Regulating Religion in China

March 16, 2020

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Stairs leading up to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

China is home to hundreds of millions of religious believers and is currently seeing a rapid rise in religious observance. This widespread faith has been a source of conflict for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the atheist governing party of China which lays claim to a complex history with religious groups. In recent years, the CCP has increasingly regulated the religious lives of Chinese Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and others. Since 2017, more than a million Uighurs and other Muslims have been sent to re-education camps to adhere to CCP ideology. Christian pastors and other church leaders have been imprisoned or placed on house arrest for “inciting subversion of state power.” The Catholic Church has also been the site of controversy in China, as Pope Francis reached a deal with the CCP in fall 2018 to recognize the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government, a move some see as a threat to Vatican autonomy.

In December 2019, the Chinese government announced the policy “Administrative Measures for Religious Groups,” which aims to promote patriotism by cultivating a closer relationship between church and state. Starting February 1, 2020, the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs began to exercise greater control over religion, from enforcing state-mandated regulations to requiring religious organizations to support CCP values. The policy can be said to fall into a larger goal: the Sinicization of religion, a plan for the CCP to “actively guide the adaptation of religions to socialist society” outlined by President Xi Jinping

Chinese policies on religion have sparked concern among faith communities and human rights groups around the world. The response of the American government, however, remains less clear. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has condemned China for conducting a “war on faith.” However, President Donald Trump, while critical of the treatment of religious groups in China, has not allowed concerns over religious freedom in China to stall the American trade deal with the country. How the international community should respond to religious freedom concerns in China will continue to be a difficult question, especially with the new Chinese regulations of religious groups. 

This week the Berkley Center asks: Why is China re-intensifying the regulation of religious groups? How do Chinese policies on religion fit into larger state objectives? Should the U.S. government place greater pressure on China to advance religious freedom? If so, how? What is the responsibility of religious groups around the world to support faith communities in China? How can interfaith organizations address concerns over religious freedom in China?

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