WASHINGTON – In hopes of escaping the trappings of urbanization and economic inequality, Chinese citizens are increasingly turning toward Christianity for spiritual fulfillment, an expert said Monday.
Predominantly an atheist state, China in 1980 had 10 million Christians, according to the Catholic News Agency. That number jumped to 60 million in 2007, and in 2014, the Telegraph reported that China was on track to overtake the U.S. by 2030 as the most Christian nation on earth. According to the Pew Research Center, 70.6 percent of Americans, or 223.2 million people, identified as Christian in 2014. Last fall, the Chinese government enacted a new crackdown on churches, warning that spiritual sects need to pledge fidelity to the state first.
Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Ian Johnson — who has covered the region extensively since the 1980s for the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal and various other publications – said Monday at the Woodrow Wilson Center that people living in communist China’s increasingly crowded cities are becoming disillusioned with capitalism and there’s a widespread feeling that China lacks a moral compass.
Johnson discussed apathy that’s evident in Chinese public life and widely cited in social media, internet forums, articles, books and novels. When there’s an accident or someone is injured in public, for example, no one stops to help, he said, noting video evidence of this can be found widely on social media sites like Reddit.
“(People) feel that their society has become extremely harsh and unforgiving. And that it lacks some kind of moral foundation. … They turn to religious communities or faith-based communities as answers. And this is one of the reasons for the fast growth of Christianity in China, because they provide ready-made social groups,” he said.
Johnson’s book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, was released this month and describes why there’s a resurgence of religion in the People’s Republic put into place by communist leader Mao Zedong.
The issue of spiritual emptiness is not exclusive to the Chinese, Johnson said, opining that many in the U.S. probably share this disillusionment with modern capitalistic society. He pointed to populist movements in the west, which are building momentum against a system that many see as rigged, where too much weight is placed on economics.
“Society since the reform era has become defined by economics: to get rich is glorious. And that there aren’t too many other values in society,” Johnson said.
Like in the U.S., there is an increasing suspicion of unfairness in China. Johnson described a scenario that one might witness in Beijing: a Chinese citizen who worked for the government 15 years ago and was awarded 10 apartments in Beijing that are now worth about $1.5 million each. Johnson said this scenario is “perfectly possible.” That person can afford to drive around in sports cars and send their children to expensive schools, flaunting their wealth.
“People are not stupid. They realize this is how a lot of money was made in China, and they feel cheated,” he said.
Johnson admitted that there are plenty of brilliant entrepreneurs in China, as well.
“There are people who really deserve the millions that they make, but there’s a whole lot of people, probably the majority of millionaires in China, I would guess, earned this through what sociologists call rent-seeking efforts,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, China lacks the mechanisms the U.S. has available for creating social change. In China, the media does not have free editorial discretion, and there are no trade unions – another reason many of the Chinese are turning inward and toward faith-based groups for answers.
Johnson said that inequality and the growing divide brought on by an increasingly globalized and capitalistic society were not as obvious or as widely flaunted in the era of Mao. Some Chinese who are in their 60s and 70s who grew up under Mao’s leadership are nostalgic for their youth, he said, but also for a time when perks and privileges weren’t rubbed in their faces.
“There are certainly people who are nostalgic for the past,” Johnson said. “Just as you find people in Russia who are nostalgic for Stalin, there are people nostalgic for Mao.”