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Religious Statistics in China

Counting adherents of religions in China is like entering a minefield. It is generally recognized that Chinese economic, population and birth-control statistics are massaged up or down depending on political requirements, and religious statistics are even more problematic. I entered this minefield some 40 years ago and have consistently advocated taking a cautious approach which I shall continue here!

There are two major problems for anyone attempting to make realistic estimates of religious believers in China today. The first is that the government has for a long time downplayed the role of religion in Chinese society, and with it, generally underestimated, in the view of most serious researchers, the numbers of religious believers, especially Christians. Political and ideological factors play a major role in this. The official ideology of China is still “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought” although this is often forgotten. It is the Party’s “statement of faith,” codified in Document 19 of 1982 as the post-Mao, milder, religious policy, that religion will ultimately wither and die at some point in the future. This flies in the face of all the current evidence that religion is flourishing in China.

In the case of Protestant Christianity, both the government and the Three Self Patriotic Movement/China Christian Council (TSPM/CCC)–known as the lianghui, or two officially-recognized bodies controlling Protestant churches–for more than two decades denied the very existence of unregistered house-churches. Protestant church statistics were strictly based on baptisms and attendance figures at state-registered churches and registered meeting-points (known in “shorthand” as tangdian). Similarly, the large “underground” Catholic Church, loyal to the Vatican, was ignored when issuing statistics for Catholics which were limited to those attending mass at “patriotic” Catholic churches and chapels. As we shall see, these attitudes have slowly changed among many government officials, and among academics and researchers working inside Mainland China. They have largely been jettisoned in favor of more unbiased and wide-ranging presuppositions which take into account the entire spectrum of Christian belief from the most separatist of unregistered house-churches to those registered churches and their leaders who faithfully follow the Party line.

The second problem is in some ways the opposite of the first. Researchers and believers overseas, in strong reaction to the very partial and biased statistics which have emanated from Mainland official sources, until recently (and still do so, in some cases) have seized on every scrap of information coming from other sources, especially Chinese religious believers themselves, and proceeded to extrapolate, build models and estimate numbers. The result has been, especially in the case of Protestant Christianity, wildly varying figures ranging from 23 million (the present TSPM/CCC figure) to over 100 or even 200 million. In the case of Islam, a similar situation pertains: whereas the official number for Islamic believers in China is just over 20 million, some Muslim observers overseas have talked of 70 or even over 100 million Muslims.

What are some of the practical problems that make statements of definitive statistics for religious believers in China hazardous–and perhaps even impossible? Using unregistered house-church Christians as an example, one may make a few general observations which rule out any definitive statement of detailed statistics. In most cases, house-churches are now to be found across China. (Tibet is the major exception and even there, there are a few). No one is able to visit all the house-churches or collate accurate statistics from all these heterogeneous meetings that range from groups of a handful of people meeting together to large networks which claim millions of adherents. Statements which appear regularly in the Christian press that “every day 25,000 (or 50,000 or 100,000 depending!) new believers are added to the church in China” are ruled out of count because of the simple inability of anyone at the present to make accurate surveys of all house-church believers at the national or even provincial level. Statements such as that in Henan province “in 2009 there were 8,856,228 house-church Protestant Christians,” as one overseas observer has claimed, are similarly ruled out of count. Such detailed statistics are impossible to draw up for the simple reason that no one has sufficient reliable informants. Reports that emanate are partial, may be exaggerated and, in most cases, almost certainly cannot give a fair or accurate estimate of the many other networks, let alone individual fellowships, which exist outside the informants’ own limited range of first-hand knowledge.

Having cleared the ground, so to speak, we can proceed cautiously to examine what evidence exists for each of the five, major, officially-recognized religious faiths in China.


Buddhism has long been acknowledged as the major religious faith in China by both Mainland sources and overseas scholars. The Chinese government and the Buddhist Association have long stuck to a figure of 100 million Buddhist believers which has not changed. This is clearly a highly dubious estimate. Officials and researchers in China have had to wrestle with the vexing problem of what consists of “feudal superstition” (which is to be suppressed) and what consists of true Buddhist belief (which can be tolerated). Over the decades no real answer has been found to this conundrum. Although arguably Buddhism is tolerated more than Protestantism or Catholicism (I recently came across a manual of Buddhist teaching on sale in Beijing’s largest book shop with a recommendation by former President Jiang Zemin!), on occasion Buddhist monks and nuns have been persecuted for performing rites which the local officials have regarded as superstitious.

One of the major problems in assessing the number of Buddhists in China is that of definition. In practice, there seems no clear distinction between Buddhism and what we may call “folk religion” and Daoism. A survey conducted by East China Normal University in 2006 found that some thirty percent of the adult population or 300 million people followed some religion, the majority of these being followers of Buddhism or folk religion. This is about three times the official estimate mentioned previously (BBC News, 7 February 2007).

We are on firmer ground when it comes to estimating numbers of Buddhists among China’s national minorities. According to official sources there are 7.6 million followers of Tibetan Buddhism among the Tibetans, Mongols, Yugur, Monba and Tu peoples. There are also about 1.5 million followers of “Pali Buddhis” better known as Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism, among the Dai, Bulang, Deang and Wa peoples.

It is interesting that some researchers within China claim that there are more Christians than Daoists or Buddhists in certain areas. For instance, a recent survey of Chongqing states there may be 800,000 Protestants but only 600,000 Buddhists and 70,000 Daoists. (See section below on Protestantism.) This seems to be based on fairly narrow criteria limiting Buddhists to those who declare themselves to be so and are registered in some way as taking part in institutional religious practices.

Strict followers of Buddhism are not numerous, that is those who practice vegetarianism and as monks, nuns or lay people practice Buddhist rules seriously. However, those who are influenced by popular Buddhism and “folk religion” probably number several hundred million.


China’s only indigenous religion (if we except Confucianism) has generally avoided the limelight. Daoist priests and hermits usually avoid cities and live in remote mountainous areas. According to the Chairman of the official China Daoist Association, Min Zhiting, there are now over 1,100 temples and shrines in China and over 26,000 Daoist initiates. [This compares to a claimed five million initiates in 1950 (www.kenyon.edu, N/D).] Daoism suffered severe repression in the 1950s because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of distinguishing state-approved Daoism from “feudal superstition” and such secret societies as Yiguandao. Mr Min, no doubt following the example of the Buddhists, claimed vaguely that there are “over 100 million” Daoists in China. As with Buddhism, the number of practicing Daoist monks, nuns and hermits is probably not great, but the influence of Daoism at a popular level, which is often hardly distinguishable from magic, is vast. Virtually any night, Chinese TV is awash with “sword and sorcery” thrillers in which the heroes and villains seek elixirs and perform impossible gymnastic feats and magic, all of which have their roots in popular Daoism and folk-religion. Daoist temples are crowded at festivals and some are even being renovated or rebuilt in city areas. Nevertheless, the distinct Ming dynasty garb of a Daoist priest is still unusual on the street as opposed to the dark red of Tibetan lamas or the grey of Han Chinese Buddhist monks.


As mentioned in the introduction, statistics for numbers of Muslims in China vary as much as for Christians. The present official figure is 28 million, based on the total number of Uygurs, Kazaks and other smaller Muslim minority people, but especially including the numerous Hui (Chinese-speaking Muslims). However, this figure is vigorously disputed by Muslim researchers overseas. They point out that a census taken in China in 1936 gave a figure of 48,104,240 Muslims in China (teachislam.com). In 1982 the official figure was only 15 million. Even the BBC on its “Religion and Ethics” website claims the real figure could be anything between 20 million and 100 million. Another Islamic source claims, mysteriously, that the CIA recently estimated the number of Muslims in China to be 37,108,000. The American Pew Research Center, after conducting a survey in 2009, came up with the figure of 1.9% of the total population of China as Muslim, or 21,667,000 people, which reflects the then official figure.

On a recent visit to Xinjiang I was told by local Uygurs that the population statistics for the number of Uygurs in Xinjiang has been kept artificially low for many years to fewer than ten million. This seems quite possible. However, the local Uygurs speculated the real figure was perhaps 12-15 millionthey were not claiming a huge discrepancy. On balance, it seems likely that the total number of Muslims in China is probably higher than the official figures but unlikely to be the very high figures of 50 or even over 100 million claimed by some Muslim observers overseas.


Roman Catholic scholars in the Vatican and at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong have compiled detailed statistics of the numbers of Catholics, churches, priests, bishops and dioceses and so on, on the Mainland. So we are on much surer ground when it comes to estimating numbers of Catholics in China than any other religion. The official government and Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) figure is now five milliononly a modest increase from three million in 1950 (New China News Agency, 23 November 1950). About 50,000 new Catholics are baptized every year in these state-recognized churches.

The Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life estimated the number of Catholics (both “patriotic” and “underground”) to be nine million in 2011 (Global Christianity, December 2011). The Holy Spirit Study Centre who have, perhaps, the best access and expertise, estimate a total of 12 million, five million of whom attend “patriotic” Catholic churches (that is, those approved by the government and technically loyal to Beijing and not to the Vatican) and some seven million attending “underground” churches which are fiercely loyal to the Pope. In practice, there is a good deal of overlap, with many bishops and priests in the “patriotic” church loyal to the Vatican. At the time of writing this article, relations between the Vatican and Beijing have hit a new low. The new Bishop of Shanghai, publicly, from the pulpit, announced his withdrawal from the CPA and was applauded by the congregation. The CPA, as with the TSPM in Protestant circles, is very much despised by the majority of Catholic believers.


Officially according to the TSPM/CCC and the government there were only 700,000 Protestants in the whole of China in 1950. Overseas researchers generally computed the figure a little higher at about one million to include the wider Protestant community. However, whichever figure is taken, it is truly remarkable that after decades of outright persecution the official figure today is 23 million! At least one million new converts are added to the state-registered church annually. [See Dangdai Zhongguo Minzu Zongjiao Wenti Yanjiu (Studies of Religious and Minority Questions in Modern China), China Social Sciences Publishing House, Beijing, 2010.]

Virtually every one now accepts the existence of a very large number of unregistered house-church Christians. This is no longer a taboo subject within China. Academics have written articles and books dealing with the house-churches, and pastors in the TSPM/CCC churches will often admit their existence and even hazard an estimate of the number of unregistered believers in particular cities or provinces.

The problem, as I mentioned in the introduction, is that over the last 30 years there has been a welter of conflicting statistics emanating from government, TSPM/CCC spokespersons, house-church leaders and believers, researchers and pundits overseas. Many, perhaps the majority, of the statistics relating to the house-churches have a very shaky foundation. The Western mind-set for preferring precise figures means that often the most speculative estimate has been published, republished and then further extrapolated to produce further inflated figures which cannot be verified.

The following evidence is submitted as reasonably reliable. In 2000 evidence was “leaked” from the government Public Security Bureau that there were 35 million Protestants in Chinaa significantly higher number than the then official figure (Compass Direct, 1 April, 2000). In 2010 the official English language China Daily surprisingly published an article which reported there were more than 50 million unregistered house-church Protestants in China, according to reliable academic sources. It is highly unlikely this report slipped past the censors unawares. We therefore now have a reasonable basis for stating a conservative total of some 73 million Protestants in China, according to official sources.

A number of academic surveys of religious belief, including Christianity, have been undertaken in recent years, some with aid from American academics. East China Normal University reported 40 million Christians in 2006 (The Guardian, 7 February 2007). The Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life issued a figure of 58,040,000 Protestants after doing a proper survey with the break-down as follows:

Total Protestants 58,040,000 4.3% of China’s total population
Independent (house-church) 35,040,000 2.6% of China’s total population
TSPM (“state” church) 23,000,000 1.7% of China’s total population

Global Christianity Dec 2011

In November 2011, the most detailed and significant statistical survey of Christianity in China was published in Beijing: Collated Reports of a Survey on Chinese Christianity (Zhongguo Jidujiao:Diaoyen Baogaoji). This was conducted in select cities, towns and villages all over the country in May 2009 by researchers from the Institute for World Religions of the China Academy of Social Sciences. It includes much useful and unbiased information on the house-churches as well as the TSPM/CCC churches. The perils of the researcher so far as statistics are concerned may be illustrated by their fact-finding in Chongqing. They state that the official number of Protestants in this vast megacity has now surpassed 500,000 although another official estimate puts it lower at 380,000. However, in a footnote we are told that “the statistic current in [TSPM/CCC] church circles is 800,000.” (!) This is typical of most cities and provinces throughout China and shows that even the official statistics emanating from the government and TSPM/CCC sources may vary widely.

Another important Mainland source was the book Studies of Religious and Minority Questions in Modern China published in Beijing in June 2010 by the Academy of Social Sciences Press. This contains some startling information of the rapid growth of Protestant Christianity. In his introduction to an article entitled “An Analysis for the Reasons for the Rapid Growth of [Protestant] Christianity in China Today,” researcher Ma Hucheng states that “some people estimate there are 50-70 million Christians in Mainland China.” However, he accepts the “moderate” estimate of 40 million as more likely while predicting that the rapid growth of the church will continue. He states: 

If we estimate that Christianity will continue to grow at the rate of one million per year as has happened over the past 30 years, then after 20 years there will be 60 million believers and after 50 years a conservative estimate is over 100 million Christians . As Christianity believes “everyone should spread the faith,” the more believers, then, the more preachers. So a moderate estimate is that after 50 years there will actually be 150 million to 200 million Christians. Mr Lu Daji [another academic researcher on religion] estimates that after only 20 years there could be 200 or even 300 million Christians.

It is no wonder that more conservative (that is neo-Maoist) elements in the government are concerned about the growth of Christianity. Ma believes that China is very similar to South Korea in its Confucian and Buddhist cultural and religious background. He states that already 35% of the South Korean population is Protestant and worries that China is well on the way to following in their footsteps on a more massive scale. So we have here confirmation from Marxist academic advisers to the government that both the number of Christians is considerably higher than the official statistics and that in the near future the church will continue to grow exponentially.

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Tony Lambert

Tony Lambert is the director for research, Chinese ministries, for OMF International and the author of China's Christian Millions, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church and the recently published Pray for China! A 30 Day Prayer Guide.View Full Bio