Although, Daoism and Buddhism are the two religions usually identified with China, Christianity also dates back to the Tang dynasty when the Nestorians came to spread it. This article looks at the reasons for the rise of Christianity in China during the past two decades: Are these developments triggered by economic reforms or has the Chinese government loosened its grip over religious activities and organizations?
After the Civil War ended and the Communist Party of China took control in 1949, many Christian missionaries were expelled. Almost half a million people had already been converted by the missionaries by then, who were permitted to practice their religion in state-sanctioned churches after giving their primary allegiance to the Communist Party. In the later Mao era, especially during the Cultural Revolution, (1966-1976) all forms of religious expression were banned which led to underground activities. A lot of ‘house churches’ were formed where people gathered for praying. However, after the economic liberalisation, Deng Xiaoping permitted religious activities and it was in the late 1970s that Christianity boomed again in China. Figures vary, but there are estimates that there are approximately 40-100 million Christians in the country.
In the recent decades, there has been a sharp rise in the number of Christians, especially Protestants, in China. The new converts belong to a cross-section of society: from remote villages to migrants in the city to sophisticated middle class. Lopsided economic growth has resulted in the establishment of large manufacturing units, export houses and numerous industries; there has been an influx of migrant labourers from rural to urban areas and also from one urban area to another in search of better jobs. Christianity plays a very important role in this regard as it provides an instant community to these people; they are helped financially, emotionally and spiritually by the church. Christianity has succeeded in winning over many followers in this way.
On the other hand, the affluent middle class seeks spiritual comfort after attaining wealth. They are the ones donating money for the spread of Christianity to rural areas. Rich Protestants from Wenzhou called ‘Boss Christians’ are examples of this practice. Wenzhou, also called ‘China’s Jerusalem,’ has an estimated 12 per cent of Christian population and more than 1000 churches. They support the construction of churches in parts of rural China. With their businesses booming, they are pumping huge amounts of money into religious activities, helping their own spiritual needs and also spreading their religion among the non-followers. According to Xhuo Xinping, Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Landau Christopher, BBC News, China, August 2010) “there is a spiritual appeal and a potential association with economic prosperity”.
Another aspect that needs to be taken into consideration is the relative loosening of the strict state control over religion in China. The government recognises five religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Daoism. The control over religion has not entirely gone; religious preaching and practise in public is prohibited and religious institutes have to sign up to the slogan: “Love the country- love your religion (i.e. the love for country comes first before allegiance to one’s religion)”. The churches have to report to State Administration for Religious Affairs. To avoid uncontrolled religious activities, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the China Christian Council for Chinese Protestants and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Catholic Christians were formed by the party. However, the growth of ‘house churches’ has accelerated in almost all parts of the country exploiting the spaces provided by loosening of control. The authorities have also turned a blind eye to these house churches, perhaps realising that they are more in number and have huge followers. There have been talks between the church leaders and government officials for official recognition of these churches. The government in fact is letting Christianity prosper within the boundaries of state control and is even contributing towards church building, which is a measure to keep them happy. For instance, on the outskirts of Nanjing, land has been allotted for the construction of China’s biggest church and 20 per cent of the building cost is being borne by the municipal government.
Thus, due to the changes in the Chinese socio-economic terrain, people are drawn towards Christianity and the fervour with which its followers are preaching the religion. The government though worried about the growth of unofficial churches also seeks their help in social services, like rebuilding after the earthquake in Sichuan province, and also because the rich Christians are pumping a lot of money in to the current political system. Clearly the government does not want to lose the patronage of rich Chinese Christians towards the regime. The use of words like ‘spiritual crisis’ by Wen Jiabao and a statement by Hu Jintao stating that “the knowledge of religious people must be harnessed to build a prosperous society” sends out a message that even the top leadership of China acknowledges the benefits of a strong, state approved Christian community could bring to the country.