What Is The Future Of Religion? Essays & Opinions
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Fenggang Yang

When Will China Become the World’s Largest Christian Country?

Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.

China was once the most secular country in the world, but in the last three and a half decades, while undergoing rapid modernization, many religions have been thriving. From 1966 to 1979, driven by an atheistic ideology, the Communist Party-State closed down all churches, temples, and mosques. The only other country that eradicated all religion was Albania. (In fact, the Albanian Communist leadership was inspired by the Chinese Communists and rushed to implement its eradication policy.) Even the Soviet Union kept at least a few hundred churches open for religious worship, including during the harshest periods of anti-religious campaigns. Not so China.

After the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set a new course for economic reforms and began opening up to the outside world. In order to rally people of all walks for the central task of economic development, beginning in 1979, five religions—Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity (Protestantism)—were allowed to reopen a limited number of venues for religious services so long as they were under the control of “patriotic” associations. The CCP leaders appeared to believe that religion would die out along with the passing away of pre-1949 generations. They were confident that the Communist-educated younger generations would not need religion at all.

Along with the rapid economic growth since the late 1970s, China has been undergoing rapid industrialization, urbanization, and globalization. Meanwhile, various religions have flourished—not only among older people, but also among post-1949 generations. Moreover, many religious individuals and groups are outside of the “patriotic” associations. This was surprising to the atheist Communists and puzzling to the modernist scholars who have subscribed to secularization theories that predict the inevitable decline of religion.

Protestant Christianity has been the fastest growing religion in China. When the CCP took power in the mainland (excluding Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau) in 1949, there were no more than one million Protestant Christians. Following decades of suppression and eradication, the CCP admitted in an official document released in 1982 that there were about three million Protestant Christians. Since then, estimates have varied. The Party-State has insisted on some very low-end estimates, suggesting about 23 million Protestant Christians in 2010; others—including missionary organizations outside China but also a reported internal document of the CCP—have made higher estimates, suggesting as many as 100 to 130 million in 2010. The Pew Research Center’s Report of Global Christianity, after carefully comparing the various estimates and reasoning through survey findings, reports that there were about 58 million Protestant Christians and 9 million Catholics in China in 2010. I think this is a more prudent estimate that may be used to make projections of future growth.

With respect to future developments, we may imagine three different scenarios. First, China will continue its current mode of steady economic growth and political stability without major change to its religious policy. Second, while economic growth and political stability will continue, the restrictions on Christianity will increase. Third, there will be social and political turmoil, such as revolutions and wars, which would render the religious policy irrelevant. All three scenarios are plausible; they have all more or less happened in the recent past.

Since 1979, the religious policy has been limited tolerance with strict regulation and tight control. During this period, the average compound annual growth rate of the number of Protestant Christians is more than 10 percent (from 3 million in 1980 to 58 million in 2010). If China experiences no major social upheavals and keeps at its current pace of steady economic growth and social change, and restrictions on religious affairs do not increase, the average annual growth rate is likely to stay at around 10 percent. In this case, the number of Protestant Christians in China could reach 171 million by 2021 and 255 million by 2025. The Pew Research Center’s Report of Global Christianity reports that in 2010 in the United States there were 160 million Protestants and 247 million Christians overall (including Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and others). Recent studies have reported that the proportion of Christians in the U.S. population has been undergoing a slow downward drift in recent years. Assuming that the number of Christians in the U.S. stays the same over the next several decades, it is possible that China could become the largest Protestant country by 2021 and the largest Christian country by 2025.

That said, the Party-State seems to be increasing its restrictions on Christianity. In 2014, throughout Zhejiang Province, some church buildings were demolished, and hundreds of crosses on top of church buildings were taken down. Let us imagine that the CCP may even go as far as trying to ban Christianity once again, like it did during the Cultural Revolution. That kind of radical policy will be difficult to implement unless the Party-State also reverts its political and economic policies to that of the Cultural Revolution. What is more likely to happen is periodic anti-Christian campaigns, much like what we have already experienced in the past 65 years, including some years of eradication or severe persecution but also some years of relatively lax restrictions. Therefore, we may use the average annual growth rate from 1950 to 2010, which is 7 percent (from 1 million in 1950 to 58 million in 2010), for projection. In this scenario, the number of Protestant Christians in China will reach 160 millions by 2025 and to 257 millions by 2032.

If we take the third scenario of revolutions and wars, which happened in the first half of the 20th century, the average annual growth rate of the number of Protestants from 1900 to 2010 is almost 6 percent (from 100,000 to 58 million). This means that China could become the largest Christian country by 2035, with about 247 million Protestants.

Of these three scenarios for future development, I tend to adopt the second out of caution and modesty. If we add the number of Chinese Catholics, which, according to the Pew report, was 9 million in 2010, it is almost certain that China will become the largest Christian country in the world by 2030.

Demographers have projected that the Chinese population will reach its peak in 2030 at 1.4 billion. By then, Christians will constitute 16.1 percent of the Chinese population, based on the cautious estimate of the second scenario. If the growth continues at the rate of 7 percent, Christians could be 32.5 percent of the Chinese population by 2040 and 66.7 percent by 2050.

Certainly, the proportion of Christians in the population may not increase continuously. It will likely stagnate at some point. But it is difficult to determine what the stagnated percentage would be. Will it be more like Taiwan, where there are about 5 percent Christians in the population, or more like Hong Kong with 10 to 15 percent, or more like Chinese America with about 30 percent? Or, will Chinese Christians grow to overtake South Korea (30 to 40 percent Christian) and come ever closer to the U.S. (80 percent Christian) in the percentage of Christians in the population? Regardless the specific percentage, the Christian growth in China will continue to be rapid in the near future and that will have important social and political implications for China and beyond.

Fenggang Yang is a Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.

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