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Monday, March 05, 2007
(8:46 PM) | Stephen:
How About Some More China

Interesting news about religion coming out of China. East China Normal University conducted a poll on religious belief among the Chinese, and estimates that 31.4% of all Chinese over 16 are religious believers. This puts the number of believers at approximately 400 million. What's interesting about this poll is that the results were allowed to go public and were reported by Chinese media. Previous to this the official government line was that China had around 100 million religious believers.

There's some unanswered questions in the reporting of this poll, namely whether it was conducted in all areas of Chinese control or only among the Han majority. In Tibet, Inner Mongolia and the Uighur Autonomous Regions religious belief is much more pervasive that in the rest of China. There is also quite a bit more religious freedom allowed to the ethnic minority residents of those regions. If this poll was conducted among the Han majority, the results are nothing short of astounding.

I'd also like to know if the poll attempted to gauge the respondents' relative level of reluctance in answering the questions, given that the government's official policy is still one of Atheism. That this poll still underestimates the level of religious belief in China is entirely possible.

What this news really shows is how the question of religion has gotten completely out of the government's hands. Indeed, this is just an example of how little control the government in Beijing really has over the country.

There are "illegal" churches that operate completely in the open with the blessing and support of the local and sometimes regional Communist officials. There are schools, ostensibly teaching English to Chinese students, that provide theological education to leaders of the house church movement from all over China. The 3-Self Church, China's official Christian denomination, is ruled by Communist Party appointees who can make decisions regarding property and such but who are otherwise almost entirely ignored by the pastors and laity. The congregations of the 3-Self Church usually serve as public hubs of the house churches, and in some areas have taken to inviting foreigners to teach, preach and help them organize, all of which is illegal and all of which takes place with the full knowledge of local government officials.

Of course, there are areas that provide the complete opposite experience than the above, but that only further illustrates how tenuous the government's hold really is. All over Han-populated China there is a network of house churches that is connected to but more extensive than the official church. I have heard several leaders from various denominations peg the number of Christian house church members at over 100 million, something I gave little credence until the results of the ENCU poll came out. Now I wonder if this number is too low.

What this all means is that there are a few hundred million citizens of China who daily engage in activities considered illegal by the government in Beijing. They form networks, shuttle foreign missionaries all over the country to teach theology, cooperate to send their young people to covert theological schools and/or studies in the rest of the world where they connect with other ends of the many threads that lead into China.

We must of course add to this the Uighur Autonomous Region, separated from the most populated areas of China by the Gobi Desert and home to the eponymous Uighurs, Uzbeks and Kazakhs, all Muslim minorities. The value of this area to China is the connection it has to the energy deposits of Central Asia as well as its own deposits. This, of course, makes it valuable to the other nations in Central Asia. While none could challenge China for control, the government in Beijing will never be able to rest easy regarding this region and will therefore expend money, effort and attention on it.

Finally, while China is still ruled by an oppressive authoritarian government, there has been quite a bit of liberalization happening. Some of this is to help fuel the economic engine. Quite a bit is currently happening in Beijing itself in anticipation of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The government in Beijing will learn after those games that freedoms, once given, are hard to take away again. This will be especially true for China's growing middle class, a group that has not grown from the Communist Party's ranks. As it grows and starts to bump against even the liberal-for-China strictures placed upon it, the middle class will find itself the home of quite a few agitators for greater freedoms and access to the outside world's goods and information. The difference between these agitators and previous generations is that they will have the power of the purse, as it were, and just may prove to be the force that provides the fatal crack in the current government's power.

The question, then, is not whether China will undergo major political transformation within this century. Rather, we must wonder what its transformation will look like, and what it will mean for literally the rest of the world when it happens.

I think I'll post this at Ezra's place too.

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