Excerpts from a recent story in The Economist
CHRISTIANITY is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks. The line is blurring between house churches and official ones, and Christians are starting to emerge from hiding to play a more active part in society.
The Communist Party has to find a new way to deal with all this. There is even talk that the party, the world’s largest explicitly atheist organisation, might follow its sister parties in Vietnam and Cuba and allow members to embrace a dogma other than—even higher than—that of Marx.
Any shift in official thinking on religion could have big ramifications for the way China handles a host of domestic challenges, from separatist unrest among Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs in the country’s west to the growth of NGOs and “civil society”—grassroots organisations, often with a religious colouring, which the party treats with suspicion, but which are also spreading fast.
It is hard even to guess at the number of Christians in China. Official surveys seek to play down the figures, ignoring the large number who worship in house churches. By contrast, overseas Christian groups often inflate them. There were perhaps 3m Catholics and 1m Protestants when the party came to power in 1949. Officials now say there are between 23m and 40m, all told. In 2010 the Pew Research Centre, an American polling organisation, estimated there were 58m Protestants and 9m Catholics. Many experts, foreign and Chinese, now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87m-strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants.
Predicting Christianity’s growth is even harder. Yang Fenggang of Purdue University, in Indiana, says the Christian church in China has grown by an average of 10% a year since 1980. He reckons that on current trends there will be 250m Christians by around 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world.
Some Chinese also discern in Christianity the roots of Western strength. They see it as the force behind the development of social justice, civil society and rule of law, all things they hope to see in China. Many new NGOs are run by Christians or Buddhists. There are growing numbers of Christian doctors and academics. More than 2,000 Christian schools are also dotted around China, many of them small and all, as yet, illegal.
One civil-rights activist says that, of the 50 most-senior civil-rights lawyers in China, probably half are Christians.