Hattaway emphasizes that only God can truly know how many Christians there are in China, because the challenges to discovering the number of Christians make it impossible for anyone to claim precision. The first major obstacle is the fear of harassment, even persecution. Many Christians in China are members of underground churches that are not only not registered with the government but also attempting to operate outside of government surveillance. For these churches to function, their practices require a great deal of secrecy, and therefore, make it difficult to find out the exact number of members in each church. This need to maintain secrecy of each local movement makes it so that only a few major leaders have the information needed to establish an accurate count. Since these leaders are often unconnected, one must have a relationship with all of them even to put forth an educated guess concerning the amount of Christians in China. The clandestine congregations hide themselves so well that foreign Christians in the area can often be unaware of their existence.
Therefore, being a researcher based in China does not guarantee accurate results. Many of these churches also refuse to keep records for safety and religious reasons. Leaders told Hattaway that they did not want to fall under the judgment of God as David did when he took an unauthorized census to see how big his army was. In addition to this obstacle to accuracy, Hattway argues that some researchers inflate or understate the amount of Christians in China to help their fundraising efforts or to project a sense of control, as is oftentimes the case with government figures centered on the Three-Self Church.
The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM ), or the Three-Self Church, is the government sanctioned Protestant church in China. In 2004, the TSPM released figures amounting to 18 million Protestant Christians. This number does not include any person under the age of eighteen, because it is forbidden to baptize a minor. Also, the figure does not account for those who have yet to be baptized, but consider themselves seekers or inquirers to the Christian faith. Hattaway researched the official count, using mostly TSPM figures for a test province (Jiangsu), and found his results to be double that of the official tally. The TSPM- provided numbers are contradictory in many cases, which also complicates the process of gaining a precise total.
The unregistered churches, especially those that try to work “underground,” for the reasons discussed above, prove even more difficult to investigate, and the numbers produced from inquiries into their membership are often controversial and conflicting. Many thought that the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted until 1976, had eradicated Christianity completely. Hattaway points out, however, that by 1980 not only was the Protestant house church movement still functioning, it was growing rapidly. Hattaway does not focus exclusively on the growth of the Protestant population, however. He explains how the Catholic Patriot Association (CPA) functions much as the TSPM does for Protestants. The Catholic Church has its own parallel movement of underground churches, and Hattaway accounts for the official CPA and the unregistered churches in his final tally. By 2005, most independent sources estimated that there were 12 million Roman Catholics in China. Hattaway discusses all of these challenges to show how the uniquely Chinese religious environment affects the process of determining how many Christians there are in China.
Past surveys have served as a platform for the Hattaways as they conducted their research. In the 1920s, the Chinese Continuation Committee, a conglomerate of over 150 Protestant missionary organizations, conducted an exhaustive survey and counted a grand total of almost 2.5 million Christians in China. In the past twenty years, organizations, missionaries, academics, and the Chinese government have all announced figures ranging from 13.5 million to 130 million (a figure surprisingly stated in a 2006 Xinhua news agency report, by Ye Xiaowen, the most senior official dealing with religious affairs in the Chinese government at the time). Not far from the highest estimate, the Hattaways claim that the number of Christians in China in 2010 was 103,470,000.
This total differs greatly, of course, both from reports by official church bodies in China and by outside observers, many of whom would put the number of Protestants in China at around 60,000,000, though others would insist on an even lower count.
The Hattaways arrived at this number and the following statistics by including Christians worshipping as a part of the TSPM, the unregistered Protestant churches, the Catholic Patriotic Association, and the unregistered Roman Catholic churches. The numbers are a result of collated information from over 2,000 published sources and interviews conducted with church leaders from different groups and from almost every part of China. He reiterates his disclaimer that only God can truly know the number of followers of Christ, but he emphasizes that he has worked for over ten years to compile these data and paint the most accurate picture possible. If there is any error in his calculations, Hattaway notes, it will probably be that his numbers are too low, instead of too high. Absolute certainty, however, is unobtainable in the current religious climate of China. If you would like to examine these figures or Paul Hattaway’s methods in more detail, you can find more information, including the companion essay reviewed in this article and accompanying maps, on the Asia Harvest website: http://www.asiaharvest.org . Asia Harvest will update the figures regularly on their website as new information becomes available.