Country Profile: China
Updated February 2016
Population: 1.37 billion
Government Type: Communist state (single-party)
Religion: No religion 52%; Folk-religion 22%; Buddhist 18%; Christian 5%; Muslim 1.8%.
China’s rich cultural heritage stretches back thousands of years. Major unrest in the 19th and early 20th centuries paved the way for communism after World War Two. The People’s Republic of China was forged in 1949 by Chairman Mao Zedong.
During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Mao’s purge of anything and anyone not conforming to his communist vision cost the lives of millions of Chinese.
Today, as well as being the world’s most populous nation, China is the world’s largest single-party state. Its authoritarian approach is intended to impose social harmony and control.
Modern-day China has moved from a narrow centralised economy to, by some measures, the world’s largest free-market economy. China became the world’s largest exporter in 2010. Its economic impact is felt increasingly around the globe – for good or for ill. Headlong growth has slowed in recent years, amid concerns about an economic bubble, prompting adjustments in policy to rebalance the economy.
Social reform has failed to keep pace with economic changes: the regime maintains strict control over every aspect of society.
China’s growing engagement with the rest of the world was demonstrated in 2008, when Beijing hosted the Olympic games. But campaigners protested that China’s human rights record should have disqualified it from this honour.
That record is increasingly tarnished by China’s detention – and sometimes torture – of human rights lawyers, some of whom are Christian.
While Buddhists significantly outnumber Christians, the church in China is growing. It is generally believed that the number of Christians in China now rivals the membership of the Communist Party.
Estimates vary wildly – there can be no official records of underground believers. Christianity in China calculates the number of Christians at 163 million, with unregistered church believers outnumbering members of the state-registered Three Self church by four to one. Others estimate the current number of Christians at between 60 and 100 million.
However you measure it, the growth has been dramatic. According to The Guardian, there were only 4 million Christians in China when Mao took control. And he went on to kill half a million.
A leading academic estimates China is on course to become the world’s most Christian nation by 2030, with more churchgoers than America.
Although the constitution provides for religious freedom, China has consistently tried to control religious practice. The single-party state will not tolerate any perceived opposition or competition.
All religious groups are required to register and submit to restrictions. Those who refuse, because they cannot in all conscience submit to the religious control of an atheist state, are regarded as ‘illegal’ and sometimes forced underground.
State-sanctioned churches are closely monitored. ‘Illegal’ groups are frequently branded ‘evil cults’, which makes it easier to prosecute them. Charges range from embezzlement to espionage. Their leaders risk torture or imprisonment.
In an attempt to silence its international critics, China has in recent years passed laws purporting to underline its commitment to religious freedom.
Such laws are, however, contradicted by official documents leaked to the international media. A 2004 Central Committee paper, marked ‘secret’, speaks of the regime’s intention to ‘boost Marxist atheism research, propaganda and education’ and to ‘ban all uncivilised conduct in spreading superstitions’ – a description often used of house church activity.
Other leaked documents gave notice of a crackdown on house churches. The detention of groups of Christians across several provinces in late-2010 was widely perceived as proof that this diktat had been implemented.
In 2014, officials in coastal Zhejiang conducted a province-wide ‘Three rectifications and one demolition’ programme. Under the campaign, provincial officials demolished churches, removed crosses, and threatened action.
At the time of writing, some 1,500 crosses have been removed. A Christian lawyer who tried to mount a legal campaign against the action has been detained without charge, along with house church leaders and the high-profile pastor of one of China’s largest Three Self churches.
Release partner China Aid reports documented cases of persecution are increasing. It says almost 18,000 individuals suffered persecution in 2014 – 1,592 of whom were church leaders.
China Aid states there are ‘more Christians in jail for their faith in China than in any other country’.
They include prominent Christian lawyers and pastors who have stood up for the rights of the poor. Those who question the authorities can find themselves branded enemies of the state and charged with undermining national security.
Even so, the church is growing, and is contributing to church growth elsewhere. In 2015, more than 900 house church pastors pledged to send 20,000 missionaries to other nations by 2030.
Current and recent projects include:
- Printing / producing and distributing a book about Christian marriage, as well as Bibles and other Christian resources
- Organising and facilitating leadership training for leaders of unregistered churches
- Supporting workers in China who investigate cases of persecution, provide support to families and arrange legal aid
Sources: BBC; China Aid; Christianity in China; The Guardian; International Christian Concern; Operation World; Open Doors; Release International; The Telegraph; The World Factbook 2015; VOM Canada.
Updated February 2016