The rapid growth of Christianity in China

Loyola political science professor studies interactions between Chinese Communist Party-state and booming population of Protestant Christians

By Nick Alexopulos, '03

Religious freedom in China has progressed substantially over the last three decades, and with it has come a record growth of Christianity and increased suspicion from the Chinese government. But China’s booming population of practicing Christians is flourishing despite the ruling Communist Party’s continued efforts to tamp down on church activities.

On June 3, 2014, the Brookings Institution hosted a public panel of experts to explore the topic. Among the experts at “Christianity in China: Force for Change?” was Carsten Vala, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland, who studies the dynamic between China’s government and Christianity in the country.

Loyola magazine asked Dr. Vala to discuss what he’s learned from his research, and what the future might look like for Christians in China.

What’s the focus of your research related to Christianity in China?

My research investigates the interactions between the Chinese Communist Party-state and Protestant Christianity, specifically understanding how the Party aims to influence Christians in official churches and in unregistered “house” churches to support its rule.

Describe the state of Christianity in China today and give us some historical background.

Christianity has a long history in China, with the earliest presence being Nestorian Christians in the 7th century. Protestants really came in the 1800s, arriving in great numbers after Great Britain defeated the Qing dynasty forces in the Opium Wars.

Because the British forced China to buy opium, open ports for trade with the outside world, and allow missionaries to enter the country, the association of the “Bible and gun” in the popular imagination helped Communist historians attack Protestant missionaries as Western imperialists. Today, after Communists expelled all missionaries (Catholics, too), Protestant Christianity has flourished and become the fastest growing religion in a time of religious revival. Although some claim that there are as many as 100 million or more Christians in China, better estimates say there are 40 to 60 million Protestants and another 10-13 million Catholics. Protestants have grown at least 10-fold in 30 years, one of the fastest growth rates in world history!

Carsten Vala in China.

Carsten Vala on Nanluoguxiang Lane in Beijing, China.

How have the policies of China’s government influenced the growth of Christianity? Is religion in general growing in China?

The policies of the Chinese Communist Party-state have benefited Christianity in surprising ways. The attempts to eradicate all religion in the Mao Zedong period from 1949 to 1976 sparked lay believers to spread the faith, strengthening a “house church” movement that began in the pre-1949 era. The PRC government reopened official churches in the early 1980s as part of a promise to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and tens of millions of Christians worship in Protestant and Catholic churches. Scholars generally agree that more Christians worship outside the official churches recognized by the government, however.

Religion as a whole is booming. Buddhists number in the hundreds of millions and are the largest group, but they lack the clear membership rituals that Christians have in baptism, so many people participate in Buddhist rituals without being regular believers. Also, Buddhists lack the social structures of small groups for prayer and Bible study that both strengthen faith and hold believers accountable to making changes in their lives.

Government officials see religion in a more positive light these days because it attracts investment from overseas Chinese believers, draws tourists to local religious sites, and religious believers operate a range of social welfare activities like nursing homes, orphanages, poverty alleviation, and disaster relief.

What does it mean to be a Christian in China? Is it different than in other countries?

Being a Christian in China presents difficulties that believers in the U.S. and countries in Western Europe do not face. Although citizens often respect Christians as good people, some government officials view Christians with suspicion, linked to the role of Christianity in the downfall of Eastern European regimes and the strong support by democratic countries such as the U.S. and South Korea for Chinese Christians.

Also, universities, for example, are still run by Communist Party officials, and so some professors face pressure and discrimination for their beliefs, leading to some Chinese calling themselves “cultural Christians” who appreciate the values and beliefs without joining a church and getting baptized. There still can be a cost to declaring one’s faith openly.

What have you discovered in your research that has surprised you most?

Most surprising has been the rise of a new type of “urban church” that rejects subordination under Communist Party authority and also rejects being a small, hidden church like the traditional “house” churches. Leaders of these churches have forged a third way, welcoming interested newcomers as well as Communist Party officials and police to attend their congregations. They seek to be a more open and visible component of society, not under control of the Party-state.

What does the future look like for Christianity in China?

Christianity is a diverse religion in China. Some say there are “Christianities,” because there are many different theologies, attitudes toward the state, and populations that range from intellectual, high-status Chinese churches to migrant worker churches to rural churches. Because Christian doctrines include the expectation of persecution, pressure from authorities helps spur growth as fleeing believers find new areas in which to spread the faith.

At the same time, the gravest challenges come from a lack of trained pastors and from a materialist culture focused on success. These factors lead to weak believers and a variety of heretical sects.

Overall, Protestants in China are growing at such a rapid rate that some experts suggest China will become the largest Christian country in less than 20 years. In any case, two recent events suggest a nervousness on the part of the Chinese Communist Party towards Christians:

First, the Chinese Communist Party’s detained leading lawyers and constitutional scholars – many of whom are Chinese Christians – before the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square movement. Several top Tiananmen leaders now in exile have also become Christian. Second, a provincial leader in the southeastern coastal region has started a campaign to topple crosses and raze official Christian churches because they are too prominent.

A wrap up story of the “Christianity in China” panel discussion featuring Dr. Vala is available at brookings.edu.

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