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'Galilee of China' faces Xi Jinping's new era

Henan clampdown has raised fears about the central government's plans for a powerhouse of Christian development
'Galilee of China' faces Xi Jinping's new era

A woman walks past a roadside mural featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping in Lankao, Henan province, in September 2017. Concerns are growing about the future of religion in China as Xi enforces more controls. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

Published: May 08, 2018 04:32 AM GMT
Updated: May 08, 2018 05:39 AM GMT

From 2014-16, the Chinese Communist Party conducted a systematic campaign of cross removals in Zhejiang province, the most populous Christian area of China in terms of the percentage of the population. The epicenter of Christianity there is the city of Wenzhou, known as the "Jerusalem of the East."

In recent months, Chinese authorities have turned their attention to Henan province, the most populous Christian area of China by absolute numbers and known as the "Galilee of China."

Measures were reportedly imposed on Catholic and Protestant churches in the central province, especially bans on minors from participating in church activities and requests for parents to not allow their children to enter religious places or to believe in God.

These incidents have made people concerned that they represent a new trend reflecting the central government's religious policy.

I particularly researched reports related to religious policy across the province on the websites of Henan Provincial Ethnic and Religious Committee and Henan Provincial United Front Work Department to assess the latest situation on the administration of religious affairs in Henan and to examine how the "Henan model" is being carried out.

How will the Galilee of China fare under President Xi Jinping's new era of religious order?

Henan is the largest Christian (Protestant) province in China. According to a survey published in 1922, there were 344,000 communicants across China in 1918 while Henan had about 12,000, accounting for 3.6 percent of the total and ranking 10th in the country, far behind coastal provinces.

Protestant churches in Henan had significant growth between 1920 and 1940. Before the People's Republic of China was established by the Communist Party, Henan accounted for 10 percent of the total population of Christians in the country and had become the most prominent developing province in inland China, only second to coastal Zhejiang.

The 120,000 Protestants in Henan mainly came from Lutheran churches (15,613, or 13 percent), China Inland Mission (12,722, or 10.6 percent), Church of Christ in China (10,780, or 8.9 percent) and the Baptist Church (8,491, or 7 percent).

After China implemented its open-door policy, a survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences focusing on the development of Christianity in Henan revealed that the number of Protestants before the Cultural Revolution was about 100,000 but the figure jumped to more than 520,000 by 1982 and to more than 830,000 in 1988.

Li Pingye of the Central United Front Work Department of the Communist Party admitted that the average annual growth of the Protestant population in Henan was about 50,000 in the 1980s and more than 130,000 by the early 1990s. By 2004, according to the statistics of the Amity Foundation, the Protestant population of Henan had reached 2 million, accounting for 23 percent of the country's total.

Regarding the latest statistics, Lu Yunfeng, a sociology professor at Beijing University, said the proportion of Protestants in Henan is 5.6 percent of the whole population. The proportion of Protestants in cities, villages and towns is 3.9 percent, 6.6 percent and 1.7 percent respectively. The proportion of the population who participate in Protestant organizations is 1.9 percent, which is higher than the proportion of those who participate in unions (1.4 percent).

A research group of the Religious Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences conducted a survey in Kaifeng city and Nanyang city of Henan in 2012 and noted that Protestants in Nanyang accounted for 2.4 percent of the city's population while those in Kaifeng accounted for 1.8 percent.

The development of family churches in Nanyang has been very fast. In Chengguan town of Fangcheng County, there is only one location run by Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches with more than 50 believers, while family churches have about 200 locations with nearly 10,000 believers. In Xinye County of Nanyang, there are only 10 churches under the Three-Self system while family churches have as many as 160 locations.

It is no wonder some people overseas have referred to Henan as the Galilee of China and Wenzhou as the Jerusalem of China. They are the two powerhouses of Christian development in China.

Professor Ying Fuk-tsang is director of the Divinity School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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