It was not supposed to happen, according to Karl Marx. Religion is spreading fast in the not-quite-Communist paradise. Evangelical Protestantism is on the cutting edge.
There were maybe a million Protestants in China in 1976. It is estimated that there are 100 million today. But no one knows. They are operating in the shadows. They are not part of some government survey.
This has been known by experts in Chinese church growth for at least 15 years. Now, The Economist has gotten around to reporting on this.
Christianity is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks. The line is blurring between house churches and official ones, and Christians are starting to emerge from hiding to play a more active part in society. The Communist Party has to find a new way to deal with all this. There is even talk that the party, the world’s largest explicitly atheist organisation, might follow its sister parties in Vietnam and Cuba and allow members to embrace a dogma other than—even higher than—that of Marx.
Any shift in official thinking on religion could have big ramifications for the way China handles a host of domestic challenges, from separatist unrest among Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs in the country’s west to the growth of NGOs and “civil society”—grassroots organisations, often with a religious colouring, which the party treats with suspicion, but which are also spreading fast.
Safety in numbers
The upsurge in religion in China, especially among the ethnic Han who make up more than 90% of the population, is a general one. From the bullet trains that sweep across the Chinese countryside, passengers can see new churches and temples springing up everywhere. Buddhism, much longer established in China than Christianity, is surging too, as is folk religion; many more Han are making pilgrimages to Buddhist shrines in search of spiritual comfort. All this worries many officials, for whom religion is not only Marx’s “opium of the people” but also, they believe, a dangerous perverter of loyalty away from the party and the state. Christianity, in particular, is associated with 19th-century Western imperial encroachment; and thus the party’s treatment of Christians offers a sharp insight into the way its attitudes are changing.
The Web is part of this. Increasing wealth is part of this. The ossification of the Communist oligarchy is part of this. The enforcement of government controls in one generation become lax in the next. The enthusiasm of one generation’s reforming bureaucrats for changing the world becomes enthusiasm for promotions in the next generation.
The Red Guard grew up. Now, the ex-members want pensions.
Chinese Communism is as doomed as Russian Communism. Communism was an apostate imitation of Christianity. I cannot be sustained. It has not been sustained. It will eventually wind up in the ashcan of history, just as it has in Western Europe.
Atheism is the opium of the intellectuals. There are not that many intellectuals.