Implications of a Religious China

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.

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0 thoughts on “Implications of a Religious China”

  1. I am a bit worried. Will the increasingly Christian China become more politically and emotionally aligned to the west? It will be truly sad to see the Chinese, who traditionally have not been as religious as the Christian west, the Muslim and the Hindu world to become more religious when the trend of the world is people becoming less religious.

    Buddhism literally became a Chinese religion and an integral part of China’s culture. I really don’t know why a growing number of Chinese (and South Koreans) find Christianity appealing. Is it because it presents the predominant force of today, the west? Does anybody know?

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  2. @ Pffefer “Will the increasingly Christian China become more politically and emotionally aligned to the west? It will be truly sad to see the Chinese, who traditionally have not been as religious as the Christian west, the Muslim and the Hindu world to become more religious when the trend of the world is people becoming less religious.

    Buddhism literally became a Chinese religion and an integral part of China’s culture. I really don’t know why a growing number of Chinese (and South Koreans) find Christianity appealing. Is it because it presents the predominant force of today, the west? Does anybody know?”

    A more Christian China does not necessarily mean that it’s going to become more pro-Western or pro-Israel. Take Russia and Serbia as an example. A very large percentage of Serbia happen to be Orthodox Christians and many of them aren’t exactly pro-American or pro-NATO. Same with the Orthodox Christians in Russia and some Christians in Palestine who don’t like Israel or America in the region.

    Also regarding Buddhism becoming a Chinese religion, it’s important to keep in mind that Buddhism itself was a foreign export from India. Buddha himself was an Indian prince. If Buddhism established itself in China, who’s to say Christianity won’t? Of course, I don’t claim to know the future, but anything can happen, really.

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  3. What I wonder is, given some time, if Christianity takes root in China will Chinese people change it the way they adapted Buddhism into the extant culture? If you look at early Buddhism in India and then some of the traditions that came out of China, they’re very different. The most popular form of Buddhism today was born in China (Zen/Chan) and arguably the most interesting Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics is also Chinese (Hua-yan school, look it up if you don’t know about them, it’s fascinating stuff imo).

    It’s hard to imagine what Christianity could or would be shifted into.

    I also find it amusing that as Christianity grows in China, so too does Buddhism grow in the West. I’ve often joked that America and China are in the process of switching religions, although obviously I don’t really think that’s going to happen.

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  4. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are all highly adaptable religions, which is why they were able to spread over so much of the world and are the world’s dominant religions today. Christianity is a powerful force everywhere in the world (with some notable exceptions like South Asia). It wouldn’t surprise me if there were a “sinified” Christianity in China 100 – 200 years from now.

    There is a really good documentary that I saw a few months ago from Frontline (a PBS program) about this kind of thing, wish I could remember the name.

    Any Korea experts that can shed some light as to why Christianity is so popular there?

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  5. The reason why Christianity, Muslim and Tibetan buddhism are rising is precisely because they’re new to China — they didn’t get infected by China’s materialism. Other buddhism and taoism are getting richer, but less believers. To this sense, communism is also a religion getting richer but losing believer.

    Christianity, a fact of the west in Chinese’s eyes, is particularly welcome among people. So I tend to agree with Pffefer that these people are more pro-western. While new converts in official churches may not be rebellious, those in underground churches may. When you read Vetican radio chinese website’s letters from underground churches, they tend to be strongly against government and official churches. So it’s hard to believe China govt will loosen the rein much.

    I think govt’s suppress may have hindered the localization of christianity. Nationalism is running all-time high in china. The day govt really loosen the control on religion, the day chinese christians find clashes between their belief and china’s tradition. And that may be the day localization starts.

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  6. It’s quite interesting, because Taiwan’s Christian community has been quite stable for a loooooooong time. It’s powerful, but small compared to the overall population.

    And Japan, well, especially among the young, are one of the most materialistic places in the world, where the Christian community is also very small.

    South Korea is truly an Asian anomaly in this regard.

    But China… what’s the reason that so many people are converted, especially in rural areas? Poverty? Official suppression of other religions? I wonder what would happen if the government allowed free development of Buddhism and Taoism across the country, because those two religions cannot hold a candle to Christianity and Islam when it comes to proselytism and organizational and motivational prowess.

    As for the urban young, I guess the reasons for conversion include the fact that Christian practices like going to a beautifl church or singing hymns are cool in their eyes, and Taoist and Buddhist ones are just outdated and meh.

    The Chinese government definitely should allow Taoism and Buddhism to grow more freely, like what Taiwan has been doing.

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  7. Muno,

    Yes I am well aware that Buddhism is a foreign import from India (hence “becoming” a Chinese religion), but it was soon “Sinicized”, and as Custer was saying, China had produced some of the most influential schools of Buddhism. Buddhism was not seen as something (necessarily) associated with India. Christianity, at least today is automatically associated with the west. I don’t know if Christianity has been sinicized and will ever be. I just can’t picture Jesus with a Chinese face.

    Most Chinese Christians are not Eastern Orthodox, are they? I don’t see why these Catholics and Protestants etc. will not be more aligned to the west. Personally I am for all freedom of religion (I particularly like what woodoo said about promoting Buddhism and Taoism), but I do think it will be a serious problem if China loses its identity and becomes more pro-west.

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  8. But are these religions really growing in China, or is the “rise” merely a reflection of greater openness in the country? Were these faiths previously unreported? Could the reality be that people are less afraid to declare their faith nowadays, and that pressure to adhere to a particular political ideology has ended? Does the import of Christianity reflect anything significant? I’d be interested to know historically how big a proportion of the population has been religious adherents; whether that’s grown or shrunk. Maybe a wider choice of religions would not necesarily lead to an increase in followers of faith per head of population. Whatever the truth, there does seem to be a growing tendency towards (permitting) pluralism. That’s the bit I find interesting.

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  9. I can’t predict whether increase in religion practice will cause political dilemma in China, cos no one can predict 0.01% of the extremers (in general not just in religion) can do to a society. Coming back to the focus of why religion grow rapidly in China? Maybe one should ask why religion never dies? If we see it as an enterprise who have efficient management and marketing, why won’t it secceed if there is no violation to the regulation. Then why to be supprised to see the Chinese people gradully gaining more freedom and finding a similar path as the western world?

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  10. Most of that “Christian community” are uneducated housewives/peasants in remote rural areas. Doubt what influence they can bring.

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  11. Sorry to enter the debate so late in the game, but I think that calling the Chinese Christian community a bunch of “uneducated housewives/peasants in remote rural areas” is inaccurate and frankly rather demeaning. True, there are many Christians in rural areas- because this is where they were relocated during the Cultural Revolution. Any number of tortured, hunch-backed elderly ladies in my province could tell you stories that would make you cringe.

    However, there are also large communities of Christians in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Harbin, and many other major cities. Perhaps some of them are just (as wooddoo said) in it for the “cool” factor. Looking at the number of non-Christians who crowd into churches on Christmas Eve gives pretty convincing evidence of that. But I don’t think that you can rest your case there.

    The fact of the matter is, you can say the Chinese government is loosening restrictions. You can say that the “new China” is embracing religious freedom and that the days of outright persecution are at an end. You can say all that- but you would be wrong. The government has the name of every Christian who regularly attends church. High school teachers encourage children NOT to state Christianity as a religion on their college applications, because admitting you’re a Christian effectively bars you from Chinese universities. Even government-approved priests and nuns are constantly monitored by the government, and must attend regular propaganda meetings.

    In the face of all of this continuing discrimination, I think that anybody who attends a church- whether they’re from rural Hunan or Beijing- deserves a modicum of respect for standing up for their principles.

    And don’t even get me started on the billion ways Christianity is already Sinicized. I could write a whole blog entry on that.

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