During my first trip to China in 1979, for a family reunion, I was surprised when a Shanghai cousin informed me that the government would reopen Christian churches.
This was big news. Religion had been banned during the calamitous Cultural Revolution that had only ended with the death of Mao Zedong three years earlier. During that decade of anarchy, all places of religious worship — not only Protestant and Catholic churches, but temples and mosques as well — had been shuttered or destroyed. The former Anglican cathedral in Fuzhou, where my grandfather, the Rev. Lin Pu-chi, had been a pastor in the 1920s, had been turned into a factory.
I wondered if this announcement about churches signaled a return of religious life in China. But my 30-something cousin downplayed the news. He thought older people who had religious lives before the Cultural Revolution might be inspired to return to church. But for his communist-educated generation, he didn’t think it would amount to much.
How wrong we were.
In the ensuing 38 years, China has experienced a religious revival like no other place in the world. Today in China, interest in all forms of religion is increasing, with a particular flourishing in the ranks of Christians.
In the early days of the People’s Republic of China, people put their unwavering faith in Mao. But with the collapse of socialism and China’s rise as an economic dynamo, the money culture that now dominates society has left many with a spiritual hollowness that they are filling with religion. Buddhism remains the largest official religion, with approximately twice the number of followers as Protestantism and Catholicism, but the Christian population has grown more dramatically in the last three decades.
Consider: In 1949, the year of the communist victory, there were 4 million Chinese Christians, including 3 million Catholics and a mere 1 million Protestants. Today, there are anywhere from 80 million to 100 million Christians and the number is expanding. The precise population of Christians is difficult to gauge because of the unusual, bifurcated nature of the church in China. By law, churches are supposed to register with the government, but many more “house churches” do not, preferring to operate in a gray zone beyond the direct control of the state.
Today’s churchgoers tend to be young to middle-aged, better educated, and broadly distributed between cities and the countryside, according to the China Gospel Research Alliance, which includes Christian mission groups.
An expert on the church in China, Joseph Lee of Pace University, notes an interesting trend that is encouraging the expansion in Christianity: Migrant workers who have gone to cities for jobs and converted are returning home to spread the faith to remote areas not previously visited by Western missionaries or Chinese evangelists before 1949. “In many metropolitan cities like Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai,” he says, “Christian migrant workers from rural areas like Anhui and Sichuan provinces fill many church buildings.”
But the flourishing of Christianity in China has not gone unnoticed by officials. Under the government of President Xi Jinping, who assumed office in 2012, authorities have tightened rules on Christian churches, both registered and unregistered. Chinese authorities have exerted a higher degree of suppression and controls on churches, according to a new report by the Freedom House, a Washington, D.C. human rights advocacy group. The report, released in February, found that there was a “high” degree of persecution in Protestant circles and a “moderate” degree in the Catholic community, which has seen a slight easing in tension due to recent improvements in relations between Beijing and the Vatican.
Lee notes that President Xi seems intent on taking a “top down” approach to ideological discourse and is “far more interested in politicizing the social and cultural domains, and pressuring everyone to submit to the ideological supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party.” The president’s rhetoric includes warnings against “Western” values and influence in churches, and the need to “Sinicize” religions, in other words make them more Chinese.
Recent signs of tightening political control range from subtle to blunt. Some Chinese pastors have noticed that podcasts or blog postings of sermons have mysteriously vanished from the internet, according to Christie C.S. Chow, who teaches at City Seminary of New York.
In Zhejiang province, meanwhile, local authorities went on a two-year campaign to tear down big crosses from more than 1,500 churches on grounds that they violated zoning or construction codes. A pastor with a registered church who had protested the cross removal was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
But like so much in China, what is true in one province could be the opposite in another. The cross-removal campaign was in full swing when I visited the southern city of Fuzhou in the summer of 2015 to finish research for a family memoir. Zhejiang province is the northern neighbor of Fujian province and I was anxious that I might find a tense atmosphere among the house churches and state-registered churches that I planned to visit.
To the contrary, I found the mood in Fuzhou to be open and relaxed. I met a group of house church leaders, including a 98-year-old man who had spent 24 of the last 60 years in prison for his religious work. The elderly man told me that a decade ago, just meeting me could have gotten him in trouble. But for the last decade, he and others have worked to cultivate better relations with local officials. Everyone was well aware of what was happening in Zhejiang. But as one Fujian house church leader told me, “China is a vast country. We can’t say for sure about the whole of China, but in Fujian province, communication has been going well.”
At my grandfather’s former Anglican church in Fuzhou, now an official registered church, I asked the pastor whether he feared a return to the bad old days of the Cultural Revolution when churches were closed. “Impossible,” he explained with a wave of his hand, “There are too many believers.”
Jennifer Lin is a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer and author of “Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family,” from which this essay was adapted.