The Two Tracks of Xi Jinping’s Religious Policy

By: André Laliberté

March 16, 2020

Regulating Religion in China

According to many recent observations on the ground, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping has moved to a new stage in its policy towards religion. It has intensified its campaigns against some religions, but it also promotes some others. On the one hand, the CCP has acted to remove crosses from the top of churches for being too ostentatious, and it detains in so-called re-education camps close to a million of Uighurs and Kazakhs with the objective of suppressing their Islamic identity. The CCP also continues to target for repression Falun Gong and any other religious groups that do not fit into the very limiting nomenclature of the five official religious associations it tolerates. Internal documents have shown that the CCP undertakes these actions because it worries about infiltration from outside forces among Muslims and Christians. It also targets Falun Gong because it believes that this movement challenges its authority.

On the other hand, the CCP has shown since Hu Jintao more leniency towards Buddhists and Daoists. In that sense, Xi’s policy on religion fundamentally differs from that of Mao. While Mao condemned all religions and Confucianism as the expression of “feudal society,” Xi considers both as part of the national heritage that the Chinese people should strive to preserve. Under his stewardship, the CCP has sponsored the convening in China of international meetings between Buddhist and Daoist associations. The authorities have supported these events because they do not fear that these two religions could receive support from abroad to challenge their rule. Moreover, the CCP looks at Buddhists and Daoists as allies on at least three grounds. 

Internally, both Buddhists and Daoists have a stake in enforcing orthodoxy within their ranks, and therefore they make common cause with the CCP in working with the state against forms of religious practice that the government does not consider acceptable. The Buddhist Association of China (BAC) and its Daoist counterpart do not police their own followers just to express loyalty to the CCP: They have a shared interest in preserving orthodoxy within their own ranks. For the BAC, this means in particular ensuring that Buddhists of the Tibetan rite approve the position of the CCP on choosing the successor to the fourteenth Dalai Lama, whom they oppose. 

Moreover, the CCP supports Buddhism and Daoism within the country for two other reasons. Firstly, it relies on them for the delivery of social services to marginal categories of the population: migrant workers, students from poor households, lone elderly without descendants, orphans, people suffering from disability, and victims of natural disasters. This support of Buddhist and Daoist philanthropy promotes the image of a state that cares for the well-being of the population, and the regime sees in this symbiotic relationship a source for legitimation. 

Secondly, the revenue generated from pilgrimage and tourism to Buddhist and Daoist sites of worship can represent sources of income for cash-strapped local governments. This collaborative relation is not exempt of tension, as some believers resent the instrumental approach of the state towards their religions. However, for many high-ranking religious leaders, this mutually beneficial relationship brings a tangible advantage: It ensures the survival of their institutions.

Finally, the CCP sees in this patronage of Buddhism and Daoism advantages for China’s diplomacy. The United Front Work Department is aware that Buddhists and Daoists embody elements of traditional culture that could appeal to people with a Chinese heritage all around the world, who would otherwise not feel comfortable with the regime. In recent years, Buddhist monks have travelled in North America, Europe, and Australia to buy land, build monasteries and temples, promoting the value of their religions. Most subtly, the development abroad of such innocuous activities and intercultural exchanges, which give the image of a vibrant religious life within China, serve to deflect abroad the rising awareness that the followers of other religions suffer from persecution in that country.

Governments, people in the media, academics, and other actors in civil society who care for human rights should see through these goodwill efforts for what they are: They are smokescreen that promote the fiction of a religiously tolerant China that is respectful of freedom of conscience. They should be forthcoming about the repression against religious minorities, raise in the appropriate international fora the issue of the CCP violations of freedom of conscience, and call for the unconditional release of people detained because of their religious belief. 

Religious freedom would receive better support internationally once included in the broader framework of respect for universal values that China has signed for. As Xi Jinping claims that the “China Dream” seeks to restore the excellent values of Chinese tradition, it would be wise to remind CCP leaders that a Chinese diplomat contributed significantly to enshrine Confucian values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Religious groups around the world may know better about the condition of their co-religionists than governments officials do and represent the obvious source of support for Chinese Christians and Muslims, and, to a point, Buddhists. Daoists and members of religious minorities, however, cannot benefit from that source of support. For that reason alone, interfaith organizations may be better actors to address concerns over religious freedom in China than co-religionists. 

But why stop there? Secular and non-religious associations also have a moral duty to protect the rights of non-conformists, dissidents, apostates, and followers of illegal religious movements. In particular, adherents of new religious movements such as Falun Gong, Yiguandao, and others, whom few people know about and who face the kind of vilification leading to persecution, cannot rely only on faith communities, especially those that do not tolerate their own dissent. 

Concerns over religious freedom should be a matter for everyone, not only religious believers. Attacks on religious believers target more broadly freedom of conscience. Religious freedom constitutes one component among others of freedom and civil rights. Support for religious freedom should work in tandem with support for other freedoms and civil rights, whether for women, minorities, or political dissidents: They are all inseparable.

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