(China – January 12, 2024) In December, the Pew Research Center released a survey indicating that the population of Chinese Christians has stabilized after experiencing rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the reliability of the data in this survey report is subject to debate.
Some journalists, scholars, and Christian advocacy groups consider the Pew survey data to have a certain level of reliability, while other scholars hold a contrary opinion.
An article from the Catholic News Agency notes that given the Chinese Communist Party’s recent efforts to crack down on Christian activities, the phenomenon of a shrinking population of Chinese Christians due to the “crackdown” is not surprising.
Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told the Catholic News Agency that the declining numbers of China’s Christians are “no surprise.”
“They correlate with Xi’s [Jiping’s] crackdown on Christianity, his so-called ‘Sinicization’ campaign,” she said. For the past five years, “the state has strictly banned all children from any exposure to religion, churches have been blanketed with facial recognition surveillance and linked to social credit scores.”
During that time, Bibles have been restricted and censored, Beijing has detained Christian bishops and pastors, and their sermons have been censored to “be on Xi’s ‘thought,’” Shea continued.
Steven Mosher, a scholar with the Population Research Institute, told the Catholic News Agency that he questions the reliability of the data in the new survey since Christians in China, fearing for their safety, might refuse to respond to polls.
Nevertheless, he said, the effect of the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress the growth of Christianity cannot be underestimated.
“Communist Party leader Xi Jinping made clear in a December 2021 speech that he intends to bring every religion in China — Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Taoist, and Buddhist — under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party and make them serve its purposes,” Mosher added.
“Any religion that does not teach its members to love the party and socialism is a ‘backward’ religion engaged in ‘illegal religious activities,’ Xi said, and will be stamped out. Religions should only conduct their activities in approved places of worship and must not interfere with social life or the education of the young,” he told the Catholic News Agency.
As long as the Chinese government continues to implement policies that coerce and mislead believers into aligning their religious identity with party ideology or idol worship approved by the government, Christians will continue to face persecution, even suffering, for staying true to their faith. State coercion may hinder the formal institutional transformation of Christians into churches, but it ultimately cannot prevent the growth of the Christian faith, both in terms of the number of believers and their steadfast faith.
The estimation of the number of Chinese Christians is bound to have a certain range of discrepancies, as sampling studies from different geographical locations may influence the accuracy of the estimation. This is due to variations in the density of Christian distribution in different regions.
The government’s “surveillance” of Christian activities may lead people to assume that the development of Christianity in China has stagnated, but this is only a hypothesis. A significant number of Chinese Christians choose to remain concealed, making it challenging for outsiders to come in contact with them. Professor Yang Fenggang, a sociology professor at Purdue University, commented, “In an increasingly hostile environment towards religion, who would be willing to answer survey questions about religion?”
Several pieces of information indicate that online and on-site activities among Chinese Christians are in a tug of war. Many Christians opted for online activities during the pandemic, but there has been a rebound in on-site activities after the pandemic. Whether the development of the number of Chinese Christians has truly stagnated or is covertly growing remains a puzzle. However, quantity has never been the most crucial aspect.
But what can be anticipated is that after the persecution stops, the Chinese church may experience a new wave of rapid growth in the number of Christians, similar to the decades of growth that occurred in China after the end of the “Cultural Revolution” in the last century.
The words of Jesus Christ to the early disciples bring comfort to contemporary Chinese Christians. The work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart is incredibly marvelous, freely moving like the wind or breath: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8 NIV).