“Religious Freedom” in China: How the World’s Most Anti-Religious Government Manages Increasing Faith and Religious Diversity

What does the Chinese Communist Party hate more than religion? People noticing how much it hates religion. That was the message last month, when officials within the government of the People’s Republic of China were angered that the rest of the world not only noticed China’s dismal record of human rights abuses but actually dared to voice their criticisms aloud. The venue for this criticism was the UN Human Rights Council, where China came up for its 5 year periodic review before the international body.  A key point of criticism against China was its widespread and systematic repression of various religions and religious groups, including ethno-religious minorities such as the Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans.

As if oppressing those groups was not enough, this morning comes word that the Chinese government recently arrested 100 members of the Early Rain Church, a Protestant congregation that has been accused of “inciting subversion of state power.” No one should be surprised by these moves.  The Pew Research Center ranks China the most restrictive country in the world in terms of policies against religious freedom, and its policies have become increasingly restrictive over the last decade.

Interestingly, since shortly after the Chinese Communist Party seized control of the country, the Chinese constitution has guaranteed religious freedom,  Of course, the CCP defines “freedom” about as loosely as a certain Commander-in-Chief defines “collusion” (aren’t we all equally concerned that SNL skits are equally subversive of American democracy as Russian hacking and massive misinformation campaigns? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?)(the sad part about that reference is that Ben Stein probably agrees with President Trump on this one. As usual, I digress).

When initially implementing the Chinese constitution and its religious freedom provision, Mao Zedong and his associated thought that this was a temporary measure.  Their Marxist ideology led them to think of religion as an archaic “opium of the people” that would fade away into insignificance in the face of socialism and modernization.”  Even so, the Chinese government sought to control and manage religion in the interim. Foreign missionaries were expelled from the country.  The government conveyed official recognition to a handful of religious traditions – Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam Protestantism, Taoism, and created official governing bodies, overseen by the state Religious Affairs Bureau, to manage the organizational activities of these different faiths.

This arrangement eventually gave way to harsher measures during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Although complicated, the Cultural Revolution was in some ways a civil war between the Mao and his informal confidants against a communist bureaucracy that had taken more and more de facto authority from the ageing ruler who’s disastrous policies cost tens of millions of lives and nearly brought the country to ruin.

Imagine if President Trump became fed up with the Republican Party for not fulfilling enough of his agenda, and took to Twitter over the next 10 years to stir up white nationalist militias and other die-hard supporters to beat up moderate Republicans, jail Democrats, burn progressive literature, force Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to confess to being corrupted by liberalism, and require everyone to memorize passages from The Art of the Deal.  (Please don’t actually suggest this to the current administration, I beg you).

This is essentially what happened during the Cultural Revolution. Mao began to publicly denounce government officials, intellectuals and other elements of society for being insufficiently socialist, “bourgeoise,” traditionalist, or capitalist, and his rhetoric stirred up elements of the Chinese citizenry and state security apparati to attack, arrest, torture and even kill political rivals and “subversive” elements of society en masse; millions suffered, but Mao solidified his cult of personality.

Religion, viewed by Mao as “superstition,” became a major target during the Cultural Revolution.  Catholic clergy were given long prison sentences and sometimes died in jail.  Buddhism among the Han Chinese population – to say nothing of Tibetan Buddhism – has yet to recover from the destruction of temples and monks alike. Overall, countless houses of worship were systematically destroyed, sacred texts were burned, and priests, monks and nuns were rounded up alongside political subversives and bourgeois elements for hard labor and reeducation.

China has moderated (or, one could argue, essentially phased out) its communist ideology in the decades since Mao’s death.  In doing so, the CCP has stopped waiting for religion to wither away, and the state no longer tries to eradicate religion from the country. Instead, China heavily controls and manages religion within its borders, using a wide variety of policy instruments. The current constitution maintains the freedom of religion, but qualified as applying to “normal religious activities,” a distinction completely up to the state to interpret.

The five official religions remain under hierarchical government control, while underground or semi-official religious activities, a by-product of the Cultural Revolution, are alternatively tolerated or persecuted according to the wishes and agenda of the state – a complicated and unstable religious marketplace. In recent years, the CCP has taken a hardline approach to certain religions groups and communities, such as Muslim minorities and Chinese Catholics, including mass arrests and detentions and literally blowing up places of worship (what we in political science call “subtlety.”) These increasingly restrictive measures are in many ways reactions to an environment that is increasingly hard to control as religious belief continues to grow and diversify across China.

Source: Professor Fenggang Yang, Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Perdue University.

Just as the ancient Silk Road brought beliefs such as Buddhism to the Middle Kingdom, China’s imperialist foreign policy, which continues to increase the country’s interconnectedness to countries and regions around the world, will only increase the country’s exposure to religious traditions from abroad. Combined with multiplying and expanding homegrown religious movements, even the ambitious President Xi Jinping may find religion too powerful to control. As the recent crackdowns have shown, however, Xi and the CCP are hellbent on trying.

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