Freedom of Religion in China: A Historical Perspective

By: Olivia Lamb

October 1, 2014

In 1997, the Chinese Government released a white paper on religious freedom. The paper touts that there were approximately 100 million religious believers and practitioners in China and outlines the various legal and judicial institutions set in place to maintain religious freedom. Although the paper may seem underwhelming by Western standards, it is quite significant when looking through a historical lens. Since 1949, China has seen tremendous economic growth and a meteoric rise in the global ranks. As the economic landscape transformed, so did the acceptance of religion in China’s cultural and political spheres. This post will present a broad view of the major events in China’s religious movements since 1949. The idea of religious freedom will be examined through both official government interactions and societal movements in the realm of religion.
In 1949, when the PRC was founded, the government established the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB). The RAB was the official state organ that oversaw all religious activities in China and managed the five recognized religions—Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Daoism—and their associated patriotic religious associations. The establishment of the RAB both implicitly and, more often than not, explicitly banned religions outside of the five approved ones. It also officially set the state at the head of the Church, Mosque, Temple, and every other religious body in China.

In 1954, the first constitution of the People’s Republic of China was approved. The constitution stipulated that all adult citizens have the freedom of religious belief. The positivity of this provision can also be seen as a red flag to true religious freedom. The provision guarantees religious belief but it makes no mention of guarantees or provisions for religious practice, obedience, or proselytization. There was, then, an uncertainty as to how religious practices would be treated under this provision. This omission or lack of specificity may or may not have to do with the Marxist ideology that China followed—the same Marxist ideology that denounces religions as superstitious hindrances to economic growth.

Though the Marxist stance against religion may or may not have influenced the aforementioned wording, it definitely influenced the harsh crackdown on religion that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to 1976, religious persons of all faiths suffered a decade of attacks and persecution. Those who wanted to maintain their religious practices and the status quo of their lives were forced to practice in secret. The mass movement to private and secretive worship led to the creation of underground religious movements. At this point in history, the persecution and movement underground meant that there were effectively no recognized believers of any religion in China.

This would be the case until the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. It was after this period that Deng Xiaoping’s open door policies went into effect. In addition to stimulating an economic resurgence, the policies also lifted many of the Mao-era bans. This included removing the ban on religions and religious practices. Article 36 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, which was adopted in 1982, reflects the new attitude toward religion. It maintains freedom of religious belief and also states protection of “normal religious activities.” The same year the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee also issued a document titled “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on Religious Question during Our Country’s Socialist Period.” This document, commonly referred to as Document 19, offers a rather straightforward—by CCP standards—expression of regret for the past treatment of religious persons and organizations. In the document, the party recognizes the complexity and longevity associated with religion and the crucial role religion plays in individual and societal development. Additionally, it is clearly stated that freedom of religious belief must be protected for all citizens.

Notwithstanding the rigid Marxist ideology that insists on the eventual demise of religion, it is respectable that the CCP realized that religion would grow and be around for years to come. Since 1996, China’s then 100 million religious practitioners have grown six-fold. A 2010 Pew Forum study on religion and public life estimates China to have over 600 million religious persons. These numbers may actually be conservative considering the growing number of underground churches and other unrecognized religious bodies. The massive uptick in the religious population is likely to continue as general society becomes more comfortable with religion and religious activity.

Final Thoughts

The tremendous growth in religious activity is a testament to the changing ideas and positions taken by the Chinese state in regards to religion. Like the Chinese economy, interest in religion doesn’t seem likely to slow down anytime soon. The shift in official party stance demonstrates that the Chinese government is increasingly willing to grant religious organizations a place in society and work with them. The positive recognition of religious organizations and the importance of religion to the individual is a remarkable shift from 65 years prior. This is not to say that the current state of religious freedom is perfect or truly free. There are still issues with religions that fall outside of the state-sanctioned sphere of influence. However, the general pattern does suggest that China is slowly but surely moving closer toward true religious freedom.

This piece was originally written for the Religious Freedom Project's Cornerstone blog in response to a series on the changing dynamics of religious freedom in China.
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