The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) affirms a political Maoist-Marxist ideology which, for various reasons, is why the state views religion(s) with great suspicion. Officially, according to The Basic Viewpoint on the Religious Question During Our Country’s Socialist Period (1982) (henceforth Basic Viewpoint document), “Communists are atheists and must unremittingly propagate atheism” (p. 5). The CCP affirms this view.
Communist autocrat Mao Zedong (1893-1976) established the People’s Republic in 1949. The experience for the religious going forward was one of severe oppression and persecution. Thousands of religious structures were reduced to rubble. Monasteries, churches, and mosques lay in ruins, monks were disrobed, and untold numbers of religious leaders and believers were imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed. The contempt the state had for religion is apparent in the demolition of religious structures in ancient parts of cities for highway construction. Even today for the religious, harassment, heavy fines, and imprisonment are features of society.
Religion was viewed as a scourge by the state because it not only failed to keep up with modernization processes but also threatened its development. Religion kept the masses superstitious, and, because of its alienating effects, shackled them to their oppressive material circumstances. Religion soothes the pain but does not eliminate it, just as sticking a small plaster on a gaping wound does not heal the injury. As Marx alleged, religion kept the masses looking upward at the heavens, not downward toward their present material conditions on the ground. The system needed to change and religion got in the way of achieving that.
The CPP agrees that drastically transforming the mindset of the religious masses will diminish religion to the extent that it will “eventually disappear from human history” (p. 2), although it acknowledges this will take time. This is reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) prediction that despite the death of God in Europe, his shadow will remain for a long time to come. The CPP looks forward to an idyllic future established by the masses who collectively united to construct a powerful, modernized socialist state in which there is no religion (p. 2).
Today the CPP, although reluctantly tolerating religion and officially recognizing five (Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism; the 100 million who make up the CCP are forbidden to engage in religious activities and hold religious beliefs), via its surveillance systems keeps a close watch of religious people and their activities, and will crack down on them should it consider it necessary. All religions must obey the CPP’s stipulations and political vision. The state particularly does not view favorably apocalyptic talk and teachings among many Protestant home churches. The devout need to approach the religious affairs office to get permission before conducting religious activities.
The conditions that legitimate this state action are found in the Basic Viewpoint document and, to name a few, include putative “anti-revolutionary activities” and activities that are “injurious” to the people. Some of the concepts and conditions stated in this document are vague and open to broad interpretation, which the CCP can exploit and interpret in the way it wants. For example, the document is replete with references to “normal religious activity” (p. 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11). But what is normal religious activity? The CCP gets to decide.
The CCP, however, cannot keep up with religious revivalism and growth in its borders. Protestant home churches proliferate leading to CCP surveillance systems being overwhelmed. In the rural areas particularly, greater numbers are venerating ancestors, visiting ancestral temples and shrines, and participating in public rituals. Overwhelmed, the state has increased its efforts to privatize religion by keeping it out of the public sphere, although this is, as shortly seen, contradicted by its activities and those of the religious.
Hereforth is some of the relevant facts presented by sociologists and sinologists, and other scholars, on the state of religion in contemporary China.
1. Protestantism. Protestantism is the conspicuous point of discussion on this topic. When the People’s Republic was established in 1949 by Mao Zedong, there were around one million Protestants in the nation. But since the autocrat’s passing in 1979 and despite the persecution of religion, Protestantism has surged exponentially with some Sinologists estimating the current number at around fifty million on the conservative end (1). On the higher end, the estimate is somewhere around one hundred million (2). The number probably falls somewhere between these two estimates.
History is unpredictable, which means that predictions must always remain tentative, a point lost on the CPP, but if Protestantism maintains its annual 7% growth, by 2030 the statistic could be 224 million (3). As earlier stated, Protestantism’s rapid expansion has overwhelmed state surveillance. The CPP increasingly turns to distinguish between Protestant groups that threaten its political power and those that are harmless. For obvious reasons, it surveils the former.
Furthermore, Catholic underground/home churches evidence a not insignificant growth, although at a far smaller rate than Protestantism.
2. Folk Religion. The CCP considers folk religion as “feudal superstition” but the current reality of the situation on the ground is unlikely to make the state happy. In 2008, the Pew Research Center estimated that around 60% of China’s population believe in and practice folk religion, or at least affirm one or more features (4). A much more recent 2022 study by three Sinologists puts this number at 70%, which can be interpreted to indicate growth (5).
3. Marked Reduction of the Unreligious Demographic. Previously acknowledged, religion experienced severe persecution under Moa’s regime and onward. Behind the state’s rationale was its confidence that religion would be rooted out and destroyed. But the opposite has happened. Despite the state’s efforts to quash and destroy religion (and today increasingly privatize it), the total number of unbelievers has dropped significantly. In 2014, the total number was 62.3% and by 2018 sat at a much lower 25% 6).
One needs to concentrate on what exactly the “non/un-believer” category is in the unique Chinese context. A large body of research now indicates that when applied to putative secular Western European countries, such as the Czech Republic and Britain, the “non/un-believer” category does not indicate the total number of agnostics and atheists in those areas. In the Czech Republic, for example, the majority of the population is in the “non/un-believer” category. Research, however, indicates that this is largely the result of strong anti-clericalism and that the majority of the population, at least 60%, still accept one or more religious concepts (7). In these contexts, the more appropriate topographical designation is “believing without belonging” (8). The question raises concerning how the Chinese situation is unique in this respect.
4. Adaption to Technology. Secularization theorists in the twentieth century predicted that the more a society modernizes as a result of the sciences and technologies, the result will be religion’s diminishment into insignificance and/or disappearance. The CPP holds this view.
This, of course, has not happened. A large body of evidence demonstrates that religions are very adaptable when it comes to technology. During the COVID pandemic, both old and new technologies became a strategically and widely used medium for African Pentecostal leaders to keep in contact with their followers and vice versa, many of whom downloaded the apps that enabled them to offer tithes and continue listening to sermons. Apps are designed to assist Muslims with when to pray, the direction of Mecca from the position of the one praying, assist in reciting and memorizing the Qur’anic texts, and so on.
It is similar for practitioners of Chinese folk religion whose members frequently employ technology to share their beliefs with wider audiences than ever before possible (9). Through video cameras and websites, traditional folk rituals are performed and cater to the relevant audiences, especially the villagers and those inhabiting rural communities such as farmers. There is also an appeal to professionals who can be found in the audience.
5. Deprivatization of Religion. Perhaps a peculiar feature is that rather than privatizing religion, the state appears to be complicit in contributing to efforts deprivatizing it. The CPP has invested in (re)constructive projects of traditional temples and shrines which are occurring in large cities, such as Guangzhou (10), which is already found in a province home to more than 10,000 shrines. Rather than privatizing religion entirely, these efforts are giving it a very public standing.
Folk religion is also not a private affair. It is very public as its many millions of members organize and engage in communal practices (11). Members do not split the “religious” domain from political and economic life.
6. The De-secularization of Religion. What is further peculiar is that despite its anti-religious and reluctant tolerance of religion, the CPP strategically uses religion to ensure social harmony (12). For example, it is mobilized in the essential areas of education and healthcare, which has engendered a revival of Chinese Buddhist philanthropy.
Much more will be developed on each of these points in future posts but the evidence considered indicates that instead of the diminishing presence of religion in contemporary China, there is its deprivatization, adaption to and strategic mobilization of technology, marked numerical growth, and sharp decline of unbelievers, all occurring right under the CPP’s nose who might find itself needing to revise its prophecies.
- Jianrong, Yu. 2009. “Religious Demography and House Churches”. Compass Direct News Service.
- Chalufour, Marc. 2023. What’s behind Boom of Christianity in China? Available.
- Yang, Fengang. 2017. Christianity’s Growth in China and Its Contributions to Freedoms. Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. Available.
- Pew Research Center. 2008. Religion in China on the Eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Available.
- Zhang, Chunni., Lu, Yunfeng., and Sheng, He. 2021. “Exploring Chinese folk religion: Popularity, diffuseness, and diversities”. Chinese Journal of Sociology 7(4):575-592.
- Zhang, Lu, and Sheng 2021. Ibid. p. 528.
- Hamplova, D., and Nespor, Z. 2009. “Invisible religion in a “non-believing” country: The case of the Czech Republic”. Social Compass 56(4):581-597.
- Davie, Grace. 1990. “Believing without belonging: Is this the future of religion in Britain?” Compass 37:455-469.
- Madsen, Richard. 2010. “The Upsurge of Religion in China”. Journal of Democracy 21(4):58-71. p. 61.
- Ma, Ling., Woods, Orlando., and Zhu, Hong. 2019. “Restoration of an ancestral temple in Guangzhou, China”. Cultural Geographies 26(1):41-150.
- Madsen, Richard. 2010. p. 61.
- Dobbelaere, Karel. 2009. “China Challenges Secularization Theory”. Social Compass 56(3):362-370. p. 363.