In China, Counting Christians

Chinese Catholic priests baptize new believers during a 2013 Easter Vigil in a church in Shenyang, China. A papal visit to China does not appear likely anytime soon, according to experts on the church in China. (CNS photo/EPA)

What percentage of China’s population considers itself Christian is a question that has come to the fore here recently, in part because that number may have grown to nearly equal the membership of the Communist Party of China.

The C.C.P. operates “patriotic” churches that are headed by government officials instead of allowing allegiance to the Vatican or other international church bodies. The two main such organizations are the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the latter a catch-all Protestant organization.


Chinese government estimates in 2010 placed the number of “official” Protestants at 23 million, with the “official” Catholics numbering 5.7 million, for a total of 28.7 million. Out of a population of 1.4 billion people, Christians would seem to be a very small minority, about 2 percent of the total. By comparison, the United States has about 78 million Catholics, almost a quarter of the total population.

But like many official numbers from China, these figures are disputed by others who question their accuracy, arguing that they do not count millions of unofficial Catholics and Protestants, members of underground and other churches, especially Catholic groups that recognize the Vatican’s leadership, not the party’s.

The most quoted estimates are from a 2011 report by Pew Research, which put the total number of Christians in China at 67 million, nine million of them Catholic (not including Catholics in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan). Although that number would still only total about 6 percent of the country’s population, the Catholic figure takes on a different significance as it approaches what in China is an important number: 85 million, the total membership of the C.C.P. at the end of 2012.

Communist Party membership is no longer the all-encompassing aspirational goal that it was before China began its process of opening and reform in the 1980s, but it remains an important path to many jobs and certainly to any career in government. Party members attend the Party School, a requirement for anyone wanting any but the most basic civil service jobs. Until the beginning of the recent anticorruption drive led by President Xi Jinping, party membership was also seen by many as offering better opportunities, in both legitimate and illegitimate ways, for economic advancement than private industry.

China’s government maintains an uneasy relationship with Christianity in general and Catholicism specifically. On the one hand, Christianity, like most religions in China, is seen as a beneficent socializing force; on the other, it is viewed with suspicion as a rival ideology. The Vatican, which does not recognize the People’s Republic of China (it recognizes the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate government for all of China), also suffers from being one of the “foreign forces” regularly cited by China for “interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

In April, Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology and director of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, predicted that by 2030 China will have the world’s largest Christian population, surpassing the United States. (Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic nation.) Yang estimates that in just over 15 years China will have 247 million Christians. “Mao thought he could eliminate religion. He thought he had accomplished this,” Yang said in an interview with the U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph. “It’s ironic—they didn’t. They actually failed completely.”

If those figures seem hard to believe, just consider that even with only a single-digit percentage of its population identifying as Christian, China is already the world’s eighth-largest Christian country.

What that growing Christian presence means for China, and especially its domestic policy, is unclear, but continued growth could lead to an increase in actions against churches, like the removal of external crosses, and even demolition of whole church structures, like that seen this year in the coastal province of Zhejiang. A nationwide crackdown on Falun Gong in the late 1990s wiped the group’s name from any public discourse today. A Christian population approaching the 100 million mark—which would then likely exceed total C.C.P. membership—would be uncharted ideological territory for China.

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