THERE is no clear evidence to suggest there has been a surge in Christianity in China over the past two decades, the Pew Research Center’s analysis of a range of data concludes.
There have been suggestions and claims that the number of Christians in China has grown exponentially over the past decade, but Pew said that it could find no evidence of this growth — although it was also not possible to rule it out, owing to a lack of access to reliable statistics.
The Pew Center report, Measuring Religion in China, analysed the findings of surveys by academic groups in China, as well as government data, and data from state-run religious associations over several years, to assess religious adherence.
Any study of religious identity and belief was extremely hard to carry out in China, Pew warned, partly because of the Chinese government’s tight restrictions on information and ban on overseas organisations’ carrying out surveys, but also because of linguistic differences.
The Chinese term for religion, zongjiao, refers only to organised forms of religion, such as the five recognised by the Chinese Communist party: Buddhism, Taoism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam. In state media in China, the term zongjiao is used, along with superstition, to indicate corruption. This use influences people’s understanding and willingness to agree to the term.
The numbers of those who claim a zongjiao has stayed relatively steady, the available evidence suggests. In 2018, ten per cent of respondents to the Chinese General Social Survey said that they had a religious affiliation; in 2021, it was seven per cent, although, as a smaller sample of respondents, the two sets of figures are not directly comparable.
Based on these figures, China is the least religious country in the world. Just three per cent of Chinese adults said that religion was “very important” to them, in a World Values Study analysed by Pew; and this was the lowest response out of 56 countries surveyed.
“Some scholars have relied on a mix of fieldwork studies, claims by religious organizations, journalists’ observations and government statistics to suggest that China is experiencing a surge of religion and is perhaps even on a path to having a Christian majority by 2050,” the report says.
But more than a decade’s worth of data from surveys conducted in China provide “no clear confirmation of rising levels of religious identity in China, at least not as embodied by formal zongjiao affiliation and worship attendance”.
Other factors that may influence the statistics include the well-documented persecution of Muslims and Christians in China.
The report says: “There could be a real increase in the share of Chinese adults who identify with Christianity that is hidden from survey measurement. For example, it is possible there has been growth in Christian affiliation that is offset in surveys by growing reluctance among respondents to identify as Christian due to the government’s intensifying scrutiny of Christian religious activity.”
China consistently ranks among the countries with the highest levels of government restrictions on religion, and is 16th on the 2023 World Watch list of countries where Christians face the most persecution.
Pew’s report suggests that there has been a marked decrease in the number of Chinese Christians reporting that they attend formal religious activities — and even those who identified with a religion were less likely to say that they attended religious activities at least a few times a year: down from 53 to 45 per cent.
Roughly two per cent of Chinese adults identify as Christian — about 20 million people — and Protestants account for 90 per cent of these. There is some evidence, however, that many more people in China adhere to Christian beliefs and practices. For example, the share of people who say that they believe in Jesus is seven per cent, according to a 2018 Chinese survey.
The number of Muslims in China is about 17 million, Pew estimates. Persecution of Uyghur Muslims and alleged genocide by the Chinese government (News, 10 September 2021) have made obtaining accurate data for adherence to Islam even more challenging. Surveys have not been conducted in Xinjiang, home to nearly all China’s Uyghur population, since 2013.
The Chinese constitution endorsed freedom of religious beliefsin 1982, after decades when all religious activities were banned under Mao Zedong. Religion flourished, until the government began again to suppress religious groups after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Restrictions have tightened further in the past few years under President Xi Jinping, who has implemented a Sinicisation policy.
Religious organisations now have to align their customs with religious traditions and pledge loyalty to the State. Many Christians are believed to worship in unregistered house churches, which are subjected to regular crackdowns.
Pew’s study found that many Chinese people observed traditions and spiritual practices, such as visiting gravesides of family members for ancestor veneration, burning incense, and believing in Feng Shui, even if they were not affiliated to a religion. Just four per cent of Chinese adults in the research say that Buddhism is their religious belief, and yet 33 per cent say that they believe in Buddha, or Buddhist deities.
Many believe in beliefs and rituals from multiple religious traditions, including some who identify as Christians also believing in traditional Chinese deities or supernatural forces.
A professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity School, in the United States, Xi Lian, said that the results suggested that “Christianity’s explosive growth since the 1980s” was over.
“The seven per cent who self-identify as believing in Jesus Christ, even if it represents a larger-than-actual Christian following in China if stricter criteria are applied, still suggests a remarkable vitality and resilience of Christianity in China in the face of severe restrictions imposed in recent years, the intense competition from the new, state-sponsored religion of nationalism, as well as economic opportunities and pressures that make religious observance more difficult,” he said.