It’s funny how things turn out: after 60 years as an officially atheist country, it seems kind of hard to deny that religion is growing in China. That in and of itself doesn’t mean as much as one might think – after all, China has had religion for most of its history and the past decades have been the exception, not the rule. The return of religion to China is the return to normalcy.
What is interesting is the type of religion that’s returning to China – definitely not the garden-variety triple-religion of Confucianism-Daoism-Buddhism. Islam and Tibetan Buddhism are both growing quickly because Tibetans and many Muslim minorities are exempted from the One-Child Policy.
But this doesn’t represent any radical shift in those cultures, only a growth in their numbers (though as a side note, do read about Han Chinese converting to Tibetan Buddhism here). What’s interesting is that one of the fastest growing in religion in China is Christianity.
Christianity is a foreign import into China and – unlike Buddhism, another foreign-imported religion – its popularity is relatively recent. The official government count of Chinese Christians in 2005 – 16 million – is almost certainly low, since many Christians are thought to be unregistered with the official CCP-sanctioned church.
Instead many Chinese Christians practice in informal underground churches that meet secretly, called house churches. The total number of Christians in China was estimated to be in the area of 40 million in 2005. More dubious sources claim numbers as high as 100 million.
Religion and government have a long history of distrust in China, and religious movements are often tied to anti-government sentiment and even rebellion. But this time around the government seems to be taking a lesson from history and trying to accommodate religion, at least on some level.
The government has made overtones towards China’s growing religious believers, and Hu Jintao has stated “We must strive to closely unite religious figures and believers among the masses around the party and government.” It seems like in the face of such rapid growth the government has chosen the path of least resistance.
Though it’s true that house churches are often harassed (and often much worse) by the police, it seems unlikely that the government will be able to clampdown on Christians in the way it has clamped down on certain other religious activities in recent years that it perceives as threatening, not least of all because of the backlash it would receive from the international community.
What is down the road is a China that is – in very real ways – influenced by Christianity. Although today only 12% of religious believers in China are Christian, that number is growing quickly and it’s easy to imagine the stir that millions of newly-converted Chinese Christians will make in China.
This blogger thinks it’s inevitable that Christians in China will get involved in politics – that seems to happen everywhere, though it isn’t always clear whose side they end up taking. The government is acting it its own best interests and trying to make sure it can make an ally in Chinese Christians. It wouldn’t be surprising if in the next few years and decades, abuse and harassment against unregistered Christians drops off and more attempts are made to bring them into the establishment.
At least, that seems to be the best-case scenario. The last time the government had a confrontation with (quasi-) Christians was in the mid-1800s during the Taiping Rebellion. It was arguably the worst thing to happen to China during the 19th century with up to 30 million dead and 20 years of war.
Comparing Taiping rebels to modern Chinese Christians is a huge stretch, but it does illustrate the potential that religiously-motivated rebellion has in China, and none of this is intended to be fear-mongering. The point is that it is relieving to see that China’s current leaders are not letting this issue fester until it’s too late to made amends.
UPDATE: Fool’s Mountain posted an interesting piece that touches on the topic of a “Chinese” Christianity.