Here are the basic statistics on religion in China. Among the total population of 1.3 billion people, Buddhists account for eight percent, Christians account for a little over six percent, Muslims account for around three percent, and other Asian religions (including Falun Gong) account for over 18 percent. Atheists make up around 10 percent of Chinese. Freedom House gives China a religious freedom score of five out of 10. The government regulates religious activity extensively and often brutally.
Since the inception of the Chinese Communist Party rule in 1949, religious expression has been suppressed to varying degrees. The Party’s consistent objective was to make religion serve the interests of the communist state until it disappeared from Chinese society. This remains the dominant view. Under the rule of President Xi Jinping, China’s leader since 2013, the Communist Party’s policy on religion remains to “actively guide religion so that it can be adapted to socialist society.” To that end, the Chinese Communist Party Standing Committee has instructed all government agencies to “strengthen Marxist atheism research, propaganda, and education,” and to wipe out “the cultic organization of ‘Falun gong’ and various pseudo-science and superstition and the new trend toward ‘Western hostile forces’ attempt to ‘westernize’ and ‘disintegrate’ China in the name of religion.”
In the 1950s, Mao Zedong sought to control religion through the creation of government-controlled religious groups and the total suppression of uncooperative religious leaders through brutal labor camp terms, murder, or exile. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, Mao closed all places of worship and tried to extinguish religion altogether. Since Mao’s death in 1976, the government has tolerated some limited religious expression but only within government-registered organizations. The Chinese constitution, in article 36, guarantees freedom of religious belief, but elsewhere it sets forth sweeping exceptions and qualifications to the right and states that it only protects religious activities that are “normal,” without defining the term.
Beijing controls the five “authorized” religions—Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism—by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA, formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau), which is controlled by the United Front Work Department, itself controlled by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. While Chinese law was recently amended to allow businessmen and women to become party officials, atheism remains a requirement. SARA registers and controls all religious groups through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council for Protestants, the Catholic Patriotic Association and Bishops Conference for Catholics, and similar patriotic associations for Buddhists, Muslims, and Taoists.
The campaign to eradicate unregistered groups further has intensified, with severe crackdowns following the consequential 2003 meeting of China’s ruling politburo. The anti-cult provision of the Criminal Code, “anti-terrorist” criminal provisions, and the 2005 Religious Affairs Provisions have been used to impose long prison sentences on leaders of Falun Gong practitioners, purported Uighur Muslim separatists, and Catholic and Protestant church leaders, particularly in the so-called “underground movement.”
Unregistered Catholic, Protestant, Tibetan Buddhist, Muslim, and various Asian religious groups, such as Falun Gong, continue to report that many of their followers endure arrests, fines, imprisonment, and severe economic discrimination and that some of their leaders and laymen have even been tortured and killed. According to news reports, the Chinese government has invested over $50 million yearly to eliminate unregistered religious activities.
Christianity Grows Amid Persecution
The heightened crackdown in recent years stems from frustration and political insecurity as authorities realized that the astonishing revival of religion throughout China, particularly through unregistered groups, is much larger than previously believed. The booming growth and potential cultural and political impact of house-church Christianity in China was documented in the book Jesus in Beijing and the documentary film “The Cross,” both of which reportedly startled the leading Central Political Committee upon their review. Of particular concern to the Communist government elite was the claim in Jesus in Beijing that “at the present rate of growth in the number of Christians in the countryside, in the cities, and especially within China’s social and cultural establishment, it is possible that Christians will constitute 30 percent of China’s population within three decades.”
Along with the current crackdown, China’s government continues to push an aggressive public-relations campaign to convince the West that there is no religious persecution in China, and that whatever incidents of repression occur are either the unauthorized acts of “overzealous cadres,” a “distortion of facts,” or else necessary measures against dangerous criminals, cultists, and practitioners of “abnormal activities.” China’s repressive religion law was marketed to the West as a “paradigm shift” toward liberalizing religion policy.
Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, China’s Christian churches, registered and underground, Catholic and Protestant, have actually been experiencing explosive growth. Registered Catholics number about six million, and, according to the Vatican, unregistered about eight million. Fifteen million Protestants are registered with the government, while unregistered Protestants may number well more than 50 million attendees of in-house churches, so named because services are often held in private houses.
The harsh 2005 Religious Affairs Provisions provides incentives for registration, such as heightened property rights only for registered religious venues, as well as the ability to operate orphanages, medical clinics, kindergartens, and other humanitarian initiatives. The law further protects registered religious adherents by declaring that government officials who abuse their power in managing religious affairs are criminally liable. Those that refuse to register risk financial penalties, criminal punishment, and the wrath of government officials with heightened discretion.
In an effort to further undermine the influence of the Vatican with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, Beijing released three national directives. These directives introduced stricter rules for registered Catholic congregations to ensure their “independence” from Rome. In furtherance of this goal, government officials “stepped up efforts to intimidate and harass unregistered Catholics, often pressing them to register with the Catholic Patriotic Association” according to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Cutting off Catholics
Possibly fueled by the death of Pope John Paul II, Beijing and the Vatican renewed discussions regarding the re-establishment of formal ties, broken since 1951. According to news reports, in exchange for a greater role in Chinese Catholic Church affairs, including the appointment of bishops, China demanded Rome sever ties with Taiwan. On at least two occasions, the Vatican and the official Catholic Church in China have jointly approved the appointment of bishops. On the other hand, two Chinese Bishops appointed without Vatican approval were excommunicated. At a meeting in Rome of Vatican officials and “representatives of the Chinese episcopate” stated “that at present almost the totality of bishops and priests are in communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”
Registration requires that both Catholic and Protestant churches desist from speaking about the Second Coming of Christ, the gifts of the Spirit, the story of Creation in Genesis, certain sections of the Catholic Catechism, and the evils of abortion. For Catholics, registration also means severing ties to the Vatican; submitting to bishops appointed by the communist government, not the Pope; and rejecting the spiritual authority of the Pope. The “patriotic” Protestant churches have to be organized in the same undifferentiated church body, as denominations are unrecognized within the Communist Party management scheme.
China’s stringent birth-control campaign is objectionable on religious grounds to members of several Christian and Muslim groups, among others. Women restricted formally and informally, in the number of children they may bear, must seek state permission before becoming pregnant. Compliance is coerced through steep fines; job loss; demolition of housing, denials of birth certificates and educational opportunities for children, loss of pension rights forced abortion, sterilization and infanticide. The scope of China’s coercive population control policy was revealed in Linyi, Shandong Province, a city that reportedly led the province in illegal births. In just one year, “family planning” officials sterilized over 7,000 women and performed forced abortions on others.
China has more Christian prisoners and detainees than any other country in the world. Arrests increase around Christian feast days and before national events. Protestant leaders have been arrested and occasionally tortured for holding prayer meetings, preaching, and distributing Bibles without state approval. According to one report, 1,958 house church leaders and congregants have been arrested. Roman Catholic priests and bishops are currently imprisoned or under house arrest for celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments without official authorization. Three years of “reeducation” in labor camps is common for such prisoners, as Chinese law allows public security officials to sentence political and religious “troublemakers” to up to three years in such camps without a trial. Like political and other prisoners, Christian prisoners are held in deplorable conditions, with many forced to work as veritable slaves.
Catholic Bishop James Su Zhimin was re-arrested in Hebei in 1997 after issuing an appeal to authorities for greater religious freedom for Roman Catholics. He has been imprisoned now for over 30 years after various arrests. His whereabouts were unknown until he was seen at Hebei hospital under heavy guard in late 2003, and he has not been seen since. Another influential Catholic Bishop, Jia Zhigou, was reportedly arrested and released at least eight times for leading unofficial religious services. Bishop Jia, leader of China’s largest diocese, with over 1.5 million members, was released following ten months of police custody.
One of China’s most notable house church leaders, Zhang Rongliang, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Pastor Zhang is the leader of the China for Christ Church, a ten-million-member house church network. Authorities confiscated a large cache of Christian literature and videos that linked him to prohibited foreign Christian groups, though officially he was charged with “attaining a passport through cheating” and “illegal border crossing.” The murder conviction of Xu Shuangfu, the leader of a 500,000-member heterodox Christian group called Three Grades of Servants, was upheld on appeal despite claims that confessions were induced through torture.
Repressing House Churches
Underground Christians continue to report brutal beatings that have resulted in grave injury, coma, and even death. According to reports, Gong Shengliang, pastor of the 50,000-member South China Church, has been repeatedly tortured by prison officials since his arrest. The Chinese government labeled Pastor Gong’s group an “evil cult,” and more than 300 members of the evangelical group were arrested. A 34-year-old house church Christian woman, Jiang Zongxiu, was killed by police officials during interrogation.
Bibles and other religious literature can be printed only with government permission and legally obtained only through government-approved sources. Prominent Beijing house church pastor Cai Zhouhua was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to three years in prison for Bible circulation. Notwithstanding the government’s position that he was arrested for “illegal business practices,” his true “crime” was possessing over 200,000 Bibles and other religious literature. The Chinese government sentenced Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong citizen, to two years in prison for bringing 30,000 copies of the Bible into China. The influential book Jesus in Beijing and film “The Cross” were both banned. More than 18 million Bibles are in print, and the demand for more is large.
The government bans the baptism of children, forbids evangelizing them, and bars religious schools for children. According to the China Aid Association, a number of house church members were sent to prison for sending their children to religious education classes. It was reported that according to the Chinese Foreign Minister, parents were allowed to teach religion to their children. However, Chinese officials clarified the law in this area, noting that religious instruction to a minor is prohibited unless the child has finished nine years of schooling. Seminaries and schools for theological training exist but are tightly controlled: students must be considered “politically reliable” by Chinese authorities. Some are permitted by the government to study in seminaries abroad. There is an acute shortage of clergy and trained religious leaders.
Reports of persecution of practitioners of Buddhism and Taoism are scarcer, perhaps because these groups’ emphasis on escape from worldly suffering and foreign influence are viewed as less threatening by state authorities.
Many Chinese practice some form of syncretic religion. The government estimates there are slightly more than one hundred thousand Buddhists, but followers claim much higher numbers because many do not participate in public religious activities. Buddhist public worship is restricted, and leaders must be government-approved. Reports of destruction of unregistered shrines have been sporadic. An unregistered Buddhist temple in Wufeng village, Zhejiang Province, caught fire and 40 women worshipers died. Following this incident and in the name of preserving “public safety,” the government arrested local unapproved Buddhist leaders and destroyed all underground temples and meeting places in that province.
Beijing’s Trouble with Falun Gong
Falun Gong, founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi, now in exile in New York, is similar to the increasing number of groups in China inspired by Buddhism and Taoism and mixed with beliefs and practices from the syncretistic world of Asian religions. It claims more than 75 million adherents in China, including some Communist Party members. Falun Gong has the hallmarks of a religious group, with a philosophy of life and death (“Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance”), a moral code, and a central treatise, the “Zhuan Falun.” Its leadership may deny that Falun Gong is a religion because it is not one of the five state-sanctioned religious groups, and followers would be liable for punishment were they to claim it as such.
Thirty years ago, more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners staged a silent sit-in outside the Chinese leadership compound in Beijing and requested state approval. The scale and coordination of the protest shocked China’s rulers, and in 1999, they banned the group as an “evil cult,” destroyed 2 million of its manuals, and issued an international appeal for Li’s arrest, charging him with the death of more than 700 followers and “disturbing the peace.”
China’s Health Ministry newspaper published further restrictions, banning from “important public places” the widely practiced slow-motion exercises called qigong and, the legislature passed a law, directed at Falun Gong, banning “heretical cults.” The U.S. State Department reports that over 100,000 Falun Gong practitioners have been detained. Overseas practitioners allege that more than 1,000 have been killed for their beliefs by Chinese government officials, and many more have been brutally tortured. In one well-documented case, a 35-year-old male Falun Gong practitioner named Zhang Zhong was tortured to death while in police custody.
A number of defections have shed light on the immense resources and effort the Chinese government is willing to expend in order to crush Falun Gong in China and abroad. The Chinese government attempted to suppress Falun Gong and other religious activities in Hong Kong, which has been ruled by the Chinese government under the “one country, two systems” policy since its 1997 handover from Britain. Only after protests of more than 500,000 people on the island was the proposed “anti-subversion” law withdrawn. According to reports, Chinese government officials lobbied foreign businesses operating in China to publicly denounce Falun Gong and refuse to hire any followers of the spiritual movement.
With over hundreds of millions of internet users, the Chinese government takes extreme measures to ensure that religion remains under the control and management of the government and in line with communist ideology. China continues to censor most religious content on the internet through high-tech computer software and over 30,000 “internet police.” Internet sites and blogs that contain the words, “Falun Gong,” “religious freedom” and other related terms are strictly prohibited. In an effort to more closely monitor bloggers, the government passed an ordinance requiring them to register their name with the government or be forced to shut down.
Reliable outside sources estimate that Muslims number 40 million, though Chinese government sources report only 20 million. About eight million Muslims from the Uighur and Kazak ethnic groups are concentrated in Western China in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (formerly, East Turkestan), which was conquered by the Qing dynasty in the nineteenth century.
In Xinjiang, a region that accounts for one-sixth of Chinese territory, religion is culturally important and plays a significant political role as well. The Chinese government uses the vast areas of the province for nuclear and missile testing, as well as exploitation of its vast oil reserves. The Cultural Revolution caused the same brutal extinction of public worship and non-Maoist culture as elsewhere in China. In order to dilute the Muslim majority, Beijing encourages the influx of the dominant Han ethnic group into the area. Further, great economic disparity exists between Xinjiang’s Turkic-speaking Uighur minority and the wealthier Han living there. All these factors have led to growing discontent among the Uighurs.
As with other religions, the Chinese government tightly controls and represses all Muslim religious activities. It restricts the construction of mosques as well as the training and appointment of religious leaders and edits orthodox versions of the Qur’an and the content of sermons and fatwas. Mosques that resist Communist Party ideological control are often closed or destroyed. In order to ensure political loyalty toward the Chinese Communist Party, all local imams are forced to attend yearly political “re-education” seminars. Novel and offensive doctrines such as the introduction of female imams have been imposed on the Uighur Islamic community by the Chinese government. Further, enforcement of China’s family policy is heightened amongst Uighurs.
The prohibition against religious education of minors remains particularly rigid amongst Uighurs. Minors are barred from attending mosque services and from receiving religious education, even in their own home, and those who travel abroad for study without state approval risk the loss of their social benefits, such as health care and public education, when they return. All 938 Arabic language schools training Uighur children in Xinjiang were closed by the Chinese government. Children are routinely arrested while attending Islamic school, along with their religious instructor, and charged with “illegally possessing religious materials and subversive historical information.” It is also reported that Chinese government officials expel Uighur university students caught participating in religious activities.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States deeply influenced China’s policy toward Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Under the guise of cooperation in the U.S.-led global war on terror, China escalated its own war against Uighur Muslims, ignoring any distinction between those Muslims who peacefully protest the Communist Party’s oppressive policies and the few who use violent means to spur change. Uighur separatists are now referred to by the state-run press and government leaders as “terrorist forces,” in an attempt to legitimize harsh treatment of Muslims in the eyes of the international community. Through the use of mass arrests, anti-secession propaganda, slave labor, and routine executions, the Chinese government has largely crushed outward manifestations of Uighur independence.
Informants and spies infiltrate the congregations of Xinjiang’s 23,000 mosques to report on “illegal religious activities” as well as on the delegations making the hajj to Mecca. Further, the Chinese government requires imams to record and report the names of all Uighurs who worship at their mosques. Some Muslims have been arrested and tortured for having challenged the government-appointed mullahs’ interpretation of Islamic teaching. Uighurs have attested that government officials attempt to undermine Muslim piety and traditions by pressuring them to drink alcohol and break fasts during the month of Ramadan. Muslims reportedly have been fired from government posts for praying, and many are afraid to be seen praying publicly for fear of losing their jobs. Amnesty International reported that over 500 alleged Uighur separatists have been executed by the Chinese government since 1985. Recent attention on reeducation or what are in fact concentration camps now have an estimated one million detainees.
China continues to tighten regulations on religious freedom, intensifying punishments for unsanctioned activities and increasing its supervision of certain groups in a bid to “block extremism” and tackle what it sees as internal threats. The CCP is more powerful than at any time since Mao and all foreign donations to religious causes have been recently banned.
Put bluntly, there is no religious freedom in China.