Faith in Community: an Economic and Social Narrative Explaining China’s Surging Christian Population

Written by: Wenzhe Teng

When people discuss religions in China, they will talk about native religions like Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddism, and even Islam, which is practiced by the Uighur and Hui ethnic majorities. To the surprise of many, however, Christianity, especially Protestantism, is one of the most prominent religions in China, and it has been growing ever faster in recent years. In the past decade, the official population of Protestant Christians in China rose from 22 million to 38 million, or 3% of the entire Chinese population. Beyond the official number, the Economist refers to a 2020 Notre Dame University study that suggests the presence of an additional 22 million unregistered Protestants in China. Along with at least 5 million Catholics, Christianity was the second largest mainstream religion in China, next only to Buddhism. In fact, there are more Christians in China than in France or Germany, and some optimistic US media assessments even indicate that China will surpass the United States as the country with the most Christians by 2030. (see also: optimistic US media example 2 and 3

This significant and ever growing population of Chinese Christians is a new phenomenon, and observers give different interpretations to fit their narratives of why this growth is occurring. For example, the New York Times indicates that Chinese Christians are embracing Western political values, and even depicted them as the political opposition against the authoritarian Communist government, similar to its reporting on the South Korea churches in the 1980s. Nonetheless, I will argue that it is the social and economic division in China that is leading to the increasing Christian population, who convert to Christianity for its spiritual and communal support. 

Although Christian missionaries have been present in China since the Qing dynasty in the 17th century and became more prominent under the protection of Western powers after China’s defeat in both Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860), their attempts to convert the Chinese en masse had few successes. In fact, a bloody anti-foreign movement known as the Boxer Rebellion was initiated by rural masses who were angry about the privileges missionaries and Chinese converts held. In the first half of the 20th century, Christianity was adopted by many Chinese political elites, such as Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of the Republic of China,” and Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist Party leader ruling the Republic of China from 1928 to 1975. During Mao’s reign from 1949 to 1976, extreme Maoist policies oppressed any religious activities and transformed China into a mostly atheist country, which continues to be true today. Before the surge in Christian population after 1976, Christianity was not connected with the average Chinese citizen, and its influence was only able to reach the political and cultural elites in cities. 

In contrast to the limited number of urban Christians in the past, the Chinese Christian population nowadays is wide-spread and has a strong rural presence. Residents of Chinese villages, especially the ones in the Northern provinces, are increasingly attracted by the Christian faith. Furthermore, according to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics, almost 300 million peasant workers, known as Nongmingong in Chinese, have moved to the cities to look for work. With a strong Christian population among them, Nongmingong have established religious organizations in the cities—though many of those organizations are local and unregistered. While registered Christians and their officially authorized churches are already significant in number, the unregistered population in both the rural areas and the margin of cities cannot be overlooked. The rural Christian population contrasts the narrative of Western media, which suggests that liberal democracatic values attract Chinese to Christianity, since the isolated and less educated rural residents are not the primary recipients of Western political and cultural influence.

In addition to largely living in rural areas, Chinese Christians are also relatively poor and marginalized. A Beijing University study indicates that Christians are more likely to identify themselves as poor and to have less income than other religious groups.

The economic inequality between rural and urban areas is already a defining feature of Chinese society, and its persistence and seriousness are recognized even by the government. Nongmingong in the cities are also economically disadvantaged, and their lack of education and connections forces Nongmingong to struggle for jobs with low income, such as construction work. While they spend most of their time working in the cities, the peasant workers’ official status continues to be rural residents, which prevents them from accessing resources exclusive to urban residents, like education and health care in the cities. I believe that Chinese Christian community emerges from this social division.

The lack of economic and social support can make peasant worker life difficult, but Christianity provides a pillar of hope. Christian churches build community for the disadvantaged rural population, and believers are able to offer each other financial and spiritual support. For instance, church schools have been providing education for many children of Nongmingong, who were excluded from the public school access in cities. The presence of private schools,  a rarity in China, indicates the Church’s function as a community provider. Similar cases occur in the field of healthcare and nursing, in which Christian social workers fill the vacuum of governmental programs. For the economically disadvantaged, the church provides what the government fails to. The formation of Christian communities or villages is not because only Christians are moving in, but because all residents convert to Christianity to obtain the communal support.  

The emotional and communal support that Christianity provides is a main contributor to its growing membership in China. Native Chinese Christian missionaries, who are not formally trained in Western religious institutions, are the main force in spreading Christianity. Their targets are usually family members and friends, further strengthening the community aspect of the Chinese Christian organization. Moreover, the missionaries also preach to the public and try to get more converts from the general society. Facing the threat of governmental prosecution, these missionaries’ actions indicate strong devotion and commitment to their religious cause. 

With more and more new believers joining the faith, the Christian community building process continues. According to a study by Beijing University, Chinese Christians are the most organized religious group in China. On a national scale, 31% of Protestants and 18% of Catholics join religious organizations, compared to only 17% of Muslims and 3% of Buddhists. Christians also participate more actively in religious events and are more pious by the study’s standards than any other religious group in China except Muslims. 

While the community building aspect of the Chinese Chiristianity provides participants support and strengthens their faith, there are also some drawbacks. Nongmingong and the rural poor are not highly educated, nor are they knowledgeable about the established teaching of Christianity. Consequently, the incorporation of superstition elements and the emergence of cults happens regularly inside the Christian community.

The Chinese Christian population and community has been growing rapidly in the past decades, as have its challenges from the government. The official prosecution of the Chinese Christian does exist and has been widely publicized by Western observers, including the previous examples given by the New York Times. While registered churches are run with government approval, many unregistered religious organizations are vulnerable to government crackdown, which the government justifies as taking action against subversives or cults. Despite this persecution, unregistered Christian organizations are not necessarily in political opposition to the government. No religious organization in China is influential enough to challenge the Communist Party authorities, and there are limited incidents of any real subversive activities. As this article suggests, Chinese Christianity focuses mainly on community building rather than promoting Western democractic values. 

Historically, the emphasis on community building and mutual support has been a successful tool for many religions in their expansion. In fact, the characteristics of Chinese Christian organizations surprisingly resemble the earliest Christian communities in the Roman empire before becoming a state-sponsored institution. Secret society, rapid growth, appeal to the poor, communal support, and even state prosecution are all present, and these similarities say so much about Chinese society. 

In conclusion, the growing population of Chinese Christians reflects the serious social division inside Chinese society. For the economically and socially alienated peasants and peasant workers, Christianity provides urgently needed emotional support. The aspect of community building defined the emergence of Chinese Christian organizations, it creates devoted followers and mutual support among them, while it also breeds superstition and cult-like fanaticism. Perhaps the greatest irony of the story of Chinese Christianity is that the Communist government is willing to spend its resources persecuting unregistered Christians, but remains unwilling to  support its vulnerable populations before they turn to Christianity for relief.