Jesus is already bigger than Mao, and according to a prediction by Purdue University’s Director of Center on Religion and Chinese Society Yang Fenggang, (杨凤岗 / 楊鳳崗) China will become the “largest Christian country in the world very soon”. A Google search shows that Christian and politically conservative websites are pretty excited by this forecast. Using calculations that assume a 10 percent growth rate, he extrapolates there to be 160 million Protestants and Catholics in China by the year 2025 and nearly 250 million in 2030. As of December 2011, estimates of the Christian population range from the official count of 23 million to a number that includes people who worship in illegal “underground churches”, 67 million.
Christianity’s growth in China has been recognized by the Chinese government, but Ye Xiaowen (叶小文 / 葉小文), the former Director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs and now Party Secretary of the Central Institute of Socialism, has criticized Yang’s prediction as “unscientific” and “obviously inflated”.
Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees religious freedom, but as with all things, in practice it is subject to the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda of social stability and harmony. Wang Zuoan (王作安), Ye’s successor on religious affairs, has said “Religion basically upholds peace, reconciliation and harmony … and can play its role in society” but warns of superstition and “evil cults”. In an example of trying to reconcile and manage religion’s place in China, Wang went to Kenya to meet with Kenyan church officials. The government has supported Christians in state-sanctioned churches, but the relationships between the government and Christians are complicated by bureaucracy and suspicions of prosecution.
In a recent stand-off at Sanjiang (三江) Church near Wenzhou, thousands of people formed a human shield when the local government ordered the 2,000-seat state-sanctioned church demolished for because it was “illegal” and posed “safety risks”. The church was approved to occupy 20,000 square feet, but the completed complex occupied 100,000 square feet. According to the Washington Post and New York Times, local Christians believe that the order came directly from Zhejiang Province’s Communist Party Chief Xia Baolong (夏宝龙 / 夏寶龍) and that the issue was not the existence of the church, but the church’s cross whose prominence supposedly contributes to the “unsustainable” growth of Christianity. Surprisingly, the government-supported Global Times (环球时报 / 環球時報) has an fairly balanced account of the controversy, describing the positions of both sides and pointing out that the disagreement with a compromise involving only dismantling of part of the church’s annex.
Update 4/29: Looks like the government is actually demolishing the entire church.