Religion in China
Backgrounder

Religion in China

A significant proportion of China’s population claims to follow a religion. However, the government continues to toughen oversight, increase persecution of some religions, and attempt to co-opt state-sanctioned religious organizations.
Hui Muslim women stand in front of China’s flag at a mosque in Beijing.
Hui Muslim women stand in front of China’s flag at a mosque in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Summary
  • The Chinese Communist Party’s nearly 100 million members are required to be atheist, but the party recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism.
  • Authorities tightly monitor registered and unregistered religious groups. China has one of the largest populations of religious prisoners, and some groups, including Uyghur Muslims, face high levels of persecution.
  • Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, authorities have sought to enforce stricter regulations to ensure groups conform to doctrines set forth by the communist party.

Introduction

Amid an economic boom and rapid modernization, religion in China has been on the rise in recent decades. Experts point to the emergence of a spiritual vacuum as a trigger for the growing number of religious believers, particularly followers of Christianity and traditional Chinese religious groups. 

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While China’s constitution allows religious belief, Chinese Buddhism, Daoism, and folk practices are shown more leniency than other religions, such as Islam and Christianity, which are regarded as “foreign” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In recent years, adherents across all religious organizations, including both state-sanctioned and underground and banned groups, face intensifying persecution and repression. They also face pressure to implement President Xi Jinping’s sinicization policies, which aim to make religious groups more aligned with Chinese culture, morality, and doctrines as defined by the CCP.

Freedom and Regulation

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China’s relationship with religion has shifted throughout its modern history. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), religions were essentially banned, and followers were forced underground or persecuted as part of a campaign to eliminate “old” customs and ideas. In the 1980s, the CCP acknowledged the Chinese people’s complex relationship with religion. The following decades saw a revival of religious institutions and groups, and even tolerance of underground religions not directly under state control. Although Article 36 of the Chinese constitution says that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” and bans discrimination based on religion, the law regulates religion by forbidding state organs, public organizations, or individuals from compelling citizens to believe in—or not believe in—any particular faith. Minors are also forbidden from entering places of worship.

The state recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. The practice of any other faith is formally prohibited, although often tolerated, especially in the case of traditional Chinese beliefs. Religious organizations must register with one of five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations, which are supervised by the United Front Work Department, a branch of the Communist Party.

The government’s tally of registered religious believers is around two hundred million, or less than 10 percent of the population, according to several sources, including the UN Human Rights Council’s 2024 Universal Periodic Review. However, the number of Chinese adults who practice religion or hold religious belief is likely much higher because many believers do not follow organized religion and are said to practice traditional folk religion. These practitioners, along with members of underground house churches and banned religious groups, account for many of the country’s unregistered believers.

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Chinese public security officials monitor both registered and unregistered religious groups to prevent activities that “disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State,” as stipulated by the Chinese constitution. In practice, however, monitoring and crackdowns often target peaceful activities that are protected under international law, say human rights watchdogs. 

The State Council, the government’s administrative authority, passed regulations on religious affairs in 2018 to allow state-registered religious organizations to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations. But the revised rules also included restrictions on religious schooling and the times and locations of religious celebrations, as well as monitoring of online religious activity and reporting donations that exceed 100,000 yuan (around $15,900). 

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Under Xi, the CCP has pushed to sinicize religion, or shape all religions to conform to the doctrines of the Communist Party and the customs of the majority Han Chinese population. New regulations that went into effect in early 2020 require religious groups to accept and spread CCP ideology and values. Faith organizations must now get approval from the government’s religious affairs office before conducting any activities. The next year, the CCP banned unregistered domestic religious groups from sharing religious content online and prohibited overseas organizations from operating online religious services in China without a permit, particularly targeting Christianity-related content on the messaging service WeChat. 

In September 2023, stricter laws required religious sites and activities to support sinicization policies, which  included prohibiting religious activity if it could “endanger national security, disrupt social order [or] damage national interests.” Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, where religious groups are not required to register with the government, religious figures have faced tighter scrutiny and have increased self-censorship [PDF] under the 2020 national security law. The former Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, was arrested on suspicion of “collusion with foreign forces” in 2021. He was later found guilty and was issued a fine. Since 2022, the Catholic church in Hong Kong has halted its annual commemorative masses to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Cardinal Joseph Zen attends a mass for the Chinese Catholic church in Hong Kong.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun attends a mass for the Chinese Catholic church in Hong Kong. Tyrone Siu/Reuters

In addition, China is home to one of the largest populations of religious prisoners, likely numbering from several thousand to as high as tens of thousands [PDF]; while in custody, some are tortured or killed, rights groups say. Instances of arbitrary detentions and violence carried out with impunity have led the U.S. State Department to designate China as a country of particular concern over religious freedom annually since 1999.

Atheism and the CCP

The CCP is officially atheist. The party prohibits its roughly ninety-eight million party members from holding religious beliefs, and it requires the expulsion of party members who belong to religious organizations. Officials have said that party membership and religious beliefs are incompatible, and they discourage families of CCP members from publicly participating in religious ceremonies. Although these regulations are not always strictly enforced, the party periodically takes steps to draw a clearer line on religion. 

Chinese Buddhism and Folk Religions

China has the world’s largest Buddhist population—an estimate of 4 percent to 33 percent of the country’s population (42 million to 362 million people) depending on how religious practices are measured, according to the U.S.-based Pew Research Center. Though Buddhism originated in India, it has a long history and tradition in China and today is the country’s largest institutionalized religion. Chinese folk religions, in contrast, have no rigid organizational structure, blend practices from Buddhism and Daoism, and are manifest in the worship of ancestors, spirits, or other local deities. According to CFR Senior Fellow Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, “hundreds, if not thousands, of folk religious temples are unregistered,” but are tolerated.

Since China’s opening and reform in the 1980s, the party has been tolerant of, and tacitly approved, the rise in Buddhist and Daoist practice. Under former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the government “passively supported” the growth of Buddhism because it believed doing so helped bolster the image of China’s peaceful rise, supported the CCP’s goal of creating a “harmonious society,” and could help to improve relations with Taiwan, according to the University of Ottawa’s André Laliberté. Today, Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religions are treated more leniently by the party compared to “foreign” religions, such as Islam or Christianity.

The growth of Buddhism led to heightened visibility of its institutions, particularly Buddhist philanthropic organizations [PDF] that deliver social services to the poor amid soaring inequality in China. Since Xi has come to power, experts have noted an apparent easing of tough rhetoric against, and even a promotion of, traditional beliefs in China. Some experts say Xi believes Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism do not challenge the CCP’s rule and therefore can be advantageous for China’s global diplomacy.

Tibetan Buddhism

According to China’s 2020 census data, the Tibetan region of China is home to seven million Tibetans, more than 90 percent of the region’s population. Nearly all Tibetans in the region practice a distinct form of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism and symbolizes Tibetan identity for both Tibetans in China and in exile. Since 1987, he and the exiled government, known as the Central Tibetan Administration, have played a prominent role in garnering international support for a “Middle Way” approach to resolve Tibet’s political disputes within the framework of the People’s Republic of China. Buddhist monks within Tibet have also participated in largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations, though some have included riots and self-immolations.

China’s religious policy is inherently tied to political tensions across the Tibetan region, which comprises the Tibet Autonomous Region and adjacent Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties in neighboring provinces. To quell dissent, China has sought to aggressively assimilate Tibetans, says Tashi Rabgey, research professor of international affairs at George Washington University. A 2021 report by watchdog group the Tibet Action Institute estimates that 78 percent of Tibetan students [PDF] between six and eighteen years old live in boarding schools, where they are away from their families and taught primarily in Mandarin. Although Beijing has attempted to make the region more “Chinese” by funding development projects and incentivizing migration to Tibet, it has been largely unsuccessful.

Tibetan Buddhist monks look at a mural in the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet Autonomous Region, China.
Tibetan Buddhist monks look at a mural in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tibet Autonomous Region, China. He Penglei/CNS/Reuters

Tibetan Buddhists face high levels of religious persecution. The state monitors daily operations of major monasteries, with facial-recognition cameras posted outside, and it reserves the right to disapprove an individual’s application to take up religious orders. In 2018, party cadres and officials were given control over Sichuan Province’s Larung Gar, one of the world’s largest Buddhist study centers. Authorities demolished nearly half of the center in 2019, displacing up to six thousand monks and nuns. 

Authorities have reportedly detained and tortured monks and nuns for refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama, and laypeople have been ordered to replace photos of the Dalai Lama with Chinese leaders. A Tibetan child believed to be a reincarnated, high-ranking religious leader, known as the Panchen Lama, disappeared in 1995 and has not been seen since. (Beijing claims that he graduated from college, has a job, and does not want to be disturbed.) After his disappearance, the Chinese government designated another child as the official Panchen Lama, though many Tibetans do not accept him as such. 

With the fourteenth Dalai Lama nearing ninety years old, the Tibetan government in exile and the CCP are both preparing for his succession. Each is likely to appoint their own fifteenth Dalai Lama, generating a succession dispute similar to the situation with the current Panchen Lama. Rabgey says that this succession dispute will lead to an escalation of tensions in the region and is likely to trigger future Tibetan political unrest.

Christian State-Sanctioned and House Churches

China saw a significant growth in Christianity in the 1980s, after former leader Deng Xiaoping opened China to the outside world. Today, Protestantism is the predominant branch of Christianity practiced in China. There are three state-regulated Christian organizations and many underground house churches, though authorities have been cracking down on non-registered places of worship. Estimates of Christians in China vary widely, but according to a 2023 Pew Research Center analysis, Chinese survey data show that Chinese adults who identify as Christian have remained stable at about 2 percent of the population (roughly 28 million people).

In recent years, China has witnessed a spike in state repression against both house churches and state-sanctioned Christian organizations, including campaigns to remove hundreds of rooftop crosses from churches, forced demolitions of churches, and harassment and imprisonment of Christian pastors and priests. A 2018 report [PDF] from ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian nongovernmental organization, said that religious persecution, primarily against Christians, was on the rise, citing more than one million cases that year. One of China’s most prominent Christian voices and the founder of a large underground church, Pastor Wang Yi, was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2019 after a court charged him with subversion of state power and illegal business operations.

The Vatican does not have diplomatic ties with China, home to some ten to twelve million Catholics. Its recognition of Taiwan and a dispute over the bishop appointment process have been major sticking points. The Communist Party limits the Vatican’s role in selecting Catholic bishops and continues to harass and detain clergy who refuse to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-sanctioned organizational body for Catholics in China. In 2018, the two sides reached a provisional agreement in which Pope Francis recognized several Chinese state-appointed bishops who had been excommunicated. While the two-year agreement was renewed in 2020 and again in 2022, tensions seemed to rise shortly after, when China installed two bishops as heads of dioceses without permission from the Pope. However, China-Vatican relations appear to be improving after a January 2024 mutual agreement to consecrate two new bishops in China.

Islam and Uyghurs in Xinjiang

Muslims make up an around 1 to 1.5 percent of China’s population, accounting for around eighteen million people, according to recent estimates by Pew Research Center. China has ten predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Hui, an ethnic group closely related to the majority Han population and largely based in western China’s Ningxia Autonomous Region and the Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan provinces. Until recently, Hui Muslims had enjoyed relative freedom compared to the government’s tight control on religious activity in Xinjiang, home to a majority of Uyghur Muslims. But CCP policies and rhetoric have become less tolerant and more repressive toward those who practice Islam in general. Officials have held Hui Muslims in formal detention and internment camps over advocating for religious freedom and funding mosque construction.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic people who live primarily in Xinjiang, northwestern China, and are also predominantly Muslim. According to China’s 2020 census, there are more than eleven million Uyghurs in this region, making up approximately half of its population, though many experts agree that increased Han Chinese immigration has lowered this number. For decades, Chinese authorities have cracked down on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, claiming the community holds extremist and separatist ideas. They point to occasional outbursts of violence against government workers and civilians in the region and have blamed a group that Beijing calls the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for several terrorist attacks throughout China. Experts say most Uyghurs do not support violence, but many are frustrated by frequent discrimination and the influx of Han Chinese that are disproportionately benefiting from economic opportunities in the region.

Since 2017, up to two million Muslims, most of them Uyghurs, have been arbitrarily detained in so-called reeducation camps, according to experts and foreign government officials. Detainees have reported being tortured, barred from practicing their religion, and forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP. Outside of the detention centers, Uyghurs are subjected to intense surveillance, widespread religious restrictions, and forced sterilizations. Officials have also sought to shut down, demolish, or convert mosques in Xinjiang and beyond. In February 2024, new laws in Xinjiang required that newly built mosques in China adopt “Chinese characteristics and style.”

Chinese officials deny human rights abuses in the region. They maintain that the reeducation camps have two purposes: to teach Mandarin, Chinese laws, and vocational skills, and to prevent citizens from being influenced by extremist ideas. Beijing has resisted international pressure to allow outside investigators to freely travel in Xinjiang.

Banned Religious Groups

Several religious and spiritual groups that fall outside the CCP’s officially recognized religions, dubbed “heterodox cults” by Beijing, are subject to regular government crackdowns. The party-state has banned more than a dozen such faiths on the grounds that adherents use religion “as a camouflage, deifying their leading members, recruiting and controlling their members, and deceiving people by molding and spreading superstitious ideas, and endangering society.” Those banned include Christian-inspired groups such as the Church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, and folk religious groups, such as Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that blends aspects of Buddhism, Daoism, and traditional qigong exercise. International human rights groups, scholars of religion, and Chinese human rights lawyers have questioned such designations, criticizing the Chinese government for harsh repression against believers.

Supporters of the Falungong spiritual movement, a group banned in mainland China, take part in a march in Hong Kong on April 27, 2019, to observe the 20th anniversary of a large demonstration in Beijing which led their a crackdown against the movement.
Supporters of the Falungong spiritual movement take part in a march in Hong Kong. Dale De La Rey/AFP/Getty Images

A crackdown on Falun Gong was launched in 1999 after the group organized a large, peaceful demonstration outside CCP headquarters to advocate the release of detained adherents and greater freedom to practice. At its height, the group was believed to have as many as seventy million followers; a 2017 Freedom House estimates that seven to twenty million people continue to practice despite nearly two decades of persecution.

Recommended Resources

This CFR Backgrounder explains the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

This report published by Pew Research Center in August 2023 details the challenges of measuring religion [PDF] and religious trends in China with available data.

Sophie Richardson, as the China Director at Human Rights Watch, discusses religious persecution in China in a 2018 CFR conference call.

For Foreign Affairs, CFR’s Senior Fellow Ian Johnson explains how the CCP is co-opting religion

The U.S. State Department’s 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom provides an overview of the limitations to freedom of religion in China.

Clara Fong, Lindsay Maizland, Eleanor Albert, Jessica Moss, and Marisa McPherson contributed to this report.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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