China has witnessed a religious revival over the past four decades, in particular with the significant increase in Christian believers, accounting for 5 percent of the population, according to Pew Research Center data. The number of Chinese Protestants has grown by an average of 10 percent annually since 1979. By some estimates, China is on track to have the world’s largest population of Christians by 2030. Though the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is officially atheist, the rise of Christianity presents Beijing with challenges as well as new options for contributing to services, such as health care and education, to an increasingly demanding public. The government recently launched a series of initiatives to further regulate, and at times restrict, Christian adherents.
What is the history of Christianity in China?
Early waves of Christianity began with the arrival of Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in China in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. China’s first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, traveled to China in 1807 on behalf of the London Missionary Society and translated (PDF) the Bible into Mandarin. In the mid-nineteenth century, Christianity became a mobilizing political force: Hong Xiuquan developed a Christian-influenced ideology to mount the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) against the Qing Dyansty, attracting missionaries and revolutionaries alike. The rebels amassed control over more than one-third of Chinese territory and established a rival political order, known as the “heavenly kingdom.” The ensuing civil war killed an estimated twenty million people.
The establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 resulted in wide-scale religious repression in mainland China. In keeping with its Marxist roots, the Chinese Communist Party declared itself atheist. “Maoist Thought,” a sinification of Marxism-Leninism that placed the future of the Chinese revolution in the hands of the rural peasants, was the dominant ideology. This was especially true at the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when places of worship were closed and religious practices were banned.
Mao Zedong’s death and his successor Deng Xiaoping’s subsequent reforms reopened China to the outside world, in turn granting greater freedoms to Chinese citizens. A surge in Christian adherents can be traced from the period beginning in the early 1980s. Today, China’s Christian population encompasses (PDF) a range of citizens, from all ages, from the countryside and urban centers, including students and professionals. China is also the world’s largest producer of Bibles: By the end of 2014, the Amity Printing Company, a joint venture between the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO, and the United Bible Societies, printed more than 140 million bibles in many languages for both domestic and international markets. However, while the government exercises a certain tolerance of religious practices, religious freedom is still constrained and regulated.
What is China's policy on religious practice?
The PRC officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. The activities of state-sanctioned religious organizations are regulated by the State Administration for Religious Affairs(SARA), which manages all aspects of religious life including religious leadership appointments, selection of clergy, and interpretation of doctrine. Christianity in China is overseen by three major entities: the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the China Christian Council, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. To register as a state-sanctioned Christian organization, religious leaders must receive training in order to “adapt” doctrine to Chinese thinking and culture. China does not differentiate among Christian denominations beyond Catholicism and Protestantism.
“No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the education system of the state.” – China’s constitution
Spirituality and religious practice have long been embedded in traditional Chinese culture, says Freedom House’s senior research analyst for East Asia, Sarah Cook. Article thirty-six of the Chinese constitution protects freedom of religion, however that protection is limited to so-called “normal religious activities,” explicitly stating that “no one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the education system of the state.” These provisions provide authorities with flexibility when determining which religious practices are consistent with party policy and which fall outside the state’s guidelines. The constitutional provision goes on to specify that religious bodies cannot be subject to foreign control. The Holy See and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic ties, but Pope Francis signaled in August 2014 that he hoped to thaw China-Vatican relations.
Underground house churches exist parallel to state-sanctioned Christian churches. These organizations operate outside of the guidelines of the government, and their regulation by party authorities is largely determined by local leaders. Much like official Christian organizations, their membership is also growing across regions and demographics, according to surveys by independent polling groups. A 2010 Pew Research Center report charted that thirty-five million (PDF) of China’s fifty-eight million Protestants belonged to independent house churches. Other Christian organizations estimate a much higher number.