In a review of the increasing religious freedom in China, Singapore’s most influential English newspaper The Straits Time attributed it to the Chinese government’s growing confidence and their response to the society’s demand for room to practice religion. In addition, a government-sponsored survey on religion in China revealed the estimated number of religious believers has reached 300 million, which is three times higher than previous official figures.
It is not just that the government appears to have loosened the reins on religion. People are also generally more tolerant than they were before of religious practices, including those of a foreign religion like Christianity. Arrianna Liu, 30, told The Straits Times that she feels more at ease now saying grace before a meal in a restaurant than she did before.
“A few years ago, I would worry about how others saw me. But now, yes, there is curiosity but no judgment,” said the Beijing-based Liu, who works for a non-governmental organization, reports the Singapore newspaper.
The Straits Times analyzed that in the 30 years since her birth in 1978 – the very same year that China embarked on economic reforms and opened its doors to the world – Chinese society has undergone tremendous changes that have led to a burgeoning of religious believers.
Furthermore, analysts are optimistic about China’s religious growth so long as the government sees its usefulness in helping to maintain a stable society. Also, the government has shown support in recent years for Chinese cultural traditions and indigenous or indigenised religions, according to the review.
Last year, Chinese state-media China Daily published an article on February 7, which disclosed the results of the first mass survey on religious faiths conducted by two professors of East China Normal University; the survey interviewed 4,500 people, and it reported that 31.4 percent of those above 16 year old are religious. Using this figure to calculate the rough estimated figure of religious believers in China, there would be approximately 300 million people with religious beliefs.
Within this figure, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Christianity, and Islam stand for 67.4 percent of the estimated figure.
While this discovery came to the international community and those within China as unexpected, some religious specialists have expressed that this piece of information will enhance a healthier societal understanding towards religion.
Since the early 50s, the government has always reported that the number of religious believers in China remained around 100 million. If this figure is accurate despite the population growth from 400 million to 1.3 billion people in China, then religion would be rapidly declining and deteriorating. This understanding would subconsciously promote the idea that religion is the remains left from the outdated civilization and that it would eventually fade out in the midst of modernization and technological advancements.
However, such understanding would hinder the society’s proper understanding of religion.
[Editor's note: reporter Ruth Wong contributed to this report.]