Yesterday’s post, and many others on this blog, have touched on the subject of China and its future role in world affairs. With a population of 1.2 billion, the world’s second-biggest economy, and GDP growth approaching 10%/year, China will surely matter a great deal. Yet some time back (sufficiently long ago that my rudimentary search skills have just now failed to find a link to the original article; perhaps you can succeed and share),the Washington Post ran a piece in its Sunday Outlook section expounding four reasons why China would not be the dominant country of the 21st century. [Fareed Zakharia, Henry Kissinger, and others have rendered similar analyses.] The four reasons (and these are worth remembering) go something like this:
(1) Unfavorable demographics. Thanks largely to its one-child policy, China’s population is aging faster than any other population in the world.
(2) Unreliable economic figures (as well as corruption and a shaky accommodation between statism and capitalism). China has so far proved unable or unwilling to track its own economy’s indicators with the precision and integrity needed to sustain growth.
(3) Environmental degradation. China has achieved its phenomenal growth in part at the expense of its renewable resource base, its environment, and ecosystems.
(4) The lack of a compelling vision/big idea. [As I recall, back in the earlier Washington Post article, the author asked, “are young people saying, ‘Gee, I wish I lived in the People’s Republic of China?,’” answering in the negative, and then contrasting that with a very real desire on the part of many young people worldwide to live in the United States, despite so many recent vicissitudes.]
In any event, this collection of notions has shaped my thinking about the China issue for a number of months, maybe a couple of years.
But in this morning’s sermon, our pastor got me thinking in an entirely new direction. He said that Christianity was growing explosively in China. Here were some of his statistics: around the time of the Cultural Revolution, there were perhaps no more than 500,000 or one million Christians in the country. Today there are something like 100 million. [Interested in the uncertainty in this figure? Maybe this Wikipedia entry on Christianity on China will help. It gives a range, somewhere between 40-130 million.] He went on to say that in a short period of time – by, say, mid-century [note: this is a correction added 11/29/11; in the original post I erroneously gave a date of 2025] – China will replace the United States as the largest Christian population worldwide.
This is a striking growth rate. Where will it end? Your guess is as good as mine. But let me throw in a couple more figures, which my pastor provided in an informal exchange following the service: the overwhelming bulk of these 100 million are not in officially recognized churches but house churches (Wikipedia bears this out). Associated with this reality, two thirds of the church leaders in China are women. My pastor’s last comment was this…that these are not U.S.-style, “tame” Christians, complacent and docile in their faith, making few waves and making minimal real difference in their communities. These are more like the early Christians, the fierce ones who clung to their faith even when it meant persecution and death, and whose numbers finally grew to the point where the Emperor Constantine (272-337 A.D.)bowed to the new politics of Rome (as much as any particular vision) and made Rome a Christian empire.
So…we’ll continue to see articles about the great economic competition between the United States and China [and indeed China’s stance relative to other economies of the world]. We’ll likely read many more analyses hinting at possible military confrontations in the Eastern Pacific. But we’ll also continue to hear that China’s leadership fears unrest among the vast majority of their people who have yet to see any personal benefit from China’s great economic growth. We will see continuing news stories on China’s difficulties with its Uighur Muslim minority. About unrest among Tibetan Buddhists. About the demands of China’s growing Christian minority.
Why cover this here, today, in this blog? Because the mindsets, basic values and outlooks of these minorities, especiallly that sizable Christian minority, with its large contingent of women-leaders, will likely reshape China’s current culture, and goals, and aspirations to a dramatic degree. In particular, these broader trends look to be the wild card in Chinese policies toward natural resource extraction, environmental protection, and hazards going forward. Instead of worrying about the China of today, the world ought to be thinking hard about how to negotiate and work with the China that is coming…with a goal of a more sustainable future.