China, Christianity and Capitalism

A long time ago, when I converted to Christianity and left my wild hippy ways and counter-culture days, I became very interested in reading biographies and autobiographies of great men and women of God. As a new Christian I devoured everything I could find on mighty missionaries, steadfast saints, and courageous Christians.

I recall one such man of God: Hudson Taylor (1832-1905). As a mere 21-year-old he left the comforts of England to reach the lost in China. He spent over a half century evangelising the Chinese. He formed the China Inland Mission and helped bring over many hundreds of missionaries to China.

Thousands were converted under his ministry, and despite all sorts of hardships, deprivations, and persecution, he left an amazing legacy there. One can cite many quotes from this great man. He once wrote: “Perhaps if there were more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire. Sometimes it may be that while we are complaining of the hardness of the hearts of those we are seeking to benefit, the hardness of our own hearts and our feeble apprehension of the solemn reality of eternal things may be the true cause of our want of success.”

I believe the volume I first read about him was an older volume, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, written by his son. It is still available today. Of course plenty of other books can be mentioned, but this one offered great insight into the man and his work.

Christianity continued to grow in the first half of the 20th century, but it received a horrendous blow with the rise of Mao and the Communists. Persecution and repression became the norm, and was especially fierce during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The church was driven underground, and martyrdom was commonplace.

Of course now there has been a bit of a thaw, especially in terms of the Chinese economy. As it races to become a global superpower, various restrictions have been lifted, and the current government is of two-minds about Christianity. On the one hand, many believe it is the key to continued growth and success, but on the other hand it is still viewed with suspicion and distrust.

An interesting BBC article appeared just recently which looks at this tension, and the current state of Christianity. It makes for interesting reading. Perhaps the stand-out line is this: “More people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe.”

Indeed, many observers have noted that the centre of gravity for global Christianity is no longer Europe and/or the West, but the developing world: Asia, Africa and Latin America. This is where the real church growth is taking place, while spiritual decay, if not death, is spreading throughout the West.

The article continues: “Many of China’s churches are overflowing, as the number of Christians in the country multiplies. In the past, repression drove people to convert – is the cause now rampant capitalism? It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding. The government says 25 million, 18 million Protestants and six million Catholics. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 60 million.”

While a hundred million may in fact be a more accurate figure, there is no doubt that things are changing in China. But as mentioned, one can ask why this is. One expert who has especially focused on this twin rise of capitalism and Christianity in China is American academic Dr. William Jeynes.

He gave an important speech back in May of this year in which he looked at recent changes in China. In a talk to the Family Research Council in Washington entitled, “God, China, & Capitalism: Is Christianity in China the Key Ingredient for Economic Success?” he made a number of interesting observations.

The FRC summarised his speech this way: “This talk will examine the rise of Christianity in China and how a growing number of China’s leaders view Christianity as the key to China’s future economic prosperity. A British survey estimates that China now has over 100 million Christians and that this figure is growing by 6-7 million per year. At this rate China will likely replace the United States as the nation with the most Christians. Why do so many among the Chinese elite view Christianity as the key ingredient to that nation’s success? Why is it that for many years social scientists, led by Max Weber, have asserted that the rise of Christianity is often followed by economic prosperity? Is this perspective justified? If so, what does this mean for the future of American public policy and the 2012 election?”

One write-up of his talk says this: “China believes that Christianity is responsible for much of the historic success of Western Europe and the United States, said Dr. William Jeynes, senior fellow of The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., during a presentation at the Family Research Council on Tuesday.

“But while the Chinese government is open to Christianity, it also ‘wants to control Christianity.’ Those in authority are very much aware of the Church’s role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and advancing democracy in the Soviet bloc. ‘They view Christianity as a belief system that if not controlled will potentially overthrow the government. But on the other [hand], they see that if you try to oppress Christians that it could lead to this explosion as it did in Eastern Europe and [they could] lose control that way. So they want Christianity for the benefits but they want to control it, and that is the balance they are currently trying to achieve.’

“The scholar, who has multiple degrees in different disciplines and graduated first in his class at Harvard University, recalled an incident that confirms that China believes Christianity is responsible for the economic prosperity in the U.S. At a Harvard Business Conference years ago, Jeynes recalled top Chinese CEOs one after another asking Harvard scholars not about their talking points but about the relationship between Christianity and economic prosperity in the United States. The Harvard scholars, Jeynes noted, were baffled and did not know how to respond.”

Baffled indeed. The simple truth is, the Judeo-Christian worldview was one of the main engines driving not only Western civilisation but the rise of capitalism, progress and material wellbeing. Other experts have spoken to this of course.


Not just older scholars like Weber and Tawney, but more recent experts such as Rodney Stark have written much on this. In his very important 2005 volume, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House) he deals carefully with this topic.

Says Stark: “Christianity created Western Civilization.” He devotes a number of meaty chapters to how the Christian faith led to the rise of capitalism and progress. But the last paragraph of his book is especially germane to our discussion. He cites one of China’s leading scholars:

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

Says Stark, “Neither do I.” This is extremely interesting. All over the Western world leaders and governments are jettisoning and repudiating the very thing that made the West great: Christianity. And at the same time all over the West we see crisis, turmoil, decline and despair.

But China is looking at Christianity intently. No wonder the West is dying, while China is thriving. There is a very real connection between Christianity and the success of a nation. It seems China has learned this, while the West has forgotten it.

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