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Council on Foreign Relations, "CFR Backgrounders: Religion in China," June 10, 2015

The Council on Foreign Relations published the backgrounder, "Religion in China", to explain the freedom and regulation of religion in China, Atheism and the Chinese Communist Party, Christian state-sanctioned and house churches, Islam and Uighurs in Xinjiang, Chinese Buddhism and Folk Religions, Tibetan Buddhism, Banned Religious Groups, and China's religious revival. The piece was written by Eleanor Albert.
June 10, 2015


Religious observance in China is on the rise. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is officially atheist, but it has grown more tolerant of religious activity over the past forty years. Amid China’s economic boom and rapid modernization, experts point to the emergence of a spiritual vacuum as a trigger for the growing number of religious believers, particularly adherents of Christianity and traditional Chinese religious groups. Though China’s constitution explicitly allows “freedom of religious belief,” adherents across all religious organizations, from state-sanctioned to underground and banned groups, still face persecution and repression.

Freedom and Regulation

Article thirty-six of the Chinese constitution says that Chinese citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief.” It bans discrimination based on religion and it forbids state organs, public organizations, or individuals from compelling citizens to believe in—or not to believe in—any particular faith. In 2005, the State Council passed new Regulations on Religious Affairs, which allow state-registered religious organizations to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations.

But religious freedom is still not universal in China. Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson says that while religious belief in China is protected by the constitution, the measures “do not guarantee (PDF) the right to practice or worship.” Religious practices are limited to “normal religious activities,” though “normal” is left undefined and can be broadly interpreted. The state only recognizes five religions—Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. Formally, the practice of any other faith is prohibited, although often tolerated, especially in the case of traditional Chinese beliefs. Religious organizations must register with one of five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations, which are supervised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).  

The number of religious adherents in China is steadily increasing, according to various independent reports. Two professors of Shanghai-based East China Normal University polled 4,500 people about their religious beliefs in 2007 and found that 31.4 percent of Chinese adults reported being religious. A 2012 Pew Research Center study that found that China was home to hundreds of millions of Buddists alone, a figure far higher than  the government’s estimates. The government’s tally of registered religious believers remains  at 100 million (less than 10 percent of the population), as stated by sources such as the Chinese Embassy in the United States in 1999 and more recently in the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 2013 Universal Periodic Review. Many of the unregistered believers are said to practice  traditional folk religion. According to U.S. State Department reports, underground house churches and banned religious groups account for many of the unregistered believers as well.

Public security officials monitor both registered and unregistered religious groups to prevent activities that  “dirupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State. ” Liu Peng, a scholar with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in China Security that because of the government’s administration over religious organizations, the official religions have “essentially become another state-run enterprise managed by the Party.” 

Atheism and the CCP

The CCP is officially atheist. The party prohibits its nearly ninety million party members from holding religious beliefs and it has demanded the expulsion of party members who belong to religious organizations. Officials have said that party membership and religious beliefs are incompatible, and they discourage the family of CCP members from publicly participating in religious ceremonies. Although the regulations are not always strictly enforced, the party periodicially takes steps to draw a clearer line on religion.  For example, fifteen party officials in Tibet were investigated in January 2015 for violating party and political discipline; some were accused of aiding the Dalai Lama, the leading figure of Tibetan Buddhism. That month, local officials in eastern Zhejiang province reiterated a ban on religious belief among party members, announcing that all applicants for membership would be screened for evidence of religious faith.

Christian State-Sanctioned and House Churches

Since the 1980s, China has seen a significant growth in Christianity. There are three state-regulated Christian organizations and many underground house churches which range in size from small to large ceremonies in unidentified churches. In 2010, the Pew Research Center estimated (PDF) that there were sixty-seven million Christians in China, roughly 5 percent of the total population. Of these, Pew estimated that fifty-eight million were Protestant, including both state-sanctioned and independent churches. The Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’s estimate is far smaller, tallying twenty-nine million Christian believers.

Still, the relationship between the CCP and organized religion is an uneasy one,  though some pro-government voices suggest that the party is growing more tolerant of Christian groups. 2014 saw a spike in state repression against house churches and state-sanctioned Christian organizations alike, including a campaign to remove hundreds of rooftop crosses from churches. The government sentenced prominent Christian pastor Zhang Shaojie to twelve years in prison for “gathering crowds to disturb public order” in July. The 2014 annual report from ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian NGO said that religious persecution, primarily against Christians, was on the rise. The report cited  572 cases of religious persecution, in which more than 2,994 people were detained and another 1,274 were sentenced.

Islam and Uighurs in Xinjiang

China has ten predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Hui, an ethnic group closely related to the majority Han population and largely based in western China's Ningxia Autonomous Region and Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan provinces. The Uighurs, a Turkic people who live primarily in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in northwest China, are also predominantly  Muslim. There about ten million Uighurs in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, approximately half of the region’s population. Officials in Xinjiang tightly control religious activity, while Muslims in the rest of the country enjoy greater religious freedom.

Xinjiang is an area of special concern because of its region's ethnic and religious ties to neighboring states, as well as the fact that it is the base of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a militant Islamic separatist group. Some experts say that the threat of ETIM is exaggerated, while others doubt the group’s existence. Still, since 1990, China has accused the ETIM of engaging in hundreds of terrorist attacks.  Most Uighurs do not support the ETIM, but they are frustrated with the Chinese government because they face discrimination for having a different religion, language, and culture than the typically wealthier Han Chinese.The government blamed militants for a series of attacks at the Guangzhou, Kunming, and Urumqi railway stations in the spring of 2014. Following the incidents, Beijing announced a year-long anti-terrorism crackdown in Xinjiang, which has included prohibitions on  wearing of headscarves and beards and  restrictions on fasting during Ramadan.

Chinese Buddhism and Folk Religions

China has the world’s largest Buddhist population, with an estimated 244 million practitioners (around 18 percent of the population), according to a 2012 Pew Research Center report. Though Buddhism originated in India, it has a long history and tradition in China. Another 2012 Pew Research Center report found that more than 294 million people (21 percent of China’s population) practice folk religion. Chinese folk religions have no rigid organizational structure, blend practices from Buddhism and Daoism, and are manifest in the worship of ancestors, spirits, or other local deities.Though traditional Chinese religious adherents are difficult to measure accurately, the physical increase in number of temples and the restoration of old temples signals the growth of Buddhism and other folk beliefs in China. “Buddhism, Daoism, and other folk religions are seen as the most authentically Chinese religion and there is much more tolerance of these traditional religions than of Islam or Christianity,” says CFR Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow Barbara Demick. According to journalist Ian Johnson, “hundreds, if not thousands, of folk religious temples are unregistered with the SARA but are tolerated.”

Since China’s opening and reform in the 1980s, the party has been tolerant of, and tacitly approved, the rise in Buddhist practice. However, Karrie Koesel, author of Religion and Authoritarianism: Cooperation, Conflict, and the Consequences, says that “political winds can shift quite quickly in China, so having a positive, collaborative relationship with the government is important to these religious communities”  Under former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the government “passively supported” the growth of Buddhism because they believed it helped bolster the image of China’s peaceful rise, supported the CCP’s goal of creating a “harmonious society,” and could help to improve relations with Taiwan, according to University of Ottawa Professor André Laliberté.

The growth of Buddhism led to heightened visibility of its institutions, particularly Buddhist philanthropic organizations that deliver social services to the poor amid soaring inequality in China. More recently, since President Xi Jinping has come to power, experts have noted an apparent easing of tough rhetoric against, and even a promotion of, traditional beliefs in China. Xi publicly shared his hope that China’s “traditional cultures” of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism could help curb the country’s “moral decline.”

Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibet Autonomous Region is home to more than six million ethnic Tibetans, most of whom are Buddhist. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, as well as an active participant in the debate about Tibet’s political status. Since 1987, he and his exiled government in India have played a prominent role in garnering international support for Tibetan independence. Buddhist monks within Tibet have also organized anti-government demonstrations (including violent riots in 2008 and periodic self-immolations). Experts say that discontent among Tibetan Buddhists stems in part from economic disparities between ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese. Tibetans account for nearly 90 percent of the autonomous region’s population, and while Beijing does not provide official percentages for the numbers of Han and Tibetans, large numbers of Han Chinese have migrated to Tibet as part of Beijing’s broader “Develop the West” campaign that seeks to modernize its Western regions.

As in Xinjiang, Beijing’s religious policy in Tibet is inherently tied to the ethno-religious status of Tibetan Buddhists. To quell dissent, the CCP restricts religious activity in Tibet. The state monitors daily operations of major monasteries and it reserves the right to disapprove an individual’s application to take up religious orders. Additionally, the party created “patriotic education campaigns“ that promote a state-sanctioned version of Buddhism.

Banned Religious Groups

Fringe religious and spiritual groups, dubbed “heterodox cults” by Beijing, add another layer to religious practice in China and are subject to regular government crackdown. The state government has banned more than a dozen such organizations, including Christian-based groups like the Church of Almighty God (also known as Eastern Lightning) and the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that blends aspects of Buddhism, Daoism, and traditional qigong exercise, on the grounds that adherents use religion “as a camouflage, deifying their leading members, recruiting and controlling their members, and deceiving people by molding and spreading superstitious ideas, and endangering society.”  

Suppression of these religious groups is tough and has been consistent. Demick says that there is likely more activity among banned organizations in China than what is widely understood. The  crackdown on the Falun Gong was launched in 1999 after the group organized a large, peaceful demonstration outside CCP headquarters. At its height, the group was believed to have as many as seventy million followers. Similarly, the Chinese government has initiated fresh campaigns against other smaller religious groups, one notably following a deadly attack on a woman in a McDonalds by suspected members of the Church of Almighty God.

A Continuing Revival

China’s religious revival does not appear to be abating, experts say, but Beijing’s rigorous regulation of religious affairs persists as well. Experts argue that state repression and close monitoring of religion often have less to do with religious doctrine than with a group’s organizational ability because of the perception that such a group could potentially challenge the CCP’s legitimacy and authority.

Though Beijing may gradually come to see state-backed religion as a resource not entirely incompatible with China’s development, some officials argue that religion must be contained. Tsering Shakya of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia highlights (PDF) the fundamental problem in the relationship between the Chinese state and religion: “the party is willing to tolerate the emergence of religion as a purely private experience, but it is not willing to see religion expressed as a sort of collective authority.”

Despite Beijing’s concern that religious organizations may call the party’s authority into question, some scholars claim that the threat to the CCP is overblown. Laliberté writes that “the religious landscape of China is too fragmented for any one religion to mount a credible political challenge to the regime.” Increasingly, the government seems to be promoting traditional Chinese ideologies and faiths, like Confucianism and Buddhism, while also urging unregistered Christian organizations and believers to join (PDF) officially recognized religious bodies.