July 5, 2009

Christianity In China: Dead or Alive?

According to official Chinese government sources, there are approximately 14 million Christians in China. Unofficial sources put it as high as 130 million, and the most realistic efforts at enumeration put it at about 54 million Christians in China. That number represents approximately 4% of China's population, and it is growing significantly. That's despite official efforts to restrict it.

This CBS clip from 2007 doesn't do the situation complete justice.

But does it matter what religion Chinese choose? Yes and no. It doesn't matter in the sense that the issue is really that the freedom to choose a religion in China is stifled. While they allow Christianity now, it's only through the government approved version of the Catholic Church, which the Catholic Church itself sees as subverting the role of the Vatican with respect to appointing priests. Other versions of Christianity are all underground still.

In some sense it does matter if Chinese people follow Christianity. Many Muslims claim that Islam is the world's fastest growing religion, while Christians claim that Christianity is. Converting Chinese to Christianity does a couple of things for the West. It provides us some cultural common ground, which is important in a world where China is emerging as a great power. China as an ally would be better than China as the alternative. It also lowers the risk of radical Islam finding a foothold there. Islam is a religion whose sensibilities are somewhat different than our own;

Founded in 622 A.D., Islam is among the newer major religions. But to the non-Muslim world, it sometimes appears inflexible. Clashes between Islamic tradition and Western influence are sweeping the globe.

In Islam, contrary to Western beliefs, the rights of the community are considered more important than the rights of the individual. Women are seen primarily as caretakers of the home, and religion strongly influences schools, government and courts.

You could argue that radical Christianity is a risk too, but unlike Islam, there is a clear and unequivocal denunciation of radicals within the community. Furthermore, Christianity has as a fundamental tenet freedom of choice. It's the key to the Western world. Free markets, and freedom of religion flow from that fundamental concept.

In any case, China is likely more prone to adopt Christianity as a foreign influence than Islam. It ties into the fact that the Chinese people are interested in owning GM cars, getting jobs in Europe and America and China is producing a growing number of English speaking citizens. It will soon have more than the United States.

Christianity is poised to fare well in China, provided liberalization of freedoms is not halted as per Tianamenn Square or a la the situation in Iran. For the United States and Western Europe that's a good thing. It doesn't solve every problem that exists with China, nor should it. The growth of Christianity represents a symptom of change in that country, not a cause. But at some point it may become part of a snowball effect with the religion leading to a demand for more freedom, and more freedom creating more interest in religion(s).

The Chinese people have started the move from a command economy to a semi-market-based economy, and from a cultural oppression to very limited cultural freedom. That process should be encouraged to continue until the process will push itself along without any help. Christianity will serve as the canary in the coal mine for much of it.

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