Christianity’s Growth in China and Its Contributions to Freedoms

Fenggang Yang
Since the early twentieth century, China has undergone dramatic social changes, including two revolutions, multiple wars, dramatic political turmoil, and rapid economic development in recent decades. Among the multitude of changes is the rise of Christianity and the roles that Christians have played in the expansion of various freedoms. The Christian growth in contemporary China is quite similar to the Christian growth in the fourth-century Roman Empire. Amid wars, natural calamities, and social turmoil, the number of Christians has grown in spite of persecution and suppression. By now it has become clear that there are more practicing Catholics in China than in Italy and more practicing Protestants than all of Europe. If this growth continues at the current rate, in less than two decades China will become the largest Christian country in the world. This would have vital consequences for China and the global community.
Under communist rule since 1949, despite persecution, suppression, and restriction, Christianity has survived, revived, and thrived in the People’s Republic of China. The number of Catholics increased from about three million in 1949 to about nine million in 2010, which kept up with the general population growth. Meanwhile, the number of Protestant Christians increased from less than one million in 1949 to about 58 million in 2010. The 2010 numbers are from the Pew Research Center’s Report of Global Christianity in 2011 and are considered conservative and prudent estimates. The lowest estimate given by the Chinese Communist Party authorities was 23 to 40 million in the early 2010s. Some other sources have given much higher estimates of Catholics and Protestants in China, such as over 12 million Catholics and more than 100 million Protestants. Taking the prudent estimate, the 58 times increase of Protestants in China in six decades is a spectacular growth by any measure.
What has made this spectacular growth possible? While many Christians may attribute that to God’s plan, social scientists must examine social factors that are conducive to such growth in spite of political suppression. Without high-quality quantitative data, it is difficult or impossible to pinpoint the exact social factors favorable for such growth. However, other types of empirical research make it reasonable to assume that the growth could continue as long as the large social processes, such as industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, continue in the coming years. Assuming the growth maintains at the level of the modest 7 percent per year—the averaged compound annual growth rate of Protestants from 1950 to 2010—by the year 2030 there could be more 224 million Protestants in China. In fact, the compound annual growth rate in the more recent decades from 1980 to 2010 was more than 10 percent. Given the empirical evidence on the ground, I think the growth inertia could easily carry on at least to 2030. Therefore, by 2030, it is very likely that there will be more Protestants in China than all Christians combined in the United States.
Not only has the number of Christians increased, but the social backgrounds of Christian converts have become diverse, including workers hailing from middle-class and elite professions. From the 1950s to 1980s, Christianity grew mostly in rural areas among peasants. In the 1990s, in tandem with an economic transition toward a market economy and global integration, there emerged the social phenomena of Christian businesspeople (“boss Christians”) and Christian intellectuals (“cultural Christians”). In the 2000s, large numbers of Christian lawyers, professionals, and artists emerged. Meanwhile, many large congregations arose in the urban metropolises, including both the officially-approved churches and the unapproved “house church” congregations.
Chinese Christians have made evident contributions to the expansion of freedoms in Chinese society. First, Christians fought to preserve their own religious freedoms under severe persecution. Second, Christian lawyers have fought for civil and human rights of Christian and non-Christian citizens. Third, Christian businesspeople, intellectuals, and professionals have worked within the existing social and political system in gentle ways for social freedoms. Finally, many democracy activists have converted to Christianity in their search for meaning, justice, and freedom.
In sum, along with the Christian growth, freedom has expanded in Chinese society. In China today, Christians are at the frontlines of practicing and campaigning for individual freedoms, from the freedom of belief to the freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom for public welfare, and freedom for civic engagement and political participation.