Backgrounder

Religion in China

As more people in China practice religion, the government continues to toughen oversight, increase religious persecution, and attempt to co-opt state-sanctioned religious organizations.
Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan at a mosque in Shanghai, China, in 2019.
Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan at a mosque in Shanghai, China, in 2019. Aly Song/Reuters
Summary
  • The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, but it recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. Authorities tightly monitor registered and unregistered groups.
  • There are a growing number of religious believers, including those who practice folk religions and more than a dozen other banned faiths.
  • China has one of the largest populations of religious prisoners, and some groups, including Uighur Muslims, face high levels of persecution.

Introduction

Religious observance in China is on the rise. Amid China’s economic boom and rapid modernization, experts point to the emergence of a spiritual vacuum as a trigger for the growing number of religious believers, particularly adherents of Christianity and traditional Chinese religious groups. 

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While China’s constitution allows religious belief, adherents across all religious organizations, from state-sanctioned to underground and banned groups, face intensifying persecution, repression, and pressure to adhere to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology.

Freedom and Regulation

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Article 36 of the Chinese constitution says that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief.” It bans discrimination based on religion and forbids state organs, public organizations, or individuals from compelling citizens to believe in—or not believe in—any particular faith. The State Council, the government’s administrative authority, passed regulations on religious affairs, which took effect in February 2018, to allow state-registered religious organizations to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations. Yet alongside these rights come heightened government controls. The revised rules include 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).

Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson, says that while religious belief in China is protected by the constitution, the measures “do not guarantee [PDF] the right to practice or worship.” Religious practices are limited to “normal religious activities,” though “normal” is left undefined and can be broadly interpreted. 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 State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).

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 2018 Universal Periodic Review. Yet some independent reports suggest the number of religious adherents in China is far larger and is steadily increasing. The research and advocacy group Freedom House estimated in 2017 that there are more than 350 million religious believers in China, primarily made up of Chinese Buddhists, followed by Protestants, Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners, Catholics, and Tibetan Buddhists. 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. Overall, “religious groups have been swept up in a broader tightening of CCP control over civil society [PDF] and an increasingly anti-Western ideological bent under [Chinese President] Xi Jinping,” writes Freedom House. 

“Religious groups have been swept up in a broader tightening of CCP control over civil society.”
Freedom House

Under Xi, the CCP has pushed to Sinicize religion, or shape all religions to conform to the doctrines of the officially atheist 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.

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In addition, China is home to one of the largest populations of religious prisoners, likely numbering in the tens of thousands; 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 more than ninety million party members from holding religious beliefs, and it has demanded 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. In 2017, the party’s official newspaper warned CCP members from putting faith in religion, calling it “spiritual anesthesia.”

Chinese Buddhism and Folk Religions

China has the world’s largest Buddhist population, with an estimated 185–250 million practitioners, according to Freedom House. Though Buddhism originated in India, it has a long history and tradition in China and today is the country’s largest institutionalized religion. Separately, a 2012 Pew Research Center report found that more than 294 million people, or 21 percent of China’s population, practice folk religions. Chinese folk religions have no rigid organizational structure, blend practices from Buddhism and Daoism, and are manifest in the worship of ancestors, spirits, or other local deities. Though the number of traditional Chinese religious adherents is difficult to measure accurately, the building of new temples and the restoration of old temples signals the growth of Buddhism and folk beliefs in China.

“Buddhism, Daoism, and other folk religions are seen as the most authentically Chinese religions and there is much more tolerance of these traditional religions than of Islam or Christianity,” says journalist Barbara Demick, former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. According to Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, “hundreds, if not thousands, of folk religious temples are unregistered with the SARA but are tolerated.”

“Buddhism, Daoism, and other folk religions are seen as the most authentically Chinese religions.”
Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

Since China’s opening and reform in the 1980s, the party has been tolerant of, and tacitly approved, the rise in Buddhist practice. However, Karrie Koesel, author of Religion and Authoritarianism: Cooperation, Conflict, and the Consequences, says that “political winds can shift quite quickly in China, so having a positive, collaborative relationship with the government is important to these religious communities.” Under former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the government “passively supported” [PDF] 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 Andre Laliberte.

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. Xi has expressed hope that China’s “traditional cultures” of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism could help curb the country’s “moral decline.”

Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibet Autonomous Region and its adjacent provinces are home to more than six million ethnic Tibetans, most of whom practice a distinct form of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Since 1987, he and his exiled government in India have played a prominent role in garnering international support for Tibetan autonomy. Buddhist monks within Tibet have also participated in largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations, though some have included riots and self-immolations. Experts say that discontent among Tibetan Buddhists stems in part from economic disparities between ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese, as well as from religious and political repression. Tibetans are believed to account for nearly 90 percent of the autonomous region’s population, though large numbers of Han Chinese have migrated to Tibet as part of a broader campaign by China to modernize its western regions.   

China’s religious policy in Tibet is inherently tied to the ethno-religious status of Tibetan Buddhists. To quell dissent, the CCP restricts religious activity in Tibet and Tibetan communities outside of the autonomous region. 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; restrictions also extend to lay Tibetan Buddhists, including people who work for the government and teachers. For example, 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. 

Tibetan Buddhists face high levels of religious persecution. 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, was 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.) The government designated another child as the official Panchen Lama, though many Tibetans do not accept him as such. 

Christian State-Sanctioned and House Churches

Since the 1980s, China has seen a significant growth in Christianity, and today Protestantism is the country’s fastest-growing religious group. There are three state-regulated Christian organizations and many underground house churches of widely varying size. The Pew Research Center estimated [PDF] that in 2010 there were sixty-seven million Christians in China, roughly 5 percent of the total population, and, of these, fifty-eight million were Protestant, including both state-sanctioned and independent churches. Others estimate this number to now be closer to one hundred million, with unregistered churchgoers outnumbering members of official churches nearly two to one. Meanwhile, the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ estimate is far smaller, tallying twenty-nine million Christian believers.

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. The report cited over one million cases of religious persecution in 2018. More than five thousand people were detained, including more than one thousand church leaders. 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 has not had diplomatic ties with China, home to some ten to twelve million Catholics, since 1951. Its recognition of Taiwan and a dispute over the bishop appointment process have been major sticking points. However, in a sign of possible warming relations in 2018, the two sides reached a provisional agreement in which Pope Francis recognized several Chinese state-appointed bishops who had been excommunicated.

Islam and Uighurs in Xinjiang

Muslims make up about 1.8 percent of China’s population, accounting for around twenty-two million people. 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. 

The Uighurs, a Turkic people who live primarily in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in northwest China, are also predominantly Muslim. There are about eleven million Uighurs in this region, making up approximately half of its population. Officials in Xinjiang tightly control religious activity, while Muslims in the rest of the country have typically enjoyed greater religious freedom. In recent years, however, Hui Muslims in northwestern China have experienced an uptick in repression, including the imprisonment of religious leaders and forced closure of mosques.

For decades, Chinese authorities have cracked down on Uighurs 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 the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group founded by militant Uighurs, for several terrorist attacks throughout China. Experts say most Uighurs do not support the violence, but many are frustrated by frequent discrimination and the influx of Han Chinese to the region, as they disproportionately benefit from economic opportunities.  

In recent years, the repression has intensified. Since 2017, up to two million Muslims, most of them Uighurs, have been arbitrarily detained in so-called reeducation camps, according to experts and foreign government officials. Detainees have reported being tortured, sexually abused, barred from practicing their religion, and forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP. Many children of those who are detained are placed in boarding schools, where they study Mandarin and CCP ideology, according to a 2019 U.S. government report. Outside of the detention centers, Uighurs are subjected to intense surveillance, widespread religious restrictions, and forced sterilizations

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, 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 quasi-Christian groups such as the Church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, and 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.

“The religious landscape of China is too fragmented for any one religion to mount a credible political challenge.”
Andre Laliberte, University of Ottawa

Demick says that there is likely more activity among banned organizations in China than what is widely thought. 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; Freedom House estimates that seven to twenty million people continue to practice despite nearly two decades of persecution. The Chinese government has initiated fresh campaigns against other smaller religious groups, one notably following a deadly attack on a woman in a McDonald’s by suspected members of the Church of Almighty God.

A Continuing Revival

Religious revival among Chinese does not appear to be abating, experts say, though Beijing’s rigorous regulation of religious affairs has intensified. Some argue that state repression of religion often has less to do with religious doctrine than with a group’s organizational ability, due to fear that such a group could potentially challenge the CCP’s legitimacy.

Tsering Shakya of the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research says the fundamental problem [PDF] in the relationship between the Chinese state and religion is that “the party is willing to tolerate the emergence of religion as a purely private experience, but it is not willing to see religion expressed as a sort of collective authority.”

Despite Beijing’s concern that religious organizations may call the party’s authority into question, some claim that the threat to the CCP is overblown. Laliberte writes that “the religious landscape of China is too fragmented for any one religion to mount a credible political challenge to the regime.”

Recommended Resources

This CFR Backgrounder explains the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

This CFR Backgrounder explores the roots and rise of Christianity in China.

Sophie Richardson discusses religious persecution in China in a 2018 CFR conference call.

In Foreign Affairs, Ian Johnson explains how the CCP is co-opting religion

The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom provides an overview of the limitations to freedom of religion in China.

A 2017 Freedom House report analyzes China’s religious revival, repression, and resistance across eight major religious groups.

Jessica Moss and Marisa McPherson contributed to this report.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to communications@cfr.org.
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