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Facts about Numbers of Christians in China

Dec 09, 2008 02:22 PM EST

One of the most frequent questions asked about China is: “How many Christians live in China?”

Until recently this question had to be left unanswered because no one has ever tried to count them. The problem, of course, is how to count them? There is no way you can, because no appropriate statistics are known nor are they being kept by secular or religious organizations. At least I do not know of any such group. For this reason a number of conjectures or speculations are swirling around mainly offered by those who want to satisfy those who always ask that question. Therefore, different numbers have been put forth such as 16 million, 40 million, 80 million, 130 million (recently falsely reported that the Chinese government released this number) and the latest number given by a so called China watcher in Germany was 200 million.

But no one we know has ever counted them. The fact is that no one really knows. Every number given so far by Christian groups was a guesstimate.

What bloggers say

Recently an evangelical blogger reported: “Last month, it was reported here that a high ranking official in the Chinese government stated in the official newspaper Xinhua that there were 130 million Christians in China.” Apparently, without checking the facts in depth, several evangelical leaders promptly reported: “It is official now, 130 million Chinese Christians.” The above mentioned high ranking official is Mr. Ye Xiao Wen, Director-General of State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) whom we know personally. Consequently we contacted his office and his secretary Mr. Li told us that Mr. Ye never made a statement that 130 million Christians now live in China. This was corroborated to me personally by Mrs. Guo Wei, director of the Foreign Affairs Department in Beijing, whom I met on a recent trip in Beijing. We also checked with the official Chinese News Agency Xinhua and nothing like this was ever reported.

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What are the facts

To get the facts, China Partner asked a select group of people to travel into every province, municipality and autonomous region in China—all 31 of them. So far this was accomplished in every region except Xizang (Tibet). (However, we had the privilege to interview a few Tibetans we met as they traveled in other parts of China). The team interviewed a total of 7,409 people aged 15 and above all cross China (the oldest was 92). Our number of polled people is much larger than what is normally used by other polling agencies.

The survey team was asked to randomly ask people what religion, if any, they adhere to. The team interviewed them mainly on the streets and parks but also on trains, planes, subways, taxis and buses, in hotels, open air markets, department stores, and mom and pop stores. A diverse group of people were polled and to name a few, here they are: accountants, architects, butchers, businessmen/women, car salesmen, college and university students, college teachers, concierges, cooks, department store sales people, engineers, farmers, flight attendants, fruit stand sellers, garbage collectors, high school students, hotel business center clerks, hotel staff, medical doctors, middle school teachers, military officers, nurses, photographers, policemen, real estate agents, restaurant waiters, shareholders, shoe shine people, shop owners, soldiers, train conductors, store clerks, street sweepers, street vendors, taxi drivers, teachers, tea merchants and university professors.

39 - 41 million Protestant Christians

After doing further surveys during the last few weeks, the number we found is between 39 - 41 million with a 0.46% margin of error. The provinces with the highest per centage of Protestants are Fujian, Anhui, Zhejiang, Henan, Shaanxi, Jiangsu, Shanxi and Guangdong.

The vast majority of those who responded to the survey were either Buddhists or who do not have any faith at all. Interestingly, many non-believers did not want to be classified as atheists but said they just do not have a preference for any religion. Quite a few declared themselves as Communist party members. Other religions mentioned were Taoism and Islam (especially in western provinces of China). Some of them even dared to declare themselves as members of Falun Gong in spite of the fact that this “religion” is strictly forbidden in China. Those that declared themselves as Christians were Protestants and Catholics of registered churches and/or members of non-registered churches. Since we were only interested in pinpointing Protestants, we only counted Protestants.

It was remarkable and noteworthy to observe how accessible and forthcoming those polled were. Hardly any seemed to be reluctant to respond and if so, it was mostly because of their surprise to have been asked such an unusual or uncommon question in the middle of China. Furthermore, it was quite significant to observe how quickly a flash of a smile came across those who were believing Christians. We encountered very few who were not aware of the existence of a church building and often Christians and non-Christians alike offered to show the way to a given church. The Chinese are extremely polite and helpful and there was no sign of anxiety or apprehension.

By no means do we claim this survey to be clinical scientific and thus perfect but it does give a reliable indication, a general understanding and insight what the facts are. The survey was carried out in both urban and rural areas. We were quite surprised not to find more Christians than previously expected in rural areas we covered, because it is generally claimed by evangelical “China watchers” that most non-registered church members live there.

Furthermore, too many Westerners are not aware that countless members of non-registered churches or the so called “underground churches” (also referred to as house or family churches), especially those in rural areas, are often heretical in their beliefs or have their beliefs mixed with Chinese folk religions. Many—not all—of those so called “Christian believers” follow uneducated yet charismatic religious leaders who claim to have special powers. A few of such leaders even claim to be brothers of Jesus Christ or reincarnated Christs. To name just a few of such groups: The Shouters (Huhanpai), Teaching of the Highest Godhead (Zhushenjiao), Anointed King (Beiliwang), The Holy Trinity (San er yi shen), The Teaching of the Eastern Lightning, The Way of Resurrection (Fuhuodao), The Teaching of New Birth (Chongshengpai), The All-rounding-Church (Quanfanwei Jiaohui), The Teaching of Elijah (Yiliyajiao), The Christian Teaching of Lin You-Lai (Lin Youlai Jidujiaou), The Father Spirit, Mother Spirit Church (Shen ba, shen ma),The Disciple Fellowship (Mentuhui), The Teaching of the Female Christ (Nüjidujiao) and a multitude of others.

We are delighted to pass on these findings to all those who are truly interested in facts. Too long unsubstantiated and thus false numbers have been passed on. As interested and concerned Christians we have to be willing to honestly find the truth and then make those facts available no matter what has been stated so far.

Another survey taken by Department of Education in China

Interestingly, another survey has surfaced recently which was done by the Department of Education of China. I personally interviewed Professor Liu Zhongyu, the person who was in charge of this survey.

Professor Liu Zhongyu works at the Religious Culture Research Centre of East China Normal University in Shanghai. This year he published results from a survey his team completed with 4,500 people in every province of China. The survey was done over a period of 12 months. He concluded that around 300 million Chinese follow a religion or have some spiritual interest compared to a former official figure of around 100 million. These, however, may not necessarily practice any particular form of religion.

Similar results as the CP survey

Furthermore, his survey shows that up to 40 million Protestants now live in China, far more than the 16 million so far officially recognized by the Chinese government and the China Christian Council and far fewer than 80 million or 130 million often cited by evangelical organizations. He further stated that there are also an estimated 14 million Catholics. Due to a rift between the Vatican and the Chinese government, which do not officially recognize each other, about 10 million Catholics worship in "underground" churches loyal to the Vatican. The remaining four million worship in government-approved churches.

Liu said there are many reasons why today more Chinese are turning to Christianity compared to other religions, and one of them was that the communist government's long-standing persecution of traditional Chinese religions in the 30 years leading up to China's late 1970s reform and opening period played a significant role.

“After the communists established their atheist government in 1949, they tried to eradicate religious faith and still continue to directly administer religion through heavy-handed bureaucratic oversight”, he believed.

"We have persecuted our traditional religions too long and created far too many sects, so for a lot of young people there are no other choices (besides Christianity)." Liu Zhongyu also said "Christians have a strong tradition of converting people to their religion and at the same time it is easier to enter into their faith."

“Christian churches also have a strict training program for priests and pastors, so religious professionals tend to have a higher level of education and training than in traditional Chinese religions,” he said. Taoism, Buddhism and Islam are also making a comeback.

Possible causes of confusion

Finally, what may have confused the issue of statistics so far is the government’s formerly given official number of approximately 100 million religious people living in China that comprise the five major religions approved by the Chinese government. Another source of confusion may be from this recent survey conducted by Professor Liu of the East China Normal University in Shanghai, which revealed that there are about 300 million people in China who are interested in "spiritual" or “religious” matters. These, of course, include all constituents in the five recognized religions in China plus Chinese folk religions but are not necessarily devoted members of any religion.

Results to be taken seriously

Both surveys done by Professor Liu and China Partner (statistical office of Florida Atlantic University verified the correctness) reveal practically the same number of Protestants—give or take around 40 million. Therefore, the estimated numbers often previously quoted—the one at the lower end of 16 million and the one on the higher end of 130 million (or even 200 million)—and most in between have not been properly surveyed and therefore were mere speculations.

January 2, 2008

November 4, 2008 (added data from additional survey)

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Dr. Werner Burklin is the Founder/President Emeritus of China Partner. For more information on China Partner, go to www.chinapartner.org.

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