Christians in China survive persecution, but here’s what their oppressors don’t know

A recent Pew Research Report measuring religion in China suggests that Christianity in the country has stagnated and is perhaps even in decline. But to borrow from Mark Twain, such suggestions seem greatly exaggerated. In fact, many of us who are advocating for persecuted Christians globally believe the Christian community in China might even be growing.

If you believe Pew Research’s latest report, about 23.3 million adults in China self-identified as Christian in 2010. That number fell to 19.9 million by 2018. That’s a decline of nearly 3.5 million Christians in less than a decade.

It’s a stunningly high figure that may even seem plausible to those of us who have followed the multi-faceted anti-Christian campaign waged by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during this period. China believes it is winning the war against Christianity and this Pew Research report gives the CCP hope. 

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According to our own internal research at Global Christian Relief, Pew’s number could be off by as much as 100 million, but no one truly knows the size. What China is actually doing is pushing the church underground, forcing believers to self-censor in an environment that has only worsened under President Xi Jinping.

It’s important to recognize that Pew’s report analyzes data from a range of sources, including data collected and compiled by the Chinese government itself. For this reason, we might be cautious about whether this data is fully trustworthy.

After all, the CCP has attempted to squelch Christianity and religious belief in the name of Marxism for years, and the government has a spotty record when it comes to honestly disclosing uncomfortable facts about religious life within its borders.

All this information matters because the survey data is based on self-censorship. The data is based on what respondents are willing to admit, but Chinese Christians know they can be persecuted for their responses.

So, Christians in China have plenty of incentives not to disclose their true identities. Which is perhaps why Pew openly admits the possibility that there may be “limitations in survey and government data,” and claims “some analyses make adjustments” to account for these issues.

There are other significant facts that give us reason for pause, too. Christians in China tend to cluster in various regions and villages and aren’t evenly distributed geographically. If some of the most Christian cities like Wenzhou have been excluded from the survey, for example, that would have a noticeable impact on the data. While Pew acknowledges not every region in the country may have been proportionately sampled, it certainly gives us reason to be cautious of drawing sweeping conclusions.

The methodology used by the Chinese government to count the number of Christians between 1949 and 2018 has changed much over time, making it difficult to compare more recent statistics with earlier numbers gathered decades ago.

For instance, the government has not specifically stated whether children are included in the total numbers of Christians. It’s also unclear whether the changes in numbers are driven by new converts or a recategorization that includes Christians who previously worshiped in unregistered churches. 

For years, the Chinese Communist Party has enacted restrictions against the free practice of the Christian faith within its borders. These restrictions have only increased since Xi became president and the de facto leader of the CCP. The CCP actively promotes atheism, claiming that religion is only a temporary societal phenomenon that will disappear over time.

Watchdog groups and religious freedom advocacy organizations like Global Christian Relief, which I lead, continue to report that Christian communities are surging in many areas of China, but they often remain underground.

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The government has tightened control of Christian activities outside registered venues, banned foreigners from spreading church content online, and cracked down on house churches. You can bet that the Christians who exist in these covert communities are not being counted in government surveys.

Given the hostile anti-Christian environment in China, why would Chinese citizens feel safe sharing their honest thoughts and beliefs about religion? According to the analysts within Global Christian Relief, and our many contacts on the ground in China, only about one in five people are self-reporting.

Considering everything we know about the situation in China and the data on which Pew is relying, we can only conclude that we do not have an accurate picture of the true size and scope of the Christian community in China. At best, we might say that after decades of rapid growth, Christianity’s growth in China may be slowing. 

It’s easy to believe the latest bleak reports, which make for great headline fodder. But the truth is, those of us who want to see a growing, thriving Christian presence in China do not have compelling reasons to despair and perhaps even have reasons to rejoice.

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