New Government Statistics on China's Christians

Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Dramatic Church Growth is Evident from All Sources
by Paul Davenport

HONG KONG (Compass) -- Totals for the number of Christians in China leaked from two Chinese government bodies reveal far larger estimates of the number of Protestants than official church leaders have previously admitted.

At a January Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB, the government body responsible for oversight of religions) conference, delegates were told the number of Protestants in China was 25 million. A leaked report from China's security organization -- the Public Security Bureau (PSB) -- put the total at 35 million.

Official spokesmen, such as China Christian Council Chairman Dr. Han Wenzao, have long denied the possibility that there are more than 15 million Christians in China. Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) statistics claim there are only 13.3 million Protestants. The TSPM is the official Protestant church organization in China.

"These leaks clearly show the Three Self leaders have been deliberately deceiving their Western audiences by pretending the total of Christians is far lower than their own government supervisory estimates, which they must have had access to," said a Hong Kong-based China watcher.

Many Western missions maintain the true number of Christians in China is likely to be 60 million and up. An Open Doors spokesman said they estimate there are 60 to 80 million Christians.

Detailed government statistics on religious adherents in China were revealed at the recent national RAB conference convened in Beijing. The RAB delegates were reportedly given the following figures:

Buddhists -- 150 million

Daoists -- 5.5 million

Muslims -- 11 million

Protestants -- 25 million

Catholics -- 3.2 million

These statistics were leaked to the Hong Kong-based magazine "Cheng Ming Monthly," which published them in its February edition. The editor said that they did not have a copy of the original document, but that a "reliable source" in China had passed out the information.

"Cheng Ming Monthly" also published internal statistics compiled by the Public Security Bureau, which keeps close surveillance on religious believers. The statistics for Protestants and Catholics are significantly higher in the PSB list: 35 million and 8.5 million, respectively. These latter figures tally much more closely with the figures compiled by independent researchers overseas.

Statistics in China are notoriously unreliable. First, it must be clarified that published statistics often differ significantly from those compiled for the government's own use and kept classified. Numbers of Christians published in government handbooks and by the state-controlled TSPM give very conservative (and often out-of-date) figures that are the bare minimum. They usually include only those Christians registered and baptized in an official TSPM church or meeting point, and they omit unregistered house church believers and children under the age of 18.

Figures released privately by TSPM pastors for their local area or province are usually significantly higher. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the TSPM is still claiming publicly that the total number of Protestant Christians in China is only 13-15 million while the government itself may have internal statistics estimating 25-35 million.

Foreign observers claim the government is still underestimating the number of Christians. And some house church leaders in China have stated their combined movements number 58 million, although they admit their estimates are not based on extensive data gathering.

Does this mean that all statistics emanating from China are totally unreliable? Not at all. There is plenty of evidence of church growth from both TSPM and house church sources reporting numbers attending local churches and those baptized in a particular locality each year. Careful collation of the available evidence down to the county level shows amazing church growth over the past two decades. The government's internal statistics of 25-35 million Protestants have only to be compared to the 700,000 Protestants in 1949 when the Communists took over for proof of the scale of the ongoing revival.

Alex Buchan contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service.
Used with permission.