Have You Heard the Good News?: The Evolution of Religious Freedom in China

28 Feb


China’s stance on religious freedom is notoriously regarded as unjust. However, the Regulations on Religious Affairs (RRA) implemented in 2005 has seen the rise of a remarkably open and empowering attitude in regard to religious activities. Though once regarded as a threat to the Communist regime in China, religion has slowly become an acceptable form of civil society and state control over religious autonomy has been weakened (Tong, 2010).

During Mao’s era religious freedom was curtailed. In a time of reform and modernisation for China, religion was seen as both ‘foreign cultural imperialism’ in the case of Christianity. A line was drawn between religious ‘organisations’ and ‘religion’ itself wherein the CCP sought to increase control over the ‘organisational’ aspect of religious activity. Native religions were also placed under scrutiny; the Mao regime accused Buddhism and Taoism of ‘feudalism’ which contradicted China’s goal of modernisation (Leung, 2005). During the 50’s ‘religious freedom’ was given a party-wide definition. In 1958 Li Weihan interpreted ‘religious freedom’ as a right to belief or not to believe in religion and to be a part of any sect of your choosing. However, he explained that this definition of religious freedom was implemented to encourage people to cast aside religion (Li, 1958l, cited in Leung, 2005). This definition was not revised until 1982, under Deng’s era.

During the Cultural Revolution religious communities suffered heavily. Religious property rights were essentially nullified as churches, temples and other religious sites were occupied and in many cases destroyed. An estimated 8000 Buddhist temples were lost during these years and many religious practitioners and leaders were persecuted (Leung, 2005).

Before the reform period, the state’s policies regarding religion were constrictive and emphasised state control and state-given legitimacy. Religious communities were required to have state permission to practice and were required to perform religious activities in specially assigned areas, thus outlawing home-based activities. This also outlawed wearing religious garments in public, such as that worn by the clergy. Religious communities were also required to be supportive of the CCP. Often the CCP assigned religious leaders who were party cadres in order to quell any anti-party sentiment (Leung, 2005).

In 1982 ‘Document 19’ was issued under Deng’s reform period. It was born of the recognition that by increasing religious rights China could improve its international image and attract more foreign trade. Deng also wanted to break with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and gain more co-operation for modernisation from non-communist intellectuals and religious leaders. However, the Document was not without its failings. It was not widely obeyed and, although it stated that religious property would be returned to the religious communities to which it belonged, this was not always followed through. The Document also stated that religious communities would be self-sufficient and yet government ministries encouraged Christian churches to seek foreign aid thus undermining this requirement. Religious communities also lacked the ability to communicate well with branches of government as the Document did not rectify the appointment of party cadres as religious leaders. The cadres were patriotic to the CCP (which was within the government’s interests) but they often lacked the skills and training required for good leadership and communication (Leung, 2005). In short, Document 19 was a step in the direction of religious freedom but it was still far from a mirror of how liberal society would define ‘freedom’.

The 90’s saw a reduction of trust in religious communities. Concern arose that the ‘underground’ movement of ‘illegal’ (that is, not state-approved) religious communities threatened state stability. This notion is not a new one; religious uprisings are significant in China’s ancient history (the yellow and red turban rebellions) and more recent history (White Lotus and Taiping rebellions) (Chung et all, 2006). The Party was also concerned with foreign support for these ‘illegal’ movements, particularly Catholicism and the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Document 19 was acknowledged as insufficient in managing religious activity – yet despite feelings of hostility, Jiang knew that if the CCP cracked down on religious freedom it would be detrimental to international support and finance. The terms ‘Rule by Law’ and ‘Accommodation’ entered the fight for religious freedom. ‘Rule by Law’ required religious activities to be regulated and to ‘accommodate’ socialist ideology, not oppose it. This decision was justified by defining religious activity within the realm of ‘public affairs’ and therefore subject to state regulation (Leung, 2005).

However, in 2001 the Politburo and State Council met together for the National Religious Work Meeting and came to the conclusion that religion could be a ‘stabilising force’ in Chinese society. Waning socialist ideology and disillusionment are partially responsible for this decision; by approving of specific religions and granting more autonomy, the CCP hoped to curtail the attraction of ‘new religions’ and cults which could harbour anti-party sentiment. China was also trying to address its international image regarding human rights violations. Another influence is the Sino-centric religious scholarship which had been emerging since the beginning of the reform period (Leung, 2005).

As aforementioned, native religion also suffered under Mao’s regime and had to be resurrected during the reform period. One such success story is Nanputuo temple in Fujian province. Though now a thriving religious hub and tourist site, the temple had to be rebuilt almost from scratch after the Cultural Revolution. New clergy had to be trained to replace those who were persecuted and the temple, abiding by state rules, had to become entirely self-sufficient. More than three decades on it has been completely rebuilt, is entirely self-sufficient and has around 600 clergymen. It is one of many success stories that show how religious communities have recovered and grown despite tough state regulations (Ashiwa and Wank, 2006).

In 2005 the RRA was implemented to grant more autonomy to religious communities and reduce state control of religious activities. This is part of a wider goal to increase CCP transparency, improve communication between government and society, promote civil society and improve China’s image in the international community. The RRA grants better legal and administrative rights to religious communities and grants permission to practice religious activities outside of the designated areas. It also encourages religious philanthropy and has helped to establish the role of religious communities in civil society. The RRA also readdresses the accusation of religion as a ‘threat’ by allowing the print and circulation of religious literature, including recruitment pamphlets. It has been greeted with mixed feelings in the wider international community as rather than religious ‘freedom’ it awards ‘management’, but compared to China’s history of restrictive religious regulation there is no denying that it will help China on the road to modernisation and cohesion within the international community (Tong, 2010).


Ashiwa, Y., Wank, D., 2006. The Politics of a Reviving Buddhist Temple: State, Association, and Religion in Southeast China. The Journal of Asian Studies, [e-journal], 65 (2), pp. 337-359. Available through: J-Stor website <http://www.jstor.org> [Accessed 27th February 2014].

Chung, J., Lai, H., Xia, M., 2006. Mounting Challenges to Governance in China: Surveying Collective Protesters, Religious Sects and Criminal Organisations. The China Journal, [e-journal], 56, pp. 1-31. Available through: J-Stor website <http://www.jstor.org> [Accessed 27th February 2014].

Leung, B., 2005. China’s Religious Freedom Policy: The Art of Managing Religious Activity. The China Quarterly, [e-journal], 184, pp.894-913. Available through: J-Stor website <http://www.jstor.org> [Accessed 27th February 2014].

Tong, J., 2010. The New Religious Policy in China: Catching Up With Systemic Reforms. Asian Survey, [e-journal], 50 (5), pp. 859-887. Available through: J-Stor website <http://www.jstor.org> [Accessed 27th February 2014].


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