Christmas will be more widely celebrated in China this year than at any time in memory. Everyone who claims any knowledge of the subject believes that the number of Chinese Christians has been growing steadily over the last decade. Communist bureaucrats harass Christians, isolate them, try to manipulate and divide them. And yet by the standards of recent decades, Chinese Christianity now seems remarkably resilient.No one knows how many Chinese are Christian. The State Administration for Religious Affairs, which supervises all religion, says there are about 25 million, apparently the government’s optimistic understatement. Christian activists, on their many blogs, claim 50 million to 100 million. The Global Religious Landscape, a demographic study released this week by the Pew Research Center, estimates 68 million, based on 2010 data.
Whatever the real number, no one denies the memorable comparison made on the BBC in September by Tim Gardam, a journalist and principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford: “There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.”
Since about 1980, the Chinese government has directed toward Christians a relatively moderate but still annoying and persistent form of religious oppression. The meager results of its efforts are heartening: Having been subjected to the most extreme and degrading forms of government harassment and directives over three generations, many Chinese nevertheless insist on making up their own minds about issues they consider important.
Brent Fulton, a life-long China-watcher with a PhD in political science, runs ChinaSource, a Christian nonprofit based in Hong Kong. Recently he remarked that Christian parents, like many other Chinese parents, dislike the narrowly technical education many schools in the country offer: “You’ve got Christians now setting up schools — primary schools, kindergarten, home-schooling networks. There’s a movement of Christian families even sending high school students abroad for study in a Christian high school.”
These developments have frightened the power centre. A 9,000-word document on the prevention of campus evangelism was issued last year by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, but leaked only this week. It claims that foreign governments are using Christianity to infiltrate higher education and create “ideological and cultural erosion” in China.
The document gives off an aroma of paranoia that makes it, despite the clotted prose, fascinating.
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