06/22/2012 China (The Guardian) - Like all Chinese children, I was taught at school the Chinese Communist party's prediction about religion: as society progresses, religion will slowly fade from people's lives until it finally disappears. Mao bluntly said that religion was a poison and tried to wipe out religious practices.
But the opposite has happened. In the past three decades, as our economy has flourished and personal freedoms have increased, religions of all forms have started to thrive.
Yet instead of joining officially sanctioned churches, the Chinese have been flocking to unofficial houses of worship – the so-called house churches, with up to 100 million members. While technically illegal, the house churches have been largely tolerated in recent years thanks to relaxed control and the government's realisation that religion can be a moral force to be reckoned with.
The statistics are hard to come by but Protestantism is generally regarded as the fastest growing. Before China's reforms and opening up, there were only 2 million Christians but the figure has increased 40- to 50-fold in the past three decades. According to Frank Lee, a Chinese academic who has studied the development of house churches in China, there are currently 20 million registered with the Three-Self Church, whereas the house churches boast 10 million Catholics and up to 70 million Protestants. Others put the figures even higher. Farmers and migrant workers make up the bulk.
The Chinese Communist party has been struggling as it tries to balance making use of religion as a moral force with its habitual inclination to control it. Unfortunately, the party's fear of any independent organisation wins out often. Shouwang, a large house church in Beijing with 1,000 members, attempted to establish its own venue in 2010 but failed. More disturbing was the sentencing of a house church pastor in Shandong province to a labour camp last July for supposedly illegal gatherings.
nstead of curtailing the growth of house churches, the Chinese authorities should accept the religious movement as a positive force. There is an ongoing discussion here in China about the decline of morality as our country has become increasingly money-worshiping. So the tugs and pulls of modern life tend to leave any nation's people searching for a spiritual outlet.
China's leaders constantly speak of building a "harmonious society" – what better way to do it then to involve churches?