TEARING DOWN crosses from church spires may not sound the best way to win a promotion. But in Xi Jinping’s China, it might do the trick. In 2014 Xia Baolong, the Communist Party chief in Zhejiang, a coastal province, oversaw a campaign to remove more than 1,500 crosses from places of worship in the province. Bibles were confiscated; pastors were locked up. It certainly did Mr Xia’s career no harm. A long-time ally of the president, he was promoted first to a plum job in Beijing and then, in February, to a new assignment as head of the office overseeing Hong Kong and Macau affairs.
As for China’s Christians, their numbers continue to grow. The government reckons that about 200m of China’s 1.4bn people are religious. Although most practice traditional Chinese religions such as Taoism, and longer-standing foreign imports such as Buddhism, Protestant Christianity is probably the fastest-growing faith, with at least 38m adherents today (about 3% of the population), up from 22m a decade ago, according to the government’s count. The true number is probably much higher: perhaps as many as 22m more Chinese Protestants worship in unregistered “underground” churches, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame. As China also has 10m-12m Catholics, there are more Christians in China today than in France (38m) or Germany (43m). Combined, Christians and the country’s estimated 23m Muslims may now outnumber the membership of the Communist Party (92m). Indeed, an unknown number of party members go to church as well as local committee meetings.
But as they become more numerous, the country’s faithful face ever-stricter oversight from the state. China’s constitution nominally guarantees freedom of religious belief. But since Mr Xi came to power in 2012, the government has tightened its control of religious groups in an effort to eliminate possible sources of dissent or secession. Government-approved versions of traditional faiths have been promoted, and those seen as foreign and threatening have been repressed. For hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang, this has meant detention, “re-education” and forced secularisation. For many Christians it has meant toppled crosses, closed churches and, in some cases, prison. In December Wang Yi, the pastor of an underground church in Chengdu, capital of the south-western province of Sichuan, was sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion”, a charge normally reserved for political dissidents.
Preachers face harsh surveillance. Whereas the clergy at state-sanctioned churches are told to lecture on party-favoured topics, such as blending Christianity with secular Chinese culture, underground pastors often touch on taboo subjects, such as the existence of demons and miracles, or even worse, the importance of proselytising to friends and co-workers. Yet research suggests the government may need to continue to tolerate some of the latter in official churches, or risk losing their congregants turning elsewhere. In 2017 and 2018 Harris Doshay, a doctoral student at Princeton University, attended and analysed the sermons delivered by ministers of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the state-controlled Protestant church. Mr Doshay found that congregants showed their preference by “voting with their eyelids”: if the oration stayed within party lines, many, consistently and sometimes rather demonstratively, decided to nap.