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Numbers of Christians in China May be Less than Previously Thought

by Jeremy Reynalds
Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

12/9/08 China (ANS) One of the most frequent questions asked about China is: “How many Christians live in China?”

In a recent article, Dr. Werner Bürklin of China Partner said that recently this question had to be left unanswered because no one has ever tried to count them. The problem is how to count them.

Bürklin said, “There is no way you can, because no appropriate statistics are known nor are they being kept by secular or religious organizations. At least I do not know of any such group.”

For this reason, Bürklin said, speculation abounds. A variety of numbers have been given, ranging from a low of 16 million to a high of 200 million.

Despite all these guesses about the numbers of Christians in China, Bürklin said, “But no one we know has ever counted them. The fact is that no one really knows. Every number given so far by Christian groups was a guesstimate.”

What Bloggers Say

Bürklin said an evangelical blogger recently wrote, “Last month, it was reported here that a high ranking official in the Chinese government stated in the official newspaper Xinhua that there were 130 million Christians in China.”

Bürklin said as a result, several evangelical leaders reported, “It is official now, 130 million Chinese Christians.”

The high ranking official, known to him personally, Bürklin said, is Mr. Ye Xiao Wen, Director-General of State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) .

Bürklin wrote, “Consequently we contacted his office and his secretary Mr. Li told us that Mr. Ye never made a statement that 130 million Christians now live in China. This was corroborated to me personally by Mrs. Guo Wei, director of the Foreign Affairs Department in Beijing, whom I met on a recent trip in Beijing. We also checked with the official Chinese News Agency Xinhua and nothing like this was ever reported.”

The Facts

In an attempt to get some real answers, Bürklin said China Partner asked a group of individuals to travel into all 31 of China’s provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions.

Bürklin said so far this has been accomplished in every region except Xizang (Tibet). He said the team interviewed a total of 7,409 people aged 15 and above all across China (the oldest was 92). Bürklin said the number of those polled was much larger than the number typically used by other polling agencies.

Bürklin said the survey team was asked to randomly ask people what religion, if any, they adhered to. The team interviewed them mainly on the streets and parks but also on trains, planes, subways, taxis and buses, in hotels, open air markets, department stores, and small stores. A diverse group of people were polled.

The Results: 39 – 41 Million Protestant Christians

Bürklin said after doing additional surveys during the last few weeks, the number of Christians believed to be in China are between 39 – 41 million with a 0.46% margin of error. He said the provinces with the highest percentage of Protestants are Fujian, Anhui, Zhejiang, Henan, Shaanxi, Jiangsu, Shanxi and Guangdong.

According to Bürklin, the vast majority of those who responded to the survey were either Buddhists or did not have any faith at all. Many non-believers did not want to be classified as atheists, but said they did not have a preference for any religion. A number said they were Communist party members. Other religions mentioned were Taoism and Islam (especially in western provinces of China).

Bürklin said some of those polled said they were members of Falun Gong in spite of the fact that the group is strictly forbidden in China. Those who declared themselves Christians were Protestants and Catholics of registered churches and/or members of non-registered churches. Bürklin said as the group was only interested in pinpointing Protestants, they only counted Protestants.

Bürklin said in his article it was remarkable to see how accessible and forthcoming those polled were.

He said, “Hardly any seemed to be reluctant to respond and if so, it was mostly because of their surprise to have been asked such an unusual or uncommon question in the middle of China. Furthermore, it was quite significant to observe how quickly a flash of a smile came across those who were believing Christians. We encountered very few who were not aware of the existence of a church building, and often Christians and non-Christians alike offered to show the way to a given church. The Chinese are extremely polite and helpful and there was no sign of anxiety or apprehension.”

Bürklin said he doesn’t claim the survey to meet strict clinical scientific standards, but nonetheless it still has significant value.

He said, “It does give a general understanding and insight what the facts are. The survey was carried out in both urban and rural areas. We were quite surprised not to find more Christians than previously expected in rural areas we covered, because it is generally claimed by evangelical ‘China watchers’ that most non-registered church members live there.”

Bürklin said that many westerners are unaware that many members of non-registered churches or the “underground churches” (also referred to as house or family churches), especially those in rural areas, are now what would be thought of as evangelical Christians.

He commented that they are “often heretical in their beliefs, or have their beliefs mixed with Chinese folk religions. Many – not all – of those so called ‘Christian believers’ follow uneducated yet charismatic religious leaders who claim to have special powers. A few of such leaders even claim to be brothers of Jesus Christ or reincarnated Christs.”

Bürklin said he has made the survey results available for a specific purpose: “for those who are truly interested in facts. Too long unsubstantiated and thus false numbers have been passed on. As interested and concerned Christians, we have to be willing to honestly find the truth and then make those facts available no matter what has been stated so far.”

Survey by Department of Education in China

Bürklin referred to another survey, carried out by the Department of Education of China.

Professor Liu Zhongyu, in charge of the survey, works at the Religious Culture Research Center of East China Normal University in Shanghai.

Earlier this year, Zhongyu published the results from a survey his team completed with 4,500 people in every province of China. The survey was done over a period of 12 months. Bürklin said Zhongyu concluded that about 300 million Chinese follow a religion, or have some spiritual interest, compared to a former official figure of around 100 million. However, they may not necessarily practice any defined particular form of religion.

Similar Results to China Partner Survey

Bürklin said Zhongyu’s survey shows that up to 40 million Protestants now live in China, far more than the 16 million so far officially recognized by the Chinese government and the China Christian Council. However, that number is far fewer than 80 million or 130 million often cited by evangelical organizations.

According to Bürklin, Zhongyu further stated that are also an estimated 14 million Catholics. Due to a rift between the Vatican and the Chinese government, which do not officially recognize each other, about 10 million Catholics worship in “underground” churches loyal to the Vatican. The remaining four million worship in government-approved churches.

Bürklin reported that Zhongyu said there are many reasons why today more Chinese are turning to Christianity compared to other religions. One significant factor was the communist government’s long-standing persecution of traditional Chinese religions in the 30 years leading up to China’s late 1970’s reform.

Zhongyu commented, “After the communists established their atheist government in 1949, they tried to eradicate religious faith and still continue to directly administer religion through heavy-handed bureaucratic oversight.”

Bürklin said Zhongyu added, “We have persecuted our traditional religions too long and created far too many sects, so for a lot of young people there are no other choices (besides Christianity) … Christians have a strong tradition of converting people to their religion and at the same time it is easier to enter into their faith.”

Zhongyu added, “Christian churches also have a strict training program for priests and pastors, so religious professionals tend to have a higher level of education and training than in traditional Chinese religions.”

He added that Taoism, Buddhism and Islam are also making a comeback.

Possible Causes of Confusion

Bürklin said a possible area of confusion concerning the issue of numbers may be the government’s former official number of approximately 100 million religious people living in China who comprise the five major religions approved by the Chinese government.

Bürklin said another possible source of confusion may be from Zhongyu’s survey, which showed that there are about 300 million people in China who are interested in “spiritual” or “religious” matters.

He added, “These, of course, include all constituents in the five recognized religions in China plus Chinese folk religions, but are not necessarily devoted members of any religion.”

Same Results

Bürklin said that the surveys by Zhongyu and China Partner (statistical office of Florida Atlantic University verified the correctness) “reveal practically the same number of Protestants – give or take around 40 million.”

He added, “Therefore, the estimated numbers often previously quoted – the one at the lower end of 16 million and the one on the higher end of 130 million (or even 200 million) – and most in between have not been properly surveyed and therefore were mere speculations.”

China Partner, Inc. is an international, tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) organization established to serve the Church in China as it fulfills the Great Commission. It was founded in 1989 by Dr. Werner Burklin, who was born in China as the son of German missionaries.

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