China will soon be home to the largest Christian population of any country on earth, according to a leading expert on religion in China.
The London Telegraph reports that Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and expert on religion in China, predicts that China’s Christian population will become the largest of any country by 2030.
Already, China is home to some 58 million Protestants — more than leading Protestant nations like Brazil and South Africa — and 67 million total Christians, according to Pew Research. To put this in perspective, in 1949 China’s Protestants numbered just 1 million persons and its entire Christian community was believed to be about 3 million strong.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yang, however, believes that China’s Protestant population will swell over the next 11 years to reach 160 million in 2025. Furthermore, Yang forecasts that China’s overall Christian population could reach 247 million people by 2030.
If these forecasts are correct, this would almost certainly put China above the United States in terms of the size of their respective Christian communities. In 2010, the U.S. boasted roughly 159 million Protestants and just under 247 million Christians overall, making it home to the largest Christian population in the world. However, religion has been on a gradual but consistent long-term decline in the United States and thus by 2030 America is likely to have a smaller Christian community than it did in 2010.
The Chinese government and academics in state-run institutions are disputing Yang’s figures. For example, an unnamed government official was quoted by the Global Times as saying: “The estimate is unscientific and obviously an exaggeration. China advocates religious freedom and we are not against people’s right to believe in any religion. In this respect, an estimate of the number of Christians makes little sense.”
However, official estimates from the Chinese government on the size of the country’s Christian population are universally considered to greatly underestimate the number. Part of the discrepancy comes from the accounting method. Some believe the Chinese government’s figures only include citizens who worship at one of the state-sanctioned Christian organizations, and thus miss the substantial underground church community that has swelled in China in recent decades.
Yang, on the other hand, explained the logic behind his forecasts in an email to Chinese state-owned media outlets. “Based on the Pew Research Center’s Report of Global Christianity, the Christian population in China took up some 5 percent of total population in 2010 [67 million], while it is widely recognized that there were 3 million Catholics and 3 million Protestants around 1980, which would make an annual growth rate of around 10 percent,” he wrote.
There would be a good deal of irony in China becoming the largest Christian nation in the world. To begin with, China is officially an atheist nation, and Mao Zedong was often harshly critical of religion during his time in power. More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party has traditionally been hostile to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution, when believers were often persecuted, imprisoned and tortured.
Even in the post-Mao era, the CCP has periodically targeted Chinese Christians, particularly those who belong to the underground churches rather than the officially sanctioned (and heavily regulated) official Christian organizations in China. The CCP also tries to limit the influence of the Catholic Church and the Pope in various ways, such as appointing China’s bishops in the government-sanctioned Catholic organization.
The degree of tolerance of Christianity is also generally believed to differ greatly across different regions in China. According to the BBC, however, the official line in China is that the government pledges “to protect and respect religion until such time as religion itself will disappear.” It doesn’t seem like this time will come anytime soon. Indeed, as Bethany Allen notes over at Tea Leaf Nation, Jesus is more popular (and tolerated) than Mao Zedong or Xi Jinping on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.