Human rights groups are concerned with the Chinese government’s interference with religion in the country. Legal expert and researcher on minority groups Ewelina U. Ochab explains that,
“The discrimination and persecution they have been subjected to have intensified in recent months to the level that it can no longer be ignored by the international community” (1).
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, particular religious and spiritual communities have seen increased constraints and more intrusive controls.
Rise in Religiosity in Post-Maoist China
Despite China’s rich religious history persecution of religions is not new to the country’s people. Just as recent as 1949 when Mao Zedong came to power religion was outlawed and many religious believers persecuted (2). All temples, shrines, mosques, pagodas, and churches were destroyed or converted to secular uses, and it was believed that China would become a fully secularized, post-religious society. However, contrary to these expectations, religious groups, despite decades of severe repression, have sprung up across China. Researchers Rodney Stark and Eric Liu write that,
“Huge numbers of temples have been reopened or rebuilt, and so have many churches. And although the West has been focused on the rapid growth of Christianity in China, millions more have returned to Buddhism, and once again huge numbers of Chinese are pursuing their traditional folk religions and worshipping at their ancestral shrines” (3).
Scholar Daniel Overmyer states that “wherever local conditions permit, religious activities come bubbling to the surface, festivals to the gods are held, traditional funerals and burial rituals are restored, destroyed images and shrines are replaced, priests appear to perform rituals, and congregations meet to worship” (4).
Some of this activity could be considered a religious revival, which is best understood as a return to belief and participation in the folk religion that blends together elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism with ancestor worship, belief in many traditional gods, and in ghosts and demons. This has motivated the reconstruction and restoration of many temples and places of worship where crowds gather to pray and to place offerings of food and incense before images of various gods. The rapid growth of Christianity is also new in Chinese history while Islam too has a small presence. According to Pew Research statistics, 21.9% of the Chinese population are folk religionists, 18.2% Buddhists, 5.1% Christians, 1.8% Muslims, and 52.2% unaffiliated (5). The Communist Party adopts state atheism (6).
Persecution, Regulations, and Bans
In 2018 the Chinese government established regulations on religious education, the types of religious organizations that can exist, where they can exist, and the activities they can organize (7). Pew Research investigations reveal that,
“While the Chinese government asserts that it protects religious freedom, a series of annual Pew Research Center reports on religious restrictions around the globe have detailed government efforts aimed at maintaining strict control over religious beliefs and practices in the country” (8).
These regulations have resulted in the persecution of minorities including Christians and Muslims. Uighur Muslims have found themselves in the sight of the state because they are often seen as foreigners, a judgment that is reinforced by marked ethnic contrasts (the Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims, for example, and speak a different language). This has included the government detaining over a million Uighurs in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang province on allegations of their being “deceived by religious extremism” and who were, as a result, believed to be in need of re-education and resettlement (9). These so-called skills and educational training camps are in fact detention centers, and there have been allegations that authorities have forced detainees to swear loyalty to President Xi Jinping and criticize or renounce their faith. Measures have been taken to prohibit “abnormally” long beards, the wearing of veils in public places, and refusal to watch state television.
Christians have also faced persecution in the country. In several provinces, children were banned from attending Christian camps over the summer holidays. There were also notices issued banning all school children and their teachers from going to church. Churches are monitored, and some have been attacked by the state security forces or closed down. There is the case of the Golden Lampstand Church with a congregation of about 50 000 that was demolished with use of dynamite and heavy machinery as part of a “city-wide campaign to remove illegal buildings” (10). On another occasion a priest, Father Lu Danhua, was detained by authorities and has since gone missing (11). There are plans in the works to “contextualize” Christians preaching and the Bible as to make them more “culturally acceptable.” This would include adapting these to the core values of socialism. However, despite government laws to join churches sanctioned by the Communist Party, many Christians instead choose to worship at independent churches or house churches. These levels of persecution have seen China in the last year alone jump from 42nd to 27th in the list of the 50 worst places to live in the world as a Christian (12).
Religion is a Threat to the Communist Party
Why is religion facing persecution in China? Some have suggested that this is because religion is a threat to President Xi Jinping’s Communist Party (13). According to an Open Doors International Asia-based researcher Aaron Ma,
“Some suggest that because Christians’ allegiance is first and foremost to God and not the Communist Party, there is a conflict of interests that the party believes can potentially hinder the process of unification” (14).
As noted, laws have been put into place in an attempt to regulate religion, and any religious meetings not obeying these laws are considered illegal. Authorities can shutdown any house church that is not registered or fine and/or arrest the pastors and believers. And even when religious meetings are sanctioned by the state the government has still targeted peaceful religious activities protected by international law. Open Doors reports that churches have reportedly been ordered to display the country’s flag, as well as Xi Jinping’s picture and posters on socialist values. According to the organization,
“The goal of the Communist Party of China is to maintain its power through national unity – including the control of all religions. Since the Communist Party took over the implementation of the regulations on religion, the treatment of religious groups has become much harsher. Christians are a particular focus because they are the largest social force in China that isn’t controlled by the state” (15).
China’s persecution of religious minorities is part of the state’s strategy to consolidate public recognition of its authority and to generate political conformity (i.e. unity). The state does this under the guise of public safety and interest when it is actually doing so in its own interests, notably to cement its political power. This is in part due to the state’s deep-seated fear that religious believers could form allegiances to authorities outside of their control. China’s Constitution is deliberately unclear on the scope of religious freedom. Under Article 36, citizens have the right to “enjoy freedom of religious belief”, but with the added caveat that they practice “normal religious activities.” However, the term “normal” is ambiguous and leaves room for interpretation. The result is that the Communist Party has exploited this to implement extreme measures of control and attack religious communities it perceives threatens its power.
“Authentic” Chinese Religion is Used to the State’s Benefit
The state has also attempted to leverage certain religions to its own benefit, namely versions of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. While suppressing religions such as Christianity and Islam perceived as foreign, the state has promoted faiths believed to be authentically Chinese as a way to fill a spiritual vacuum. According to Ian Johnson,
“The party is trying to come up with a positive narrative to bind society together, and part of this is restoring Chinese traditions. In this regard, Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions are viewed as indigenized and helpful to the state” (16).
These religions also offer devotees outlets through which the party can receive dissatisfaction with its policies without losing its source of authority. For those people who cannot afford basic things such as housing, education, or medical treatment, faith and spirituality offer a form of appeasement through self-reflection and inner peace.
1. Ochab, Ewelina. 2019. Is China Conducting A Crackdown On Religion? Available.
2. Stark, Rodney, and Liu, Eric. 2011. “The Religious Awakening in China.” Review of Religious Research 52(3): 282-289.
3. Stark, Rodney, and Liu, Eric. 2011. Ibid.
4. Overmyer, Daniel. 2003. Religion in China Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1.
5. Pew Forum. China. Available.
6. O’Brien, Joanne, and Palmer, Martin. 1993. The state of religion atlas. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 108.
7. Open Doors. 2017. Tightening religious restrictions a danger to the Chinese Church. Available.
8. Pew Research Center. 2018. Recent Chinese dealings with faith groups reflect a pattern of government restrictions on religion. Available.
9. BBC. 2018. China Uighurs: Xinjiang legalises ‘re-education’ camps. Available.
10. World-Wide Religious News. 2018. Chinese authorities demolish Christian church. Available.
11. World-Wide Religious News. 2018. Chinese priest missing after ‘brief chat’ with authorities. Available.
12. Open Doors. China. Available.
13. Open Doors. 2019. Chinese government cracks down on churches. Available.
14. Lowry, Lindy. 2018. China Forbids Children From Churches as Religious Rights Diminish. Available.
15. Open Doors. China. Available.
16. Sun, Cathy. 2019. Different but the Same: Religious Persecution in China. Available.