They may number even two or three hundred million, and are growing fast. They are the self-styled Christians in China, who don’t clearly know what they are.
All read the Bible; some claim to be related to Christ, like Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the destructive Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century, which killed 20% of the Chinese population. Most add to the Bible and the Gospels their own tracts, drawing explanations from Buddhist or Taoist traditions. Lots claim to have dreams and visions of God and the apostles, and thus cure people of their ailments for free or small donations, whereas state hospitals charge stiff bills for any patient.
Some Chinese officials argue they can’t be regarded as Christians at all, but just the latest wave of the centuries-old Chinese syncretic tradition of pulling every faith and belief under one roof. But the new styled Chinese Christians claim to be so, perhaps in part because the label brings with it a more tolerant approach from the authorities, who are not against the spread of Buddhism and Christianity, but take much harsher measures against Islam, for fear of Muslim extremists.
In the past syncretism occurred over a period of 500–600 years to Buddhism, which became sinicized by drawing on homegrown Taoism since the first century AD. The same is happening now in China with Christianity; only the time frame is much shorter. Christianity went from about 2–3% of the total population in the late 1990s to presently being possibly as much as 20–30% of the population. The popularity of the Pope is apparently also helping all of this.
Many people hear about the Pope and the Catholic Church and claim to be Catholic, although they may have never attended Catholic mass.
Self-styled Catholic Holy Queen Li thus wrote in English to the Holy See shortly after the Pope gave an interview about China:
(As in the original text) “All of drug murder power must stop. All of religious practitioner on drug power must stop giving power over taking others power. All of donations for God power blessing and healing, never for drug murder power on cross power believer, trust, faith power. Sinners pick up, collecting donation must stop, giving to God power foundation. Catholic church is only one God power, mother of God, Holy Queen foundation, never be in drug sinner collector.”
She may have millions of followers in the countryside of southern China.
Preachers do not know what is Catholic and what is not, and common people don’t know either. Officials are totally lost. In this there are volunteers from all over the world swarming into China to save souls. Nobody knows how they arrived: if somebody sent them, if they are in any way organized, or if they simply came to China inspired by their own visions of God.
The main thrust of the recent law regulating foreign religious people active in China is to try to have a clearer picture of what is happening.
The new regulation requires that new chapels be registered and preachers provide a history and credentials of their own religion. This is because there are many types of “Christians.” Moreover, common people who don’t convert to the new Christianity might be annoyed by “Christians”’ activism, and this in turn could start local clashes.
The real Catholics are a tiny fraction and many pastors feel frustrated by the confusion. Many complain that even some of their fellow priests are being drawn in by the ongoing trend. They do not want to register with the authorities—or any authority. In some cases, they refuse to even register with the dioceses.
Talks between China and the Holy See on normalization of ties may become caught up in all of this. Central and local administrators can’t tell what is what, and some officials fear that if ties are normalized all types of “Christianity” will get a boost and could rebel against the authorities while seeking the protection of the Pope.
This objectively creates a very difficult situation for the Holy See. On the one hand, the Vatican can’t provide some form of blanket protection for every “Catholic” priest. On the other hand, it cannot condone or get involved in a religious crackdown, something that would infuriate people worldwide.
The Holy See tries to stay aloof and navigate these difficult waters. Even recently secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin confirmed the intention of the Holy See to reach a normalization of ties with Beijing.
This is perhaps different with what happened in the early 2000s, when some Catholic prelates outside of China vehemently condemned the crackdown on the Falun Gong. The Falun Gong was a neo-Buddhist sect embedded in China’s security apparatus, which allegedly tried to stage a coup in Beijing in 1999. That was considered a very serious threat to China’s stability, like the rise of many political cults with colorful names in China’s history – the Red Eyebrows, the White Lotus, the Red Turbans, et cetera. All of them challenged the imperial order. Modern Christians don’t do it, conversely they can help to maintain social harmony in a very complex moment. Yet, China likes to keep an eye.