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Christian influence on growth of freedom in China

BERKLEY (SE): “Since the early 20th century, China has undergone dramatic social changes, including two revolutions, multiple wars, dramatic political turmoil, and rapid economic development in recent decades,” Yang Fenggang, from Purdue University, said in a paper delivered at the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs in California on October 31.
Speaking to the theme of Christianity’s Growth in China and its Contributions to Freedoms, Yang said that among the multitude of changes happening today is the rise of Christianity and the roles that Christians have played in the expansion of various freedoms.
“The Christian growth in contemporary China is quite similar to the Christian growth in the fourth-century Roman Empire. Amid wars, natural calamities and social turmoil, the number of Christians has grown in spite of persecution and suppression,” he said.
He pointed out that there are now more practicing Catholics in China than in Italy and more practicing Protestants than all of Europe.
“If this growth continues at the current rate, in less than two decades China will become the largest Christian country in the world. This would have vital consequences for China and the global community,” Yang predicted.
He pointed out that since the Communist Party took control of China in 1949 the number of Catholics has increased sufficiently to keep up with the general population growth, but the exponential growth in the Protestant population has moved far ahead of that, rising from about one million to at least 58 million by 2010.
Quoting from a 2011 Pew Research Centre Report of Global Christianity, which he said some sources say is conservative, he estimated that it should mean that today there are over 12 million Catholics and more than 100 million Protestants.
“Taking the prudent estimate, the 58 times increase of Protestants in China in six decades is a spectacular growth by any measure,” Yang observed.
In analysing this spectacular growth, he said it is not sufficient to write it off to God’s plan, but social factors must also be examined, as something must be conducive to it to overcome the ongoing suppression.
But this is difficult, because there is no high-quality quantitative data, but Yang maintains that other types of empirical research make it reasonable to assume that the growth could continue as long as the large social processes, such as industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation continue.
He said, “Assuming the growth maintains at the level of the modest seven per cent per year—the average compound annual growth rate of Protestants between 1950 and 2010—by the year 2030 there could be more than 224 million Protestants in China.”
He maintains that this is not an over ambitious prediction, as the compound annual growth rate in the more recent decades from 1980 to 2010 has been more than 10 per cent.
“Given the empirical evidence on the ground, I think the growth inertia could easily carry on at least to 2030. Therefore, by 2030, it is very likely that there will be more Protestants in China than all Christians combined in the United States of America.”
Yang also said that it is significant that it is not only the number of Christians that has increased, but the variety of social backgrounds of Christian converts has become quite diverse and now includes the middle-class and elite professions.
In contrast, he pointed out that between the 1950s and the 1980s, growth was mostly confined to rural areas and less well educated people.
He pinpoints the great leap forward as coming in the 1990s alongside the economic transition toward a market economy and global integration, when a social phenomena of Christian businesspeople (boss Christians) and Christian intellectuals (cultural Christians) occurred for the first time since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
In the 2000s, large numbers of Christian lawyers, professionals and artists emerged as well, meaning that large congregations began to dot the urban metropolis landscape.
This expansion was not limited to the officially-approved Churches either, but also came in the unapproved House Church congregations.
“Chinese Christians have made evident contributions to the expansion of freedoms in Chinese society,” Yang insists.
“First, Christians fought to preserve their own religious freedoms under severe persecution. Second, Christian lawyers have fought for civil and human rights of Christian and non-Christian citizens. Third, Christian businesspeople, intellectuals and professionals have worked within the existing social and political system in gentle ways for social freedoms,” he continued.
“Finally, many democracy activists have converted to Christianity in their search for meaning, justice and freedom,” he added.
Noticeably, he said that Christian growth has come at much the same rate as growth in overall freedom in Chinese society.
“In China today, Christians are at the front lines of practicing and campaigning for individual freedoms, from the freedom of belief to the freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom for public welfare to freedom for civic engagement and political participation,” Yang concluded.
While there is still a long way to go, Yang points out that China today is a long way ahead of where it was in 1980.