The Chinese Constitution protects religious liberty but allows for regulation to protect the public good. This loophole in practice means Christianity is legal in China as long as it carefully follows state control. In the process, many Christians are persecuted if they do not properly go along. Christianity is therefore only somewhat legal in China.
Religion in China Today
The Communist Party of China is the ruling party of the nation, the most populous (with over one billion people) in the world. The nation however is not a pure communist state, especially after economic reforms in the last few decades. This includes matters of religion.
Atheism is the official religion of China. A majority of the people in China today are atheists though many of them might also practice some type of Chinese folk religion.
Buddhism, which is sometimes classified as atheistic, is practiced by about fifteen percent. Many also practice Eastern religions and philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism.
The great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once gave a sermon on how Christianity and communism cannot mix, especially because communism does not have a role for God. He did admit that communism had something to teach us.
King might be happy to know over five percent of the people in China today are Christians. In a nation of over a billion that is a sizable number.
Freedom of Religion?
When Christianity was still a minority religion in Ancient Rome, Christians argued that the free exercise of religion was fundamental. The United States honors religious liberty in the First Amendment. And, it is respected worldwide as a basic human right.
Communist China (established in 1949) also officially protects the free exercise of religion. The Chinese Constitution broadly secures religious liberty:
The Jim Crow South also officially supported racial equality. So, what we need to know is how religious liberty is honored in practice, not words. As we know, talk is cheap! The first red flag (perhaps an apt metaphor for communist China!) is that the religious liberty provisions have open-ended limitations:
What are “normal” religious activities? China officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestantism. Also, religious organizations must register with state-sanctioned associations, which are themselves regulated by the state.
The fear of foreign domination also has led to problems. Many Muslims are persecuted in part because they are allegedly members of independence movements.
How Free Are Chinese Christians?
 What Is A “Christian”?
China officially recognizes Catholicism and Protestantism, but just what it means to “appropriately” belong to those religions has been a matter of historical debate.
A range of Christian groups arose over the years in the United States, some dismissed as “cults” though some over time became major Christian religions. Free exercise covers them all.
The constitutional proviso involving protecting “public order” and so on provides a big loophole for state interference. China has labeled many sects that consider themselves Christian as “evil cults” and not worthy of protection. One such list only involving Protestants is quite long:
The government also considered several Protestant Christian groups to be “evil cults,” including the “Shouters,” Eastern Lightning, the Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church, Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (or San Ban Pu Ren), Association of Disciples, Lord God Sect, Established King Church, Unification Church, Family of Love, and the South China Church.
Members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church (SHRC) described their lives as “turbulent” and under constant threat — even though they left China in 2019.
 Private vs. Public Belief
Christianity has significantly grown in China since the 1980s, putting the state on guard. Unregistered groups or those that otherwise violate the wishes of state monitors have been subject to detention, loss of jobs, physician beatings, and shutting down of places of worship.
Christian religions are observed to make sure they do not say things against the state. Religion, as seen by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, can be an important part of protest movements. The Chinese government wants it to be a more private matter.
 “Sinicizism” of Christianity
A major concern for many Christians is that China in recent years is trying to “sinicize” believers. This effort entails making buildings, artwork, and religious rituals more “Chinese”. The government wants to make sure religions are appropriately Chinese and loyal to the government and communism doctrine. A 2020 law flagged by the Voice of America shows the efforts made to require state authorization for religious practice.
The United States has a ban on “laws respecting the establishment of religion” (First Amendment) to protect religious liberty and secure the separation of church and state.
China has chosen another path. This has led some to worry when the Vatican worked in recent years to improve relations with China that the Chinese Catholic Church would be tainted.
An agreement was reached to allow the Church to appoint Chinese bishops, improving Chinese-Vatican relationships. There have been recent allegations, however, that China has violated the agreement. The permanence of the current agreement is still up in the air.
Further Reading: The move to “be properly Chinese” has also led to many sexist practices. Leftover Women and Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Reawakening In China discuss this.
Karl Marx, the father of communism famously said
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
On the other hand, while still a small number percentage-wise, Christianity has thrived in recent years in China. Official numbers in 2014, for instance, cited over thirty million with many more likely to be worshipping in unofficial churches. Christian ceremonies and holidays are celebrated nationwide.
Nonetheless, many persecutions continue to take place. The Open Doors organization tracks religious persecution of Christians worldwide and in 2022 ranked China 17th (“very high levels”) among world countries. Lawyers defending religious dissidents also have been targeted.
Is Christianity legal in China? Yes, to a degree. It is clearly not truly freely exercised as it is in the United States. If your version of Christianity clashes with state rules, it might not be legal to practice at all. But, some forms are allowed and protected by law.