How should we understand these developments?
First, context, both historical and more recent, is important for understanding what is happening in China. For particular historical reasons, Americans have unique views on religion and value both freedom of religion—a near absolute right—as well as a clear division between church and state.
China has never shared these views. Religion in China under the dynasties was both highly diverse in terms of local practices and subject to state regulation at the whim of the emperor. There was no formal notion of “freedom of religion” for an individual or a group, and the conflict between church and state, so important to the development of the modern West, played out differently in China because of the relative weakness of the Buddhist and Daoist “churches” and the theocratic pretentions of the emperor. Most periods of Chinese history prior to the twentieth century were marked by a de facto pluralistic religious tolerance on the ground, which could be revoked at any moment because it enjoyed no formal or legal protection.
Second, China’s modern experience of religion has also been different from that of the West. China discovered the modern Western concept of religion (there was no such word in Chinese prior to the late-nineteenth century) in the context of her conflict with the West, and roughly from the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the Chinese elite came to see religion as something desirable, something that the West had and China did not. Western missionaries and preachers, in the eyes of Chinese reformers, were modern men and women of science. Western religions were organized and structured, efficient and orderly, national if not international, everything that Chinese religion was not.
Ever since, one important (if utopian) element in Chinese government policy toward religion has been to build modern churches for China, less for the benefit of China’s religious believers and more as part of a strategy of nation-building. State-approved religions, under the guidance of state authorities, would be tools of organization and discipline, helping to produce a modern citizenry.
Such efforts, while sporadic, have marked Chinese state policy toward religion since the fall of the Qing dynasty, and hence are not the sole result of communist atheism. Both the Chinese Republic and the Chinese People’s Republic recognized in their constitutions only the “Five Big Religions” (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism) and sought to organize these approved religions in ways to facilitate state control and guidance of religious practice; the “patriotic associations” into which the Five Big Religions were regrouped after 1949 were more thorough and effective examples of what Republican authorities had tried to do earlier on (and continued to do in Taiwan).
The other side of the coin of state policy has been the destruction of Chinese “superstitions,” a vast array of diverse practices (such as village cults) that historically occupies the central space of Chinese spirituality. Western China-watchers often associate such destruction with the violence of the Cultural Revolution, when temples and other religious paraphernalia were condemned as part of the “Four Olds” to be destroyed, but in fact efforts to “destroy temples and build schools [in their place]” go back to the late-nineteenth century, and the Chinese state(s) have fought a running battle with “superstition” ever since, a battle reignited by the religion revival underway in China since the 1980s. Given the weight of the tradition of superstition, this battle is probably as utopian as the dream of remaking Chinese religions as tools of nation-building.
In between these two utopias lies the vast terrain of regulation. This, too, has a history that spans the entire twentieth century, but the regulation that most affects religious practice in China today is that of the post-Mao period (which largely recycles that of the Maoist period, while at times according a more positive role to religion as a force for social harmony). This regulation is basically aimed at the officially sanctioned religions, assuring that they respect the rules of the game as defined by the state and remain within the zones to which the state has consigned them. If strictly applied, the regulations can be very restrictive, and indeed, one of the goals of the regulations is to ensure that rapid, uncontrolled growth in religious practice not occur. At the same time, in more open periods when state authorities are less concerned about social control, the regulatory regime allows for the compromises between religious practitioners and state cadres that afford Chinese religions a certain vitality and attractiveness. There has been, since the 1980s, a cycle between relative openness to religious practice and relative concern about the growth of religion or its escape from state control. The new regulations and orientations introduced under Xi Jinping strike me as largely consistent with this pattern and do not necessarily suggest a new direction in state policy on religion.
In fact, my impression is that the tightening of religious regulation in China under Xi Jinping is part of a larger campaign against pluralism in general and is not motivated by strictly religious concerns. In the fifteen or twenty years prior to Xi’s coming to power in 2013, China became, in many ways, a de facto plural society. By this I do not mean a society that consciously or formally embraced the idea or ideal of pluralism, but instead a society in which many ideas, beliefs, and lifestyles could coexist. Such a development was the product of economic growth and globalization, and signs of this pluralism were visible in the intellectual world, on the internet, in new trends in fashion and consumerism in general. Most Chinese embraced such pluralism as individuals, but Xi Jinping clearly saw it as a threat: If a plural society is a good thing, why not plural politics? Hence Xi’s major goal since in power has been to reimpose ideological and other forms of discipline so as to “make China Marxist again.” Religion, as a thriving example of pluralism, became one of the targets of Xi’s campaign.
In sum, while there is clearly cause for concern for the current treatment of religion in China, from a long-term perspective there are more continuities than discontinuities, and nothing has been ultimately decided. The state has no intention of dropping its utopian plans to remake Chinese religion—or to contain it while it does—but Chinese believers continue to innovate and to resist, in ways large and small, active and passive.