism that has kept me there. In terms of the pace of change, there is really no other place like it.


Over thirty years, what is the greatest change you have seen in China?

The most obvious is the material change from poverty to rapid progression and the identity of national confidence which this brings. One thing we do is bring Chinese academics to the U.S. as visiting professors at Mennonite schools, and I spend a lot of time driving them around. A former visiting professor once picked me up at the Beijing airport in a brand-new BMW, a better car than I ever had! While he was driving me around, he was saying, “I never ever dreamed I would be able to own a car! For the first 40 years of my life, it was something I just never thought about.” This amazing material progress brought a new identity for many in China who moved into a new middle or upper class. This is a contrast to the previous era Chinese people call the “century of humiliation” between 1839 and 1949 [a period of intervention, oppression and subjugation of China by Western powers and Japan]. From a century of humiliation, they are now in a century of confidence. They feel good about their country and their future. They feel ready to have equal footing in the world.


In a 2021 Gallup poll, Americans name China as their country’s greatest enemy, doubling the percentage from a year ago. We see headlines and attitudes on both sides that point to rising tension and competition between China and the U.S. and the European Union, and other countries. What is most needed in the work of peacemaking in a time like this?

It is all about putting a human face on the “enemy.” As Mennonites, we have had 40 really good years of doing this. They don’t want to be the enemy, and we surely don’t want them to be our enemy. From the very beginning of our program we sought equal exchange, rather than a paternalistic approach. When we sent twenty U.S. students to China, we took nine Chinese professors into the U.S. for the same amount of time. We weren’t just going to China to teach English, we’re inviting you to come to our campuses to help us learn where you are coming from, exchanging knowledge on medicine, mental health, nursing, agriculture. We have worked from a theology of presence, of mutuality. That’s the kind of long-term work that needs to be done again now. We need to re-engage with hope and excitement, to share life with those who are called our enemies.

In the peacemaking field, we can’t afford to not engage China. A lot of peace institutions that I have worked with in North America have few or no China programs because there’s no civil society in China to partner with. It is easier to run a small peacebuilding program in a faraway country located far from the political center than to engage with China. But we can’t ignore China.


Can you give us a sense of the urgency you see?

Right now, as the U.S. is withdrawing its military presence in Afghanistan, China is investing $62 billion into the country – highways, railways, pipelines. In June, they donated almost a million vaccines to Afghanistan as well. China is making similar investments from Latin America to Africa to South East Asia, not with their military but economically and politically. In powerful multi-national spaces such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations, they have become extremely effective in building coalitions of countries to support their interests. The positive side is they’re bringing needed infrastructure. Yet there’s also a great deal of negative which comes with it, from hard-to-pay loans to being politically beholden to China. Within China itself, while the vast majority is very happy with what the government has done for them through the material progress and growing global influence, it is more and more a police state and the control over the population and the church is just enormous. It’s the one place in the world where the conflict could be the greatest, and we can’t go missing.

Unfortunately, person-to-person engagement with a focus on fostering peace and shared values has been diminishing, especially this past year. There’s so much potential in China, and there’s still so much goodwill there. Working with our theology of presence and reciprocity, we built countless relationships based on mutual trust. That people-to-people social peacemaking is what we need to reinvest in. That’s the best way forward for planting long-term seeds of peace at a very volatile global time.