How Many Chinese Christians Are There?

Estimates of the number of Christians in China vary from 16 million to 200 million. Because of the Chinese government’s often hostile approach to religion, getting a credible count has been nearly impossible. Now, in a recent First Things article (First Things, May 2011, pp. 14-16), three Baylor sociologists claim they have arrived at a reasonably accurate count, and they place the number at 70 million.

When the Communists came to power in 1949, there were about one million Chinese professing Christians at that time. Skeptics dismissed them as “rice Christians,” i.e. Chinese who cynically claimed to be Christian in order to receive some type of benefit from Westerners. The Communist government outlawed religion, so the fledgling Christian church was expected to disappear. However, by the last quarter of the 20th century it was clear that, rather than dissolving, Christianity was growing in China–and growing rapidly. The difficulty has been in determining the growth.

In 2007, the Horizon Ltd, “one of China’s largest and most respected polling firms,” conducted a national survey. Face-to-face interviews were conducted throughout the country with over 7000 respondents. The article goes into detail about how the survey was conducted, and how the results were assessed. Special attention is given to the problem of traditional Chinese reticence to participate in surveys in general and the reluctance (for obvious reasons) of Christians in particular.

Several findings are worthy of note. In terms of demographics, Christianity is spreading rather evenly among their society. Whether a respondent was from a rural area or urban area made no significant difference. In addition, professing Christians were well represented among all ages. But there were some differences. Women were nearly twice as likely as men to profess Christ. And those with higher education levels and higher incomes were more likely to be Christian. A jarring (but unsurprising) exception to that finding was among those who belong to the Communist Party (who generally enjoy higher incomes). No member of the Communist Party admitted to being a Christian.

What can we conclude about these findings? On the upside, there is the simple fact that the church in China has grown from one million to 70 million. A 70-fold increase in 60 years is remarkable by anyone’s reckoning. It also means that in China there are more professing Christians than there are members of the Communist Party. On the downside, 70 million is only 5% of the total population. In other words, 95% of China is lost and need to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The work in mainland China has just begun. What an exciting day to be a Great Commission Christian!

[A side note: The parents of Dan Heimbach, senior professor of ethics at SEBTS, were missionaries in China when Mao Zedong came to power. In fact, Dan was born during the Communist revolution. After a period of house arrest he and his family were deported from the country.]

Out of Mao’s Shadow

Out of Mao’s Shadow

Reviewed By: Bruce Riley Ashford

Recently, I had opportunity to read Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow. I had always wondered how the Chinese government managed to steer its mammoth populace toward a decade of globally unprecedented growth. Now I know, but almost wish I didn’t. In the book, Pan gives us the “no holds barred” narrative of recent Chinese history, and in particular China’s attempt to balance its version of capitalism with its unique brand of authoritarianism.

He does so by focusing on 11 profiles of China’s dissidents: a young entrepreneur’s open defiance of the police by attending the funeral of Chinese dissident Zhao Ziyang, a doctor arrested for blowing the whistle on the government’s handling of the SARS epidemic, a filmmaker’s documentary about a Mao-era dissidents who wrote a prison manifesto in her own blood, and others.

The author arrived to his post in Beijing in the spring of 2001, and over the next seven years came to several conclusions, among which are three in particular: The first is that the Communist Party is, on the whole, winning the battle for the nation’s future: “What I found was a government engaged in the largest and perhaps most successful experiment in authoritarianism in the world. The West has assumed that capitalism must lead to democracy, that free markets inevitably result in free societies. But by embracing market reforms while continuing to restrict political freedom, China’s Communist leaders have presided over an economic revolution without surrendering power.

The second conclusion is that China’s authoritarian government is deceitful, manipulative, and often brutal in its governance: Pan writes, “Fabricating and controlling history was so important to the party that it devoted a vast bureaucracy to the task, an army of propagandists, ideologues, and censors who labored to deceive the masses in the name of serving them….The result was a complex tapestry of truth and lies intended to bury unpleasant memories and obscure inconvenient facts.

The third conclusion is that China’s citizens, especially her dissidents, are making a difference for the better, even thought their efforts are costly and sometimes fatal: “But as I examined the party’s success, I also saw something else extraordinary-a people recovering from the trauma of Communist rule, asserting themselves against the state and demanding greater control over their lives.”

Pan’s lively and engaging portraits combine to support these conclusions, and communicate them to the reader in a concrete and memorable fashion. It is a fast-paced and well-written book, but in many ways gloomy and even sad, as Pan details the oppression of China’s people at the hands of their government. Out of Mao’s Shadow is highly recommended for its critical analysis of contemporary China, its salient portraits of her people, and its glimpse into her future.

Book: Out of Mao’s Shadow (2008)

Author: Philip P. Pan

Region: East Asia (China)

Genre: Historical Journalism

Length: 312 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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Global Context (China): Chinese Lessons

Global Context (East Asia-China): Chinese Lessons

By: Bruce Riley Ashford

This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Chinese Lessons is a lively, witty, and intimate portrait of five Chinese nationals who the author met in 1981 during Deng Xiaoping’s cautious reopening of China to the West and China’s rise as a police state flirting with capitalism. The author, John Pomfret, was an American exchange student at Nanjing University in the 1980s, and afterwards served two stints as a journalist in China.

The book centers on this small circle of close friends that he made as an exchange student. They are Big Bluffer Ye, Book Idiot Zhou, Little Guan, Old Xu, and Daybreak Song. Pomfret details not only his encounters with them during college, but also narrates their lives pre- and post-college. He shows how they sprung forth from the soil of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and how they negotiated life after college, under the capricious hand of the Party and in the context of China’s current rise to power.

The book is helpful for those who would like an accessible and lively portrayal of Chinese society and culture, with bits and pieces of recent Chinese history along the way. Pomfret draws upon personal experience, intimate conversations, interviews, and personal diaries in painting a portrait of his friends, their families, and life in China. At times the story is sad, as he details how his classmates witnessed the humiliation and torture of their family and friends at the hands of the Chinese police state. But it is not always sad, as he tells how they each fell in love, got married, gave birth to children, found jobs, and otherwise made something of the life they were given.

Along the way, many themes emerge, among which are the following five. First, Pomfret shows the immorality that pervades the economic sector of Chinese society today, and argues that it was fostered by the Cultural Revolution which encouraged a ruthlessly competitive economic environment. Second, he details political corruption, as evidenced, for example, by the government’s refusal to come clean about SARS epidemics, poisoned water supplies, political assassinations and other issues. Third, he points out China’s demographic crisis caused by a rapidly aging population that is disproportionately male and its environmental crisis causes by consistent degradation of land, water, and sky. Fourth, many Chinese are still involved in ancestor worship, the appeasement of territorial ghosts, and other such folk religious practices that do not fit the image of an emerging world power. But fifth, Pomfret remains convinced that China is the story of the 21st century, in spite of all of its flaws.

Pomfret’s knowledge of and immersion in Chinese society and culture, his affection for the Chinese people, his eye for detail, and his sharp wit combine to make this book an exciting and informative read.

Book: Chinese Lessons (2006)

Author: John Pomfret

Region: East Asia (China)

Genre: Historical Journalism

Length: 312 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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