The upsurge in religion in China, especially among the ethnic Han who make up more than 90% of the population, is a general one. From the bullet trains that sweep across the Chinese countryside, passengers can see new churches and temples springing up everywhere. Buddhism, much longer established in China than Christianity, is surging too, as is folk religion; many more Han are making pilgrimages to Buddhist shrines in search of spiritual comfort. All this worries many officials, for whom religion is not only Marx’s “opium of the people” but also, they believe, a dangerous perverter of loyalty away from the party and the state. Christianity, in particular, is associated with 19th-century Western imperial encroachment; and thus the party’s treatment of Christians offers a sharp insight into the way its attitudes are changing.
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. Mr Yang says this speed of growth is similar to that seen in fourth-century Rome just before the conversion of Constantine, which paved the way for Christianity to become the religion of his empire.
In the 1980s the faith grew most quickly in the countryside, stimulated by the collapse of local health care and a belief that Christianity could heal instead. In recent years it has been burgeoning in cities. A new breed of educated, urban Christians has emerged. Gerda Wielander of the University of Westminster, in her book “Christian Values in Communist China”, says that many Chinese are attracted to Christianity because, now that belief in Marxism is declining, it offers a complete moral system with a transcendental source. People find such certainties appealing, she adds, in an age of convulsive change.
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. Some of them have set up the Association of Human Rights Attorneys for Chinese Christians. Groups of well-paid urban Christian lawyers join together to defend Christians—and others—in court. Missionaries have begun to go out from China to the developing world.
The authorities have responded to this in different ways. In places like Wenzhou, they have cracked down. Implementation of religious policy is often left to local officials. Some see toughness as a way of displaying loyalty to the central leadership. Mr Yang of Purdue University says there are rumours in Wenzhou that the crackdown there is partly the result of a local leader’s efforts to win favour with President Xi Jinping.
China Aid, an American church group, says that last year more than 7,400 Christians suffered persecution in China. And there is still plenty of less visible discrimination. But 7,400 people are less than 0.01% of all Chinese Christians. Even if the figure is higher, in this century “persecution is clearly no longer the norm”, says Brent Fulton of ChinaSource, a Christian group in Hong Kong.