Religion in China: What Price Freedom?
Religious believers in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) can certainly practise their faith freely and openly, provided the government does not see any threat to state power or security.
However, pressures towards Sinicization and integration with the general Chinese society have grown considerably over the last few years, affecting especially Islam and Christianity. The new strictures alarm international supporters of human rights. The Australian government faces a dilemma about how and when to raise concerns.
China has never placed a high priority on religion, certainly not if compared with Indian or European societies, so it is significant that, other than Daoism, the most important formal religions in the PRC today are of foreign origin, including Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.
The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist. Lenin stated (in The Attitude of the Workers Party to Religion): “Religion is the opium of the people—this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion.” Article 36 of the 1982 PRC Constitution stipulates freedom of normal religious activities, which definitely do not include those posing a threat to the state. The State recognizes five formal religious associations, for Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. There are some observances that are not recognized as religions, including numerous folk religions, widely practised, especially in the countryside. The authorities generally leave these, and Daoism, alone or even patronize them as part of traditional culture. There are also some faiths/religions that are formally banned, of which by far the most famous is Falun gong, its leader living in the United States. Falun gong started in the 1990s only, being based on a meditative yoga-like exercise routine and claiming supernatural health cures.
Among surveys of religious followers in the PRC, the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project is reasonably reliable. The largest group is followers of folk religions who, together with Daoists, make up over 300 million people. Buddhists number over 250 million, while there are over 70 million Christians, among whom Catholics are 10-12 million and Protestants 60 million. There are some 28 million Muslims.
In 2015, President Xi Jinping introduced a policy of “Sinicising religion”, and it has been pushed in Party and government meetings since then. Its impact on religions with persistent foreign connections is particularly notable and means, for example, that mosques built in Chinese style to resemble Buddhist temples gain favour as against those in Arabic style that typically feature large domes.
Although Buddhism is of foreign origin, over many centuries it has become assimilated into Chinese culture. Buddhist sutras have been translated and are an accepted part of Chinese literature. Chinese culture and Buddhism have influenced each other to an extent that Buddhism as a religion is no longer “foreign” and its practice is generally non-controversial. This does not exempt it from all problems, and the Buddhism of the Tibetans is considered later.
Although Christianity has existed in China since at least the seventh century, its main strength is due to more recent Western missionary effort. Although missionaries were sincere and well-intentioned people, their de haut en bas attitude has given Christianity to this day the whiff of a foreign implant, giving rise to problems in adapting to Chinese society. The Catholic Church faces particular difficulties, because of the requirement by the Holy See that it appoint bishops, and the similar demand by PRC authorities who, historically, have never been comfortable with appointments from outside. In 1958, Pope Pius XII broke with the Chinese Church on these grounds. Despite efforts to heal the breach, especially under Pope Francis I, this remains the basic situation, although progressive Catholics have not given up on a breakthrough.
Christian churches are numerous. My personal impression gained from PRC Christian friends is that Christianity is more highly regarded for its social doctrines of equality and kindness than for its mysteries. What matters about Christ is more his Sermon on the Mount than his Resurrection or the claim that he was God incarnate.
In general, the societies of PRC minority ethnic groups give higher priority to religion than the majority Han (whom the 2010 census put at 91.5 percent of China’s total). The Tibetans adhere to an esoteric form of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism. The spiritual head is the Dalai Lama, who currently lives in Dharamsala in India and enjoys a very good reputation outside China itself but is reviled as a separatist by PRC authorities (and, in my impression, the great majority of Chinese people). Although Tibetan Buddhism has often suffered persecution for its association with separatism, to this day almost all Tibetans follow the religion, with a proportion of the male population in the monastic order very high by world standards.
The Mongolian population of the PRC also follows Tibetan Buddhism but show nothing like the fervour of the Tibetans. Few Mongolians practise their religion, and the proportion in the monastic order is very small and probably declining.
One very special religion is Islam. In the PRC, the state classifies Muslims as ethnic minorities. Some 10.5 million who are ethnically Han but Muslim by religion are classified as Hui. There are also several Turkic ethnic groups, of whom the most populous is the Uyghurs (some 10 million in the 2010 census). These live mostly in Xinjiang,the most north-western province-level unit of the PRC.
Since an easily suppressed uprising in 1990, there have been numerous violent incidents that the authorities have associated with the Uyghurs, the worst being in the Xinjiang capital Ürümqi in 2009. Authorities have increasingly linked Islam with terrorism and extremism. Since 2017 reports have emerged of camps, which Western reports have likened to concentration camps. PRC spokespeople have countered that they are aimed at eliminating radicalism and terrorism and educating people to live productively. In general, advanced industrial democracies, including Australia, have condemned the PRC for human rights abuse and religious and cultural suppression in Xinjiang. However, in October 2019, the United Nations General Assembly saw 54 representatives, including some Muslim-majority countries, issue a statement of support for China’s deradicalization measures in Xinjiang. Certainly, China is unlikely to close down these camps soon, and the whole situation remains extremely troubling.
It is ironic that the treatment of religion in the world’s largest professedly atheist nation has emerged to be one of the most prickly issues in its bilateral and international relations. The Australian government has so far tackled this in a half-hearted and inconsistent manner.
Colin Mackerras is Emeritus Professor at Griffith University and has written extensively on Chinese ethnic minorities and culture, including religion. See also: Colin Mackerras: China’s ethnic minorities and globalisation, 2003, Routledge-Curzon, New York
See also previous articles in China Series:
JOCELYN CHEY. Pearls and Irritations China Series.
DAVID WALTON. China finding its place in the world.
YINGJIE GUO. China finding its place in the world.
WANNING SUN. China finding its place in the world.
MOBO GAO. China’s enduring core values.
JAMES LAURENCESON. China in a time of change.
GEOFF RABY. China in a time of change.
HAIQING YU. China in a Time of Change
JASON YOUNG. China in a time of change.