The number of Christians in Communist China is growing so steadily that, by 2030, the country shaped by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism could have more churchgoers than America.
Since 1949, China has been governed by the Communist Party of China, an officially atheist institution. During Mao Zedong's rule, religious movements were oppressed. However, since Mao’s death in 1976, which signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution, Christian congregations in particular have been spreading rapidly as churches began to reopen. Now, China is poised to become the world’s most numerous Christian nation. In 2010, there were more than 58 million Protestants in China, compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa – according to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule, believes the number of Protestants will grow to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but where congregations are in decline.
A recent study also found that online searches for the words ‘Christian Congregation’ and ‘Jesus’ far outnumbered those for ‘The Communist Party’ and ‘Xi Jinping’, China's president.
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The rise in Christianity, and in religious practice more broadly, could be seen as a threat by the government. As Yang explains, the Communist Party is "still not sure if Christianity would become an opposition political force" and fears it could be used by "Western forces to overthrow the Communist political system".
In April 2014, a government threat to demolish a church in Wenzhou, dubbed the ‘Jerusalem of the East’, met with large-scale resistance, causing officials to backtrack and work with church leaders on a compromise.