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How Many Christians in China? Preferred Estimates, Part 2

From the series How Many Christians in China?

Editor’s note: Be sure to read the 2023 update, “How Many Christians Are There in China? It’s Complicated.”

In the first post about the number of Christians in China, we heard from Professor Yang Fenggang, of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society.

In today’s post we will hear from Dr. Carsten Vala, Professor of Political Science at Loyola University in Maryland, and author of the book, The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China. (You can read my review of the book here.)

By way of reminder, the questions that I put to him were, what is your current best estimate of how many Christians there are in China, and how did you arrive at that number?

Here is Dr. Vala’s response.

First, I start with numbers given by the official Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) of 3 million in 1982 and 10 million in 1995 and 15 million in 1999, from which one can extrapolate a 10% growth rate. Interviews with Protestants in different parts of the country revealed that the growth rate was unusually high in the 1990s, so perhaps 10% is too high. We could estimate a 7% annual increase to be a bit more conservative. If the house church population is at least as large as the official church population, as most scholars believe, then today’s population in both streams would be over 100 million (3% growth would equal 50-60 million).

Second, the Pew Research Center came out with a survey result of 58 million in 2011, including both official churches and unregistered (house) church Protestants. That may be an undercount, as it’s likely that some Protestant respondents did not answer truthfully because they still feel ill at ease in revealing their adherence. The population has surely grown since then (as reputable publications like The Economist in 2014 has reported), although how much is difficult to tell. But either way, an annual increase of 7% from Pew’s number would translate into roughly 100 million today.

Third, various Chinese government or mainland China scholar estimates have been published over the years with 20-23 million Protestants. In 2010, the Blue Book for religion published a number of 23 million Protestants in official churches.

Typically, official estimates have two flaws: one is that they usually do not include those who worship outside official churches. Another is that the people are purposely reporting a lower number than the real one in two instances. First, when local Protestant leaders (TSPM/CC) or local officials in government offices (RAB/UFWD) report them to outsiders collecting the data and, second, also when the scholars in China working in prestigious universities are pressured to publish lower numbers in state-authorized publications, as scholars have told me they’ve done. If there were really 46-50 million Protestants total in 2010, then a 7% annual rate of increase would result in roughly 85-90 million.

There is a caveat to all statistics, particularly in China. In 2007, the future premier Li Keqiang himself admitted that statistics (in this case for GDP) were “man-made” and thus unreliable. If this is true of such important statistics like GDP, then surely official Chinese statistics on the number of Protestant Christians are just as unreliable.

Interestingly, out of all this emerges one fascinating research angle that hasn’t been explored: when and to what degree Protestant Christians are leaving the faith. There are a few studies of disaffiliation in the West, but no one has studied the phenomenon in China, nor has anyone systematically studied syncretism of Protestant beliefs and practices with other belief systems.

Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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