Since the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has carried out an official policy of state atheism. ‘Unregistered’ religious groups continue to suffer from persecution. Even though this persecution happens on a large scale, reports say that religious observation, like church attendance and praying, is on the rise in China. This applies to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism as well as Chinese traditional beliefs.1 Will this rise of religiosity generate more religious tolerance or is it more likely to provoke increased repression? (Featured Image © Luca Galuzzi)
The Illusion of Religious Freedom
In the 20th century (former) communist states, like Albania, China, Cuba, North Korea and the Soviet Union, started to initiate strict atheistic or even anti-religious policies. During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) several religious sites and sanctuaries were destroyed or severely damaged. Even though Christianity and Islam have been in China since the early Tang dynasty (618-907), these two religions were mostly targeted given their foreign origin and relatively recent arrival in China.2 China’s Constitution, as adopted in 1982, ostensibly guarantees religious freedom. Article 36 reads that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. […] The State protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies or religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”3
The problematic wording of the Constitution enables China to persecute activities that are not recognized as so-called ‘normal religious activities.’ China has five officially recognised religious organizations that enjoy a relative degree of protection – the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant) and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. These organisations are supervised and controlled by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).4 Therefore, the freedom of religion is extremely limited as all religious organisations have to register with one the five patriotic associations and obey their state-sanctioned rules.
The problematic wording of the treaty enables China to persecute activities that are not recognized as so-called ‘normal religious activities.’
The best know example is perhaps the case of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism faces several restrictions in contemporary China, as they are usually not registered with the state-sanctioned Buddhist organisation. An additional issue at stake here is that there are tensions between Beijing and Tibetan monks over the political status of Tibet. Loyalty to the Dalai Lama, who is in exile in India, is restricted and religious activities are monitored by the authorities. Furthermore, the government has imposed so-called ‘patriotic re-education campaigns’ upon Buddhists in Tibet in order to promote the state-sanctioned Buddhist organisation.5
Between Support and Suppression
Apart from the Tibetan Buddhists, the Falun Gong movement is one that also faces persecution. The Falun Gong (Chinese for ‘Discipline of the Dharma Wheel’) is a Chinese spiritual movement that was introduced in China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. Falun Gong combines meditation and qigong practice6 with moral teaching that incorporates elements from Buddhist and Taoist traditions.7 As such it does not fit into one of the five approved religious organisations. The CCP initially embraced the teachings of Li considering that the rituals of Falun Gong helped to improve self-cultivation and mental health. However, as of 1999, the Chinese government started to persecute its followers. In the late 1990s, the movement had quickly gained enormous popularity and had grown out of state control. Obsessed with the fear to lose grip on society, the government quickly started to suppress every activity of the Falun Gong.8 Even today, practitioners continue to suffer from violence, torture and imprisonment without trial. In a recent report, Amnesty International claimed that eight practitioners were not able to stand or walk after being tortured by the police.9
Many protestant house churches10 and underground Catholics that do not register with the two state-sanctioned Christian organisations, face obstruction and persecution as well. House churches have many theological differences with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and are operating independently from the former organisation.11 Throughout the years, gatherings have been disrupted, church building (even the ‘patriotic’ ones) were damaged, and churchgoers and pastors were intimidated, arrested and detained.12 Interestingly, as the state-sanctioned Catholic organisation does not recognise the religious authority of the Pope, priests and churchgoers that wish to follow the teachings of the Holy See in Rome face similar persecution. 13
Many protestant house churches and underground Catholics face obstruction and persecution. In other cases, anti-terrorism measures are misused as a tool to persecute innocent Muslim civilians.
Islam is also severely persecuted in China. This is especially the case in the Xinjiang region in Western China, where the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs are the biggest ethnic group. The Uyghurs are culturally and ethnically close to Turkic peoples from Central Asia, and are an ethnic minority group in China.14 The conflict in Xinjiang is a particular case. The region has witnessed various clashes between government troops and the militant, separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Chinese targets, like government building and embassies, continue to be attacked by Uyghur terrorists.
Although a vast majority of Uyghurs do not support ETIM, anti-terrorism measures are misused as a tool to persecute innocent Muslim civilians.15 Civil servants in the Xinjiang region were not allowed to fast during Ramadan, and Muslims were prohibited from wearing headscarves or growing a beard. In other cases, Uyghur rights activist were incarcerated without trial and suffered from decisive police violence.16 The Uyghurs are also facing xenophobic behaviour and ethnic discrimination in Chinese society. Especially after 9/11, Uyghurs experienced increased discrimination because of their alleged association with terrorism.17
The Current Rise of Religion
As demonstrated before, religion in China is clearly on the rise. Sociologist and specialist on religion in China, Fenggang Yang, has estimated that by 2030, China would have around 250 million Christians, which would make it the country with the highest numbers of Christians in absolute terms.18 In the meantime, Islam currently has the highest number of followers amongst Chinese that are younger than 30 years old. The US-based Pew Research Center predicted that China’s Muslim population will increase to 30 million in 2030.19
The Chinese leadership is obsessed with controlling society in many aspects. Therefore, uncontrolled religious activity will continue to constitute a threat to their position.
This rapid increase in religious observance forces the atheist leadership to rethink their approach to religion. The example of the Falun Gong shows that a sudden rise in numbers can generate a fear of losing grip on society. Beijing’s response most probably depends largely on how the religious organisations behaves. If local mosques or churches decide to register themselves with the state-sanctioned organisations, it is likely that China will tolerate their activities. That is to say, as long as they act in concert with China’s state policies, there is nothing to fear. However, independent Uyghur Muslims or underground Christians that choose to follow the teachings from anybody or any institution other than the CPC will sadly continue to face obstruction from and persecution by the authorities. The Chinese leadership is obsessed with controlling society in many aspects. Therefore, uncontrolled religious activity will continue to constitute a threat to their position.