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National Religion Surveys of China

From the series God at Work: How the Church Grows in China


As I mentioned in my previous blog, anyone interested in the growth of the church in China has been limited by sparse statistics with a lot of estimation mixed in. Since the start of the 21st century, in addition to case studies and limited research in local areas, there have been two nationwide studies of the current situation and growth of the Christian religious population.

The first of these, the “Spiritual Life Study of Chinese Residents” was conducted in 2007 directed by Yang Fenggang1 of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University along with the Beijing-based Horizon Research Group responsible for implementation.2 This survey focused on a random sample of Chinese citizens and tried to assess their religious and spiritual life. This was a national survey and covered all types of religious expressions including atheism and agnosticism.

The analysis of 7021 samples from across the country found:

  1. 85% of Chinese adults (between 16 and 75 years of age) hold to some kind of supernatural belief or engage in a certain religious activity. True atheists, those who have neither any supernatural belief nor any religious activity, account for less than 15%.
  2. Buddhism is the largest religion in China. Eighteen percent of Chinese claim to believe in Buddhism, while only 3.2% believe in Christianity.
  3. The number of Protestant Christians has increased significantly in China, but the number of Catholics may have declined.

This survey, in addition to proving that, after 50 years of atheistic education, most Chinese people still have some kind of “religious” belief, it also shows that, despite its rapid growth, Christianity is far from reaching the level of a “dominant religion.”

However, this study did not cover the state of religious development in China, especially the discussion of the reasons and mechanisms for the growth of Christianity. While extremely helpful and insightful, it was not focused on researching and elucidating the characteristics and development models of religion in China.

The second large-scale study was the “Chinese Christian Household Registration Questionnaire.” This study was undertaken by the Research Group of the World Institute of Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and specifically focused on the number, distribution, reasons for believing, etc. of Christian Protestants. The survey was done between 2008 and 2009 with a large-scale sample survey of 31 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities across the country. The survey covered 321 district/county-level units, 2,718 village (neighborhood) committees, 54,360 households, 211,750 people; 63,680 questionnaires were distributed, and 63,680 valid questionnaires were received.

Afterwards, the analysis results were published in 2010 in the form of the China Religion Report 2010 (also known as the “Religious Blue Book”).3 The main findings are:

  1. Based on the results of the survey, the total number of Christians nationwide is estimated at 23.05 million, accounting for approximately 1.8% of the total population. Among them, the gender ratio is 69.9% women / 30.1% men; 67.5% baptized / 32.5% not baptized; Education: 54.6% elementary school or below / 32.7% junior high school / 10.1% junior high school and 2.6% high school or above.
  2. Time of becoming a Christian: 3.0% of respondents believed in 1965 and before, 5.7% believed in 1966-1981, 17.9% in 1982-1992, 42.4% in 1993-2002, and 2003-2009 was 31.0%.
  3. Reasons for believing in religion: 68.8% were because of “illness suffered by themselves or their families” and 15.0% are “affected by family traditions.”
  4. Contact channels for believing: 44% “affected by influence of family and relatives,” 46.5% “affected by other believers and friends.”
  5. The attendance of believers: “Often attend religious activities” accounted for 57.8%, “Sometimes attended” accounted for 38.2%, “Never attended” was 3.9%.
  6. Gathering places: “Activities in registered places” 67.9%, “Activities in unregistered places” 20.2%, “Activities in friends’ homes” 26.7%, and “Activities in own homes” 22.4%.

This survey confirms that the number of Christians in China has indeed increased rapidly, especially during the period 1993-2009. However, the traditional “four majorities” phenomenon of “majority old people, majority low education level, majority women, and majority rural population” still exists.4 Also, among reasons for believing, “belief due to illness” was found to be the most important reason.

Although this is the first time since 1949, that the Chinese government has conducted a field survey of “Christianity” in China, the results have been questioned from multiple angles. The most powerful questioner comes from within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. According to Zhu Jianzhong,

Professor Gao Shi Ning from the Institute of Religious Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said: The investigation lacked the participation of experts and scholars. In the whole process, they were only consulted during the design of the questionnaire. In addition, the survey was mainly commissioned by the State Administration of Religious Affairs, undertaken by the Institute of Religion, and was conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics.

As a result, there are three aspects in question:

First, this kind of work under the guidance of the State Administration of Religious Affairs but lacking the knowledge of the actual situation of Chinese churches may adversely affect the authenticity of the data. Second, the proportion of the first batch of 5,000 household surveys in Jiangxi, Hunan, and Yunnan in the first batch of sampling data; the proportion of the second batch of nearly 40,000 household surveys in 28 provinces and autonomous regions is puzzling. Why are Jiangxi, Hunan, and Yunnan specifically presented in the sampling data and account for a high proportion? In addition, the “self-help method error calculation” used in the sampling estimation scheme is considered insufficiently accurate. Third, because the interview survey was conducted under a real-name system, it is inevitable that many believers (mainly members of the house church and members of the Party) are unwilling to answer the questionnaire. And due to the social and environmental factors in which Christianity in China is located, non-religious interviewees may not know or are unwilling to admit that there is someone in their family when they conduct a household survey. As a result, the data presented in the survey may be lower than the actual data.5

These two studies highlight some of the difficulties for researchers interested in learning more about the growth of the church in China. Since the last of these studies, almost a decade has passed and the questions about the growth of the church in China have continued to interest scholars and other interested parties. In the next blog, I will explain a different approach to researching these questions.

Endnotes

  1. For other writing and articles related to Professor Yang Fenggang, see https://www.chinasource.org/?s=Yang+Fenggang.
  2. Yang Fenggang: “A glimpse of the religious status quo of China: Preliminary analysis of a questionnaire”; China Research Center for Religion and Society, December 2010 Volume 3 No. 2. https://www.purdue.edu/crcs/wp-content/uploads /2014/08/CRCSNewsletter-V3N2C.pdf (accessed 3/29/2019).
  3. See “Chinese Religion Report 2010” (“Religious Blue Book”).
  4. Author’s note: Due to the development of urbanization, in some descriptions, the “four majorities ” has been changed to “three majorities,” and the indicator “majority rural population” has been removed .
  5. Zhu Jianzhong: “An Analysis Report of the ‘Chinese Christian Household Survey Questionnaire Report’ (draft )”  http://www.collegesaints.org.hk/schedule/20110429outline.pdf (accessed 3/29/2019).