I was perilously close to becoming an agnostic--at least about certain statistics. Specifically, I really didn't know the data on Christians in China, and for a while I was not sure if anyone did. Only now, perhaps, do we have the glimmerings of an answer to one of the most pressing questions in global religion: just how many Chinese Christians are there?
This question matters enormously because of China's vast population--now over 1.3 billion--and its emerging role as a global superpower. If Christians make up even a sizable minority within that country, that could be a political fact of huge significance.
Some years ago, veteran journalist David Aikman suggested that China's Christian population was reaching critical mass and that Christianity would achieve cultural and political hegemony by 2030 or so. Writing in First Things last year, Catholic China-watcher Francesco Sisci agreed that "we are near a Constantinian moment for the Chinese Empire." If we could say confidently that China today had, say, 100 or 150 million Christian believers, that would also make the country one of the largest centers of the faith worldwide, with the potential of a still greater role in years to come.
But what can we actually say with confidence when honest and reliable authorities differ so widely on the basic numbers? Estimates of Christian numbers vary enormously, from 25 million or so to an incredible 200 million. If current estimates are so contested, then so are growth projections.
One of the most authoritative sources on religious statistics is the World Christian Database, which offers invaluable reference materials on all parts of the world. On China, though, WCD figures are startlingly high (which does not necessarily make them wrong). According to this source, the country's Christians exploded from under a million in 1970 to around 120 million today (over 9 percent of the whole country), and that number will grow to 220 million by 2050. If correct, that would make the story of Chinese Christianity probably the most dramatic success story in modern religious history.
Other sources, however, place the Christian share of the population significantly lower. The minimum realistic figure is that of the Chinese government itself, which to say the least has no vested interest in exaggerating the tally of religious believers. The government publicly admits to the figure of 20 million for Catholics and Protestants combined--1.5 percent of all Chinese. …