We know that Christianity has been growing remarkably in recent decades—in China there is talk of “Christianity fever”. We don’t know just how many Christians there are in China at present. The reason for this is simple. Christian churches in China come in two groups: those that are registered and officially recognized by the government, and those that are unregistered, technically illegal though widely tolerated, and therefore extremely difficult to count. Most of the growth has occurred in the latter group.
In a recent article in The Christian Century (the banner periodical of mainline Protestantism in America), Philip Jenkins has made a useful effort at making sense of the demographic guessing game. Jenkins is one of the most astute observers of the world Christian scene. Since his book The Next Christendom came out in 1999, he has been drawing attention to the demographic shift of Christianity from Europe and North America to Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The most reliable source for religious demography is the World Christian Database, headed by Todd Johnson, which has been counting Christian noses worldwide for many years now. Johnson and his associates claim that there were about one million Christians in China in 1970 (a sharp decline from earlier in the twentieth century because of Communist repression), and that there about 120 million today, with some 70 million in unregistered churches. Representing over 9% of the total population of 1.3 billion, this estimate, if correct, would constitute one of the most spectacular explosions in religious history. The WCD people further estimate that, if present trends continue (always an iffy assumption, of course) the Christian population in China will reach 220 million by 2050. This would be a considerably higher proportion of the total population, because of the demographic consequences of the one-child policy. (By 2050 one working Chinese will support ten Chinese in nursing homes. Meanwhile Tibetans and Uighurs, minorities to whom, amazingly, the one-child policy does not apply, will be 50% of the total population. I’m of course exaggerating.)
There are much lower estimates. The CIA World Factbook estimates 3-4% Christians. (Are CIA estimates on religion more reliable than those on weapons of mass destruction?) The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates 4-5%. The Chinese government comes up with a risible 20 million (but then, presumably, they only count officially registered Christians, or maybe those ex-Marxists engage in wishful thinking). But there is an estimate ever higher than the one by WCD. David Aikman is the author of a book, Jesus in Beijing (2003), in which he predicts a breathtaking future for Chinese Christianity. In a recent lecture which I attended, Aikman mentions a Communist party official who told him of a confidential estimate of 130 million. Aikman thinks that by about 2030 Christianity will have achieved cultural and maybe political hegemony in China. I don’t know what Aikman’s personal or theological wishes may be (the lecture was given at Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Texas, where the mind-blowing predictions were definitely well received). Be this as it may, the vision of a Christianized China stands in a long tradition—on the Catholic side, going back to the Jesuit mission inaugurated by Matteo Ricci in the late 16th century (to which Pope Benedict XVI has recently referred in a letter to Chinese Catholics)—and on the Protestant side, to the luxurious development of missions emanating from Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century, with its most glorious period arguably beginning with the founding of the China Inland Mission by Hudson Taylor in 1865.
Jenkins is a careful scholar. He arrives at a cautious estimate of 65-70 million, a little less than 5%. But this too would translate to about 65 million—not exactly a negligible figure, especially if one sees it in the context of continuing robust growth.
Everyone agrees that there has been a huge growth of Christianity in China in the last few decades. It may be somewhat less than it first seems, because some Christians may have been emerging from the so-called “underground church” where they were hiding in the earlier period of Communist persecution. But it is clear that most of the growth is from new converts. There is also wide agreement that conversions have been mainly to Evangelical Protestantism, much of it Pentecostal or charismatic, and that converts have come increasingly from urban areas, and consist of many professional and business people, including party members. The regime has been more relaxed about religion, especially Christianity, though the degree of tolerance by local authorities varies in different regions. The Communist Party still adheres officially to Marxist ideology, which includes a principled atheism—though it is doubtful that anyone still believes in the ideology, beyond its usefulness in legitimating the political monopoly of the party. Not long ago it was decided that capitalists can be party members (at least if they are “patriotic capitalists”). It is not difficult to foresee a decision that religious believers may also be party members (at least if they profess loyalty to the ideal of a “harmonious society”—a venerable Confucian notion, newly adopted by the regime that continues to keep a huge picture of Mao over the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing).
In the summer of 2008 I was in China to start a seminar at two Chinese universities on religion in the contemporary world. This was in response to the very large interest in the topic among students and younger faculty, and among intellectuals in general. There were, deliberately, no lectures on China in the seminar (we only mentioned the Chinese situation, rather gingerly, if there were questions from the audience). Nevertheless, we thought that it would be prudent to inform the government and get some sort of green light from it. (I have, for my sins, much experience with authoritarian regimes of different colors.) So I had a meeting, accompanied by a colleague and a translator, with the then director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), the agency of the government which tries (with varying success) to keep all religious groups within the boundaries of the “harmonious society”. We were very graciously received. We did get a sort of green light. To my surprise the director made reference to Max Weber, though I’m not sure that he intended the relevance of Weber’s idea of the “Protestant ethic” to the role of Christians in China today. Still, while he spoke approvingly of secularization as a consequence of modernity, there was none of the hostility to religion that had characterized earlier Communist attitudes.
As I looked around the room in which the meeting with the head of SARA took place, I was trying to put myself into his head and the heads of his staff members who attended (every one of them took notes throughout). I would assume that they were all party members. What would be their views of the different religious traditions that came under their jurisdiction? Buddhism? Mostly okay, unless it had to do with Tibet. Islam: Definitely dangerous and to be watched closely—all those “splittist” Uighurs in the northwest. Confucianism? It had been brutally attacked during the Cultural Revolution as a reactionary ideology, but had now been rehabilitated as an authentic Chinese system of ethics (they would probably deny that it is a religion), particularly useful in inculcating respect for authority. Taoism and folk religion? Basically okay, harmless unless it encourages unhealthy superstitions unworthy of a modernizing society. And what about Christianity? I would imagine that they were ambivalent about it. Catholicism—probably okay, somewhat problematic because its headquarters was abroad and the church was prone to go on about human rights. Protestantism—both good and bad: Good because it promotes modernization—vide Max Weber—and because it has no foreign headquarters. Bad because Protestant churches may push for democracy—South Korea is a frightful example.
Who said that it would be easy to be a Communist party official in China today? One can imagine scenarios under which the regime would return to sharply repressive policies toward religion. Alternatively, there could be much larger steps toward religious freedom. At present, neither scenario seems probable. In which case it is likely that “Christianity fever” will continue and that Christianity will grow as a significant presence in China. What this will mean for Chinese society and politics will depend on domestic and international developments that have little to do with religion.