HONG KONG – Christians in China now number just over 23 million, according to the results of the Communist country's first official faith survey.
Although that figure amounts to only 1.8 percent of the total population, it represents 73 percent of China's religious population.
The figures were contained in the newly published Blue Book on China Religions, compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an academic unit under the control of the Chinese government, according to China Daily.
The academy looked at the responses of over 60,000 questionnaires carried out in more than 300 counties across China.
Among the Christians interviewed, 69 percent of them said that they had converted to Christianity because they or their family members had fallen ill. A staggering 70 percent of those describing themselves as Christian were female and 67 percent of all Christians surveyed said they had been baptized.
The academy attributed the growth to societal reform over the last three decades, with 73 percent of Chinese Christians having joined the church after 1993, and only 18 percent having joined the church between 1982 and 1992.
"These statistics clearly indicate that the 30-year period of reform and opening up has been a period of rapid development for both Chinese society and the Chinese church," Fu Xianwei, who heads the body that ensures churches follow state interests, was quoted as saying by China Daily.
Researchers noted a change in church demographics, with more young people, intellectuals and professionals joining the church in recent years.
To cope with the increase in number, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of churches in China, which now number more than 55,000.
Researchers noted that although the church had grown, Christian communities are still marginalized in society.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said on its website that Christianity mainly attracts people with low social status, including the poor, the women and older people.
It said that while half of Christians had completed their primary education, only 2.6 percent of them attained a college degree or higher.
There are different estimates on the total number of Christians in China when attendance at unregistered churches is taken into account, with figures ranging from 40 million to 130 million.
The Blue Book also touched on figures for Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism. The number of Catholics in China, according to the book, is 5.7 million.