The Amity Printing Company in Nanjing city in eastern China is the world’s largest producer of Bibles. Between 1987 and July 18 this year, it produced 150 million copies in 90 languages and sold them in 70 countries.
If that’s surprising, here’s the controversy: Officially atheist China, according to an estimate sharply criticised by Beijing, could have the largest number of Christians in the world by 2030.
Actual numbers are hard to come by. The Chinese government, which differentiates between Catholics and Protestants, pegged it at between 23 million and 40 million in 2014. It counted those who take part in religious activities in government-sanctioned churches.
Independent estimates vary. A 2011 Pew survey said around 5% of China’s population in 2010 – or around 67 million – were Christians. It took into account those who are part of non-registered or “home” churches that function informally out of sitting rooms, attics and garages.
Then there are experts who suggest the number of Christians in China is easily more than the number of Communist Party of China (CPC) members, currently 88 million.
Take the cases of young professional Ling and Lily, an undergraduate student at a top university in Beijing. Neither visit formal churches but are regulars at informal gatherings where they read the Bible and sing hymns.
“The gathering spot varies. We used to go to a fellow student’s home or a coffee shop or restaurant. Because it’s not very convenient to sing hymns in public, we would pick a comparatively private place,” Lily said.
“My friends and I don’t go to normal churches, most of the church-style buildings in China are Three-Self Churches (run by the CPC-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement). We generally go to family churches. Those churches are not legally recognised, so they’re illegal in a way.”
Then there is the phenomenon of large but unregistered churches in big cities, said Carsten Vala, an associate professor of political science at Loyola University, Maryland, who studies Christianity in China.
“The most interesting development to me is that of large, unregistered churches in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, where hundreds of high-status, white collar Chinese participate in churches not officially registered but which nevertheless exist due to permissiveness of local officials,” Vala said.
An example, he said, is Early Rain Church in Chengdu, which neither fits into the typical, small-scale “house” churches nor the large-scale, official churches of Protestant associations.
The informal churches fill two requirements – first, they make up for formal churches, and, second, they keep things private for those who want to keep their faith away from the CPC’s prying eyes.
Beijing has kept a wary eye on, and strictly regulated, Christianity since the CPC adopted a conciliatory approach to religion four decades ago. The growth of Christianity in China began at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a period when all religions were suppressed, often brutally.
This coincided with economic reforms. As the economy boomed, a gradually wealthier China needed a spiritual belief system to invest in; the purely political CPC wasn’t able to provide succour for the soul.
Sociology professor Yang Fenggang, founding director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, Indiana, explained the phenomenon in terms of economics and globalization.
“Every convert has a uniquely personal story to tell about their change of faith. However, so many Chinese have been converting to Christianity in the last few decades, which amounts to a social phenomenon that I would call ‘mass conversion’ in modern times,” he told Hindustan Times.
“Sociological speaking, the social, political, and cultural changes in the process of modernisation are the contextual factors for this mass conversion.”
Yang, author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule, explained it in his article Lost in the Market, Saved at McDonald’s: “The crucial contextual factors are the increasingly globalised market economy under political repression. Christianity provides peace and certainty in facing wild market forces. The Christian faith is liberating amid a stifling political atmosphere.”
It hasn’t been liberating all the time, with the CPC launching intermittent heavy crackdowns on Christianity.
A high-profile crackdown in the past two-three years was carried out in Zhejiang province, China’s Christianity heartland. Authorities took down crosses from nearly 2,000 churches, including government-registered ones.
Vala said: “In one province (Zhejiang), there has been a much greater crackdown (with one church being razed and hundreds of crosses being removed) in the last three-four years. However it is not clear it has spread beyond this coastal province. Sometimes churches are demolished because they were built on valuable land by missionaries and that land is now in central urban districts that government officials want to use to build lucrative real estate projects.”
Ling added: “Although they say we have religious freedom in China, I think the actual situation is not really so. Our belief is intervened and restricted. We don’t actually have religious freedom like in western countries.”
That, clearly, hasn’t stopped the number of Christians from increasing.
Officials sharply criticised Yang’s 2014 estimate that Christians could exceed 160 million by 2025 and 247 million by 2030, calling it inflated and not based in reality.
The forecast may not prove to be true but there’s little doubt the number of Christians is increasing. Of the 150 million Bibles that Amity Print has sold till now, more than 76 million were bought in China through official channels. That demand is unlikely to ebb soon; neither the gatherings at home churches in sitting rooms, attics and garages.