BEIJING, Feb. 7 -- A new government-sponsored survey on spirituality in China has found that the number of religious believers among the country's 1.3 billion people is far higher than generally known, amounting to as many as 300 million.
The findings, based on a poll of 4,500 people conducted by professors at East China Normal University in Shanghai, supported growing indications that many Chinese are searching for new value systems to replace the communist doctrine that has been jettisoned in favor of market economics and a race for prosperity.
"More Chinese feel unstable and harassed by the rootless lives they lead now," Liu Zhongyu, a philosophy professor who helped organize the survey, said in a telephone interview.
"The standards of morality are declining," Liu told Oriental Outlook magazine, which reported the survey results. "People don't trust each other anymore. They are looking for something to anchor their lives in."
President Hu Jintao, reacting to such sentiments, repeatedly has cited a need to reemphasize human values in China, suggesting they should be part of the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" that is the ruling Communist Party's official dogma. He has made creation of "a socialist harmonious society" a watchword of his administration. Last year, he issued a list of eight virtues and eight vices as guidance for officials and ordinary people as they go about their business in this fast-changing country.
But the poll's findings indicate that many Chinese are going elsewhere in search of moral inspiration. In that light, the polling by Liu and his colleague, Tong Shijun, seemed likely to be read with interest by Communist leaders as they seek to rebuild confidence in a party apparatus often compromised by corruption and distance from common people.
The total number of believers estimated by the researchers was three times the long-standing official estimate of 100 million. Liu suggested that population growth was part of the explanation; the 100 million figure has stood since the 1960s. But he also said the survey found a remarkable surge in religious belief across the country that has not been reflected in the official estimates.
Liu said the researchers did not take into account whether those queried observed religious practices, such as visiting mosques or temples to pray, but asked only whether people believed in some form of religion. Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, noted that followers of traditional Chinese religions often have a loose definition of their beliefs, sometimes following family customs without formally practicing religious rites.
Historical Chinese religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Islam, accounted for 67 percent of those who declared themselves believers, the pollsters concluded. The number of Chinese who identified themselves as Christians also rose swiftly, however, reaching up to 40 million, according to the estimate derived from the poll.
Officially sanctioned Christian organizations have said 15 million Protestants and 6 million Catholics participate in their religious practices in China. But Chinese and foreign researchers have estimated that the number of those who practice religion outside the official institutions is several times greater. The semi-secrecy in which they practice their faith makes an accurate count impossible.
Liu said one factor in the fast growth of religion is expanded freedom of belief in China. During the 1960s and 1970s, he noted, radical political orthodoxy enforced by Mao Zedong and his followers replaced religious beliefs, often under threat of imprisonment. Although the Communist Party remains officially atheist, he said, Chinese are free now to practice the religion of their choice as long as it does not challenge the party's monopoly on power.
The poll was taken as part of a three-year research project on contemporary Chinese cultural life commissioned by the Education Ministry. Liu said researchers first identified those to be surveyed by telephone, then dispatched teams to interview them in person, with the help of forms to fill out.