From Peter Berger:
On May 30, 2014, The New York Times published a story by Ian Johnson about what seems to be a concerted government effort to clamp down on Christian churches in Wenzhou, the city with the highest percentage of Christians in China. It has long been known that there are regional differences in official attitudes toward religion, not always reflecting the views of the central government. It is conceivable that the events in Wenzhou could be a relatively local matter. But at any rate one aspect of the story makes one wonder: The provincial head of the Communist party who initiated the anti-Christian measures, Xiao Baolong, is a close ally of Xi Jinping, the president of China since March 2013. The president is not known for a liberal outlook. Do the events in Wenzhou reflect or foreshadow a policy change on the national level? It is too early to tell, but it is worth reflecting on the implications if there is a policy change emanating from Beijing.
Wenzhou is a city in southeast China. It has 9 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area (I suppose this makes it a medium-size city in Chinese terms). The climate is good all year long, because it is located in a hilly area with fresh breezes. It has long been known for having a successful class of entrepreneurs, many of whom have moved to other parts of the country and to the overseas Chinese diaspora. The economic market reforms began with a government-sponsored experiment in Wenzhou. The city now contains 130,000 private enterprises, four of them listed among China’s 500 top firms. Intense Protestant missionary activity, most of it from America and Britain, began there in the late nineteenth century. Wenzhou now has the largest percentage of Christians in the country—estimated at 15%. No wonder it has been called a “Christian Jerusalem”! What is particularly interesting is that the Christian community, most of it Protestant, has a large number of successful business people, known locally as “boss Christians”. Some of them expressed the opinion in a study that Protestantism would become the majority religion in China, and that this would not only be good for the economy but would help China become a great power (a prospect they welcomed). Until now, there have been relaxed relations between the Christian churches and the local power structure (state and party).
Christianity in China has exploded in numbers in recent decades. The phrase “Christianity fever” was used to describe this. I generally rely on two demographers of religion, Todd Johnson and Brian Grim. In their book The World’s Religions in Figures (2013), they estimate the total number of Christians in China at 67 million (about 5% of the country’s population). There are other estimates, the highest, by the World Christian Data Base (an Evangelical outfit), at 108 million (about 8%). This may be wishful thinking. Official Chinese government figures are much lower (possibly wishful thinking too, as is typical of all statistics released by authoritarian governments). Johnson and Grim estimate that the total of Protestants is 58 million (4.3 of the country’s population), with Catholics far behind at 9 million (0.7%). I would think that the Protestants are mainly Evangelical, many of them Pentecostal/charismatic. All these estimates include both churches that have been officially registered by the government, and those that have not. The distinction is important: The latter category of Christians (often referred to as belonging to “underground” or “house” churches—rather a misnomer, as some of them are very much “above ground” and worshipping in large buildings). However, even if tolerated by local authorities, the members of unregistered churches are very hard to count. I would therefore guess that totals of Christians including both categories are under-estimated.
Just what happened in Wenzhou? And what does it mean beyond that charming little town of nine million people?
Protestant Christians, with all the funds raised by themselves (between three and five million dollars), had built a cathedral-sized church (with the spire 180 feet high, topped by an enormous cross). The Sanjiang (“Three Rivers”) Church) was erected on a hillside. It could be seen from far away. Finished in 2013, it had quickly become a landmark of the city and a powerful symbol of the Christian presence. That prominent presence was resented by some adherents of other religions, at least partly because they wanted to build sanctuaries of their own and competed with the Christians for suitable building spaces in the hilly environment. The construction had been approved by the provincial religious affairs bureau (these government agencies exist all over China). Thus Sanjiang was an officially registered church, not a so-called “underground church” (the usual targets of government repression).