Religious Freedom and Restriction in China

October 1, 2014 marks the 65th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. On this historic occasion, Cornerstone contributors examine the nature of religious freedom in China and its impact on various religious groups such as Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics. 

By: Karrie Koesel

October 1, 2014 marked sixty-five years of communist rule in China. As the party-state rolled out the red carpet for National Day celebrations across the country, there was little indication that political liberalization might be on the horizon. In Hong Kong, the most democratic enclave of the country, the Chinese leadership recently announced that it would provide a list of Beijing-approved candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. This surreptitious change ensures that all Hong Kong candidates will be supportive of the central government.

In addition to altering electoral rules, the Chinese government has also taken steps to silence some of its most vocal critics. In mid-September an economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University was sentenced to life in prison for inciting ethnic separatism. The punishment of Professor Iham Tohti—an ethnic Uighur and human rights activist—marks one of the most severe sentences in recent memory for academics daring to call attention to minority rights and government repression. 

Over the past year, the Chinese government has also tightened controls over the domestic media to constrain the free flow of information. All Chinese journalists are now required to pass a Marxist ideology exam to keep their press cards active, presumably to ensure that their reporting continues to align with the slogans of the regime. Journalists are also banned from releasing information on social media without the explicit consent of their employers. Here, the idea is to introduce yet another layer of censorship and flex the regime's power over social media.

These restrictions on elections, academic freedom, and the media reveal the subtle ways in which the Chinese government consolidates power and defends its rule. They show a clear movement away from naked forms of coercion to more quiet mechanisms of control. What about the nature of religious freedom in China?    

In the post-Mao era, the Chinese government has also moved away from the decade-long campaigns to eradicate religion in favor of creating greater space for religious expression. The Chinese constitution protects the freedom of religious belief and the freedom not to believe, as well as bans any form of discrimination based on religion—a crime that carries a sentence of two years imprisonment. However, like civil and political freedoms, religious freedom is also thinly defined. 

The government recognizes only five official faiths: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. This means that religious groups operating outside of these five faiths are denied legal protection and vulnerable to state suppression. There are theological restrictions on some religions to ensure that they are not beholden to foreign powers. Chinese Protestants, for example, are expected to be non-denominational or post-denominational, and Catholics should be independent from the Vatican. Another limitation is that all religious activities are restricted to state-approved locations. Religious groups that meet outside of government-approved temples, churches, and mosques, as well as religious activities that spill over into the public square are illegal. To ensure that religious groups operate within these narrow parameters, the government has institutionalized Religious Patriotic Associations (RPAs) to oversee and manage each of the five faiths. RPAs function as liaisons between the state and religious groups to ensure they align with the interests of the state.  

The irony is that the thinness of religious freedom in China has not slowed religious growth. Religiosity is widely seen as not just growing, but actually thriving. Mega-churches are popping up in urban areas; government-approved churches frequently hold multiple services each week and set up projectors in basements and storage rooms to accommodate the growing number of Christians. The vitality of religious growth is not limited to Christianity, however. Buddhism’s growth is equally vibrant, with temples and monasteries being lavishly restored across the country. Indeed, during festivals and holidays, long lines of practitioners and curious visitors wind around temple walls. Even among China’s smaller religious communities such as Muslims, crowds spilling out of mosques on Friday afternoon frequently bring traffic in Shanghai to a halt. The rising interest in religion has left religious personnel across the five official faiths often scrambling to meet growing demand.   

How rapidly is religion growing in China? Here, estimating the numbers of religious believers can be tricky because national surveys are rare, Chinese government officials have political incentives to underreport, and overseas faith-based organizations tend to exaggerate the number of believers. However, many scholars estimate over three hundred million religious believers in China, or roughly 30% percent of the population. For the time being, religious adherents do not make up the majority of Chinese citizens, but they do outnumber communist party members over four to one.   

This fact has not been lost on the Chinese leadership. Religious groups that appear to be growing too quickly, especially Protestants, have recently found themselves the target of greater scrutiny and regulation. Since last spring, a handful of churches in eastern China—a region where Christianity is particularly vibrant—have been demolished for violating building codes. Other churches have been ordered by local authorities to remove or significantly shorten their crosses, or face bulldozers of their own. Again, the paradox is that the demolition of churches seems to have mobilized Christian and legal communities across China. The crackdown has also gone some distance in delegitimizing local officials among religious communities.   

It would seem that the striking lesson from the Chinese experience is that even after 65 years of communist rule and a political climate where religious and other freedoms are thinly protected, religious groups have not only survived, but also grown. Limited religious freedom has not stifled demand for religion. It has increased it.

Karrie J. Koesel is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project.

This piece was originally authored on October 14, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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