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John Micklethwait is Editor-in-Chief of The Economist. Before that he edited the US section of the newspaper (1999 - 2006) and ran the New York Bureau for two years, having[…]

Economist editor John Micklethwait goes inside the Chinese House Churches.

Question: What does religion in China look like?

John Micklethwait: We think that China will be the world’s biggest Christian country relatively quickly and we think it’ll probably also be the world’s biggest Muslim country, maybe a bit later because Islam is also growing particularly in the rural west. What’s really interesting about China is as I said, it’s the up and coming people who are joining it.  There does seem to be a slight religious split. The Catholics in general are doing better in the countryside, it’s Evangelical more sort of American style stuff which is particularly imported by Koreans but also by Americans and also by the Chinese themselves; that’s what’s really moving in the cities.  And what is interesting to me because again, our book is an attempt to study this phenomenon, take people inside these house churches, show what they’re like.  But then ask the political questions that flow from that and the readings that you get from the regime are very contradictory on this.  On the one hand, it says the regime is prepared to encourage these things, Hu Jintao said really quite nice things about religion, even about Christianity, and there’s some element of suddenly Confucianism, the regime is quite comfortable with because they’re looking in a sense for glue to bring these huge country together. 

The level of social dislocation in China is gigantic.  As one year, I think it’s 1998 and I may have put it wrong where the number of people moving from the countryside to the towns, in just that one year, is greater than the number of all the people who left Europe and came to America in the 100 years before 1920.  So you have social dislocation on a gigantic level and the regime is aware of that currently has to do with lots of economic problems. And they see religion, at least, as a potential piece of glue to hold that society together, that’s the sort of good side. 

On the other side, they are inherently worried and suspicious about religion as sort of an incendiary force. Various people have told me that the figure who the regime particularly identifies is John Paul II, they think John Paul II… they give him perhaps too great a role in the Soviet Union’s downfall—they see parallels there. There’s also a famous Chinese rebellion in the 19th Century which was lead by a Christian. You see all the evidence the Falun Gong, all those things make them uneasy.  And what’s happening with the house churches is as they get bigger—they’re already arguably the biggest NGO in China—as they get bigger, they start to add things like nurseries and all those things.

The one other absolutely brilliant thing about what’s happening in China which is sort of not brilliant but fascinating, is what the regime has been doing is the rules within China basically saying, the rules are complicated but they sort of say when you get 25 people, no meeting can go beyond 25 people without government approval.  When you have 25 people in a house church, once you get 27, 28, the church, because of that rule, is forced to split and because it’s forced to split, it grows. So immediately you’ve got 2 groups of 12 who are out there looking for more people. So ironically, the very rules that the Chinese have introduced turned out to be the very things that make the religion grow quite as fast as it does.  And that I think is a big thing.