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Christianity has been and remains a modernising influence in China. In the 16th and 17th centuries Jesuits brought the latest scientific learning from Europe, in the 19th century Catholic and Protestant missionaries promoted the education of girls. Today the Christian message offers a way of navigating the rapids of breakneck change.

After the Hu decade, the country is waiting to see what his successor, Xi Jinping, will make of his expressed desire for reform. The two years before the change of leadership last December were especially hard for the unregistered churches as the government stepped up efforts to corral them into the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the CCPA. That experience has widened the gap between those who have registered and those who have not. 

The phenomenal growth in the number of believers may have reached a plateau but Christianity remains a potent, if fragmented, force. If China at last takes the road of fundamental political liberalisation, history indicates that the 5 per cent of the population who follow Christ will play a much bigger role than their relative size would suggest.

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