There is an interesting article in this week's issue of The Economist about Christianity in China.
There are varying estimates as to how many Christians there are in a country of over one billion people. The Chinese government puts the number at 21 million, whereas unofficial estimates fall between 70 million to 130 million. While the Chinese government's figures are probably far too low, I also have a hard time believing that 1 out of every 10 people in the country is a Christian. It is not inconceivable though for Christians to eventually comprise 10% of the population at some date in the not too distant future.
Some excerpts from the article:
China’s new house churches have the zeal of converts: many members bring their families and co-workers. One Confucian Chinese says with a rueful smile that most of the pretty girls at university were Christians–and would date only other Christians.
Christianity also follows Chinese migration. Many Christians studied in America, converted there and brought their new faith home. Several of the congregation of the Shanghai house church studied abroad, as did Mr Zhao. In 2000, says one Beijing writer and convert, most believers were in the countryside. After 2000 they brought their faith into the cities, spreading Christianity among intellectuals.
All this amounts to something that Europeans, at least, may find surprising. In much of Christianity’s former heartland, religion is associated with tradition and ritual. In China, it is associated with modernity, business and science. “We are first-generation Christians and first-generation businessmen,” says one house-church pastor. In a widely debated article in 2006, Mr Zhao wrote that “the market economy discourages idleness. [But] it cannot discourage people from lying or causing harm. A strong faith discourages dishonesty and injury.” Christianity and the market economy, in his view, go hand in hand.
Is it possible that China will become a Christian nation? Perhaps, though I suspect that if China's long history is any guide, Christianity in China will be sinicized while China is simultaneously Christianized. A variety of self-proclaimed Christian cults might arise that would be just as bizarre to most American Christians as they would be to atheists, not unlike the messianic Hong Xiuquan, whose quest to spread his brand of Christianity led to the Taiping Rebellion and the death of millions of people in the mid-19th century.
I suspect that many atheists in the West would bristle at the thought of a Christian China, especially if its Christianity turned out to be of the Biblical literalist stripe. But does it necessarily have to be a bad thing? After all, the ideals of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries arose in Christian Europe. Or to put it another way, if you were a closet atheist living in Spain during the height of the Inquisition, could you even conceive of the possibility of a country like the United States ever coming into being? What if the spread of Christianity serves as a catalyst to improve China's human rights?
Of course, it is all just speculation for now, though I expect to find out the answers to my questions if I live another 30 or 40 years.