Amid a flow of recent news stories on the economic problems that plague China and its disruptive impact on global affairs, the Pew Research Center on August 30 issued a landmark 160-page report with a wealth of information on another persistent issue — the status of various religious groups in this nation of 1.4 billion after 74 years of unremitting effort by Communist rulers to suppress or eliminate faith.
Given North Americans’ long-running interest in both China and its religious situation, especially for Christians, this report is important news. Editors will want to summon their art departments for charts to complement coverage. The report’s depiction of data sources and the huge difficulties in obtaining reliable information from the mainland adds to this notable achievement.
The upshot, according to Pew demographer Conrad Hackett, is that by available measures, China is — on the surface — “the least religious country in the world.” Not surprising when media and public meetings are restricted and the regime forbids religious education while subjecting children to intensive atheistic propaganda at school. Only a tenth of the Chinese report religious affiliation, and 3% say religion is “very important” in their lives, compared with 98% in nearby Indonesia (or 37% in the United States).
Government barriers meant Pew could not conduct its own field surveys as in other nations. So the numbers come from government reports, research by Chinese universities (a risky academic specialty), one private polling firm and the Sweden-based World Values Survey. The report provides excellent guidance on interpreting limits and problems with the available data sources and confusion over definitions.
Note this striking example: The government lists 34,000 registered Buddhist temples, compared with 190,000 counted by Sun Yat-sen University experts.
Yet the people are permeated with spiritual beliefs and superstitions. These include gravesite visits to venerate or assist ancestors in the afterlife, rituals to seek personal benefits, incense-burning, fortune-telling, planning of activities around auspicious calendar dates and feng shui (placement of buildings and furnishings thought to manipulate energies). With or without formal affiliation, a third of Chinese believe in the Buddha or enlightened Buddhist beings, and 18% believe in Taoist deities.
Are some believers afraid to discuss faith ties, while living under China’s expanding social credit system of rewards and punishments?
Government pressure against believers has intensified since 2017 alongside isolationism, nationalism and surveillance policies under Xi Jinping, 70, the Communist Party general secretary since 2012 and president since 2013. Special harassment continues to target ethnic minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region, Buddhists in occupied Tibet, millions of Protestants and Catholics who reject supervision under legally mandated government church registration, and the comparatively young Fulan Gong movement.
Regarding the Christian situation, America’s Asia Harvest ministry says that despite the persistent persecution and job discrimination, during the Communist decades China has experienced in terms of absolute numbers “the greatest revival in Christian history,” due mostly to the proliferation of unregistered Protestant “house churches.”
As noted by Pew, Asia Harvest reports that China now has 109.65 million evangelical Protestants, 64% in unregistered groups and the rest within the government-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and 20 million Catholics, divided into 59% in unregistered churches and the rest within the authorized Catholic Patriotic Association.
The third edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, an invaluable reference work that uses many on-the-ground consultants, puts Christians of all types at 106 million as of 2020, with 550 million non-religious Chinese, 498 million in folk and ethnic religions, and 237 million Buddhists, with less than a million each for Baha’is, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and followers of various “new religions.”
Pew figures that as many as 8% of Chinese adults, or perhaps 112 million excluding children, may have “some degree” of Christian “affinity,” whether actual church membership, at least occasional worship attendance, Christian identity of some sort, or expressed belief in the Christian God (sometimes in combination with other gods).
Christian groups flourished after China opened to the world and liberalized its economy in the 1980s. But Pew says surveys by Chinese universities indicate the steady increase of officially registered Protestant churches has leveled off in the Xi years. Four university surveys since 2010 that include non-registered groups show between 23 and 40 million Protestant church members. Three surveys since 2011 put Catholic adherents at 6 million — but these exclude the “underground.”
Of course, recent repression could mean that increases are hidden because believers feel it’s unwise to tell surveyors the truth and especially if they attend the illicit fellowships. “There is no way to know,” Pew concludes.
Those preparing comprehensive articles on Xi-era tensions might scan a 2020 Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder, the U.S. State Department’s latest religious freedom report and a 2017 analysis from the independent Freedom House.
Contacts: Pew Research public relations is at email@example.com or 202-419-4372. The World Christian Encyclopedia co-editors, both at 978-468-2750, are Todd Johnson (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Gina Zurlo (email@example.com), who lead Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity (www.globalchristianity.org/). Asia Harvest’s director, Paul Hattaway, is in Winston-Salem, N.C., at 877-868-5025.
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited graphic with an Exploring History YouTube feature — “Why China’s Social Credit System Is Worse Than You Think.”