Published January 20, 2011
While religion in China may not be a big topic for discussion during President Hu Jintao's meeting with President Obama this week, many experts say that an explosive growth in Christianity may be transforming the officially atheist regime.
According to China Aid, a Texas-based human rights group, the number of Christians in China has increased 100-fold since 1949. Current estimates range from 80 million to 130 million active members. And one startling estimate from a Chinese Christian businessman has that number doubling or even tripling in the next generation.
Christianity could become one of the macro forces shaping Chinese culture, say experts like Dr. David Aikman, author of "Jesus in Beijing."
"If the Chinese become Christianized ... which doesn't mean you have a majority of people who are Christians, but it means about 25 to 30 percent of people in positions of influence, in politics, in culture, in the media. If you have that component of a major power that accepts Christianity enthusiastically as a guide to life, that is going to change the world view of the leaders of China."
Others argue that even if the more generous estimate of 130 Christians is true, it's still a drop in the bucket in a population of more than a billion people.
But Dr. Luis Palau, who has preached in China, says Christians are among the country's most cohesive groups.
"They all preach the same gospel. There are no liberals or conservative branches ... they all believe the same."
Supporters say even estimating 80 million Christians in China, a conservative figure, still has them outnumbering the membership of the Communist Party, which at last check, in June 2010, was 78 million, according to the ChinaDaily.com.
What's the origin of this faith explosion?
China Aid's Bob Fu says Christianity experienced a growth spurt after the Tiananmen Square conflict. Six of the 30 student leaders who were arrested converted to Christianity.
"Ironically," says Fu, "church history shows that the more the political persecution, the more believers there will be. This is the case in the Roman Empire, and also with China."
But Chan-Kei Thong, a businessman who lived and worked in China for 30 years, said Chairman Mao Zedong, Communist China's founder, may have unwittingly paved the way.
"What Chairman Mao did that the emperors did not do, he brought in a form of pseudo monotheism, a pseudo person to worship ... himself ... as a personal god. "The Christian God fits into that."
The Chinese government is not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of Christianity's growth. Officially, the government says there are 28.6 million Christians. That's because it only counts churches that are registered with the government.
Despite China’s recent easing of hostilities toward Christians, Beijing has had a harsh and violent history with the growing religious community. Beijing’s often brutal crackdown -- including roundups, blacklisting and jailing -- drove thousands of followers underground, spurring on the house church network.
While some of those followers have since registered with the government, Beijing continues to crack down on unregistered house churches.
But as many as 60 percent of Chinese Christians attend unregistered house churches, Palau says.
Palau, who says he is on good terms with the government, added that some party members acknowledge in the neighborhood of 120 million active Christians.
Others see a government fear of Christianity's traditionally anti-Communist power as a factor -- and along with it a growing concern over China's human rights record.
What Fu sees in Hu's visit is a rare juncture in this changing philosophical climate, to press China harder on those issues.
"I think this is an historical opportunity for President Obama to really represent the free world's universal values. ... "It will be a huge mistake for Mr. Obama to put human rights at the bottom of the agenda."