China Is Reversing Its Crackdown on Some Religions, but Not All
from Asia Program

China Is Reversing Its Crackdown on Some Religions, but Not All

People burn incense at the Buddhist Guiyuan Temple in Wuhan, China.
People burn incense at the Buddhist Guiyuan Temple in Wuhan, China. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Well-documented crackdowns on religious freedom in China, especially against Muslims and Christians, only show part of Beijing’s religious policy. Another side involves state support for “indigenous religions” in an attempt to promote traditional social values amid declining belief in the communist ideology.

May 14, 2024 11:02 am (EST)

People burn incense at the Buddhist Guiyuan Temple in Wuhan, China.
People burn incense at the Buddhist Guiyuan Temple in Wuhan, China. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
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China regularly ranks among the worst-performing countries on freedom of religion. That makes sense, given the crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs and the the destruction of Christian churches. These are the regular features of reports on China by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as international human rights monitoring groups. 

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But there is a flip side to the Chinese government’s approach to organized religions: over the past few years, some have begun to enjoy government support. This applies to much of China’s biggest religion, Buddhism, and its only indigenous religion, Taoism. The government has also endorsed folk religious practices that it once deemed superstitious, subsidizing pilgrimages and temples.

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Driving these seemingly contradictory impulses is the ruling communist party’s need for new sources of legitimacy. With economic growth slowing, the long-standing social contract of prosperity in exchange for political acquiescence is less tenable. That’s caused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which still promotes atheism, to give overt support to traditional faiths.

China’s Concerns About ‘Foreignness’

The state has clearly identified some religions as preferable to others. Two faiths in particular are problematic: Islam, which has roughly seventeen million believers in China, and Christianity, with an estimated fifty to sixty million, based on different measures. The state essentially views them as foreign and therefore undesirable. This isn’t because of the length of time they have been in China. In fact, Christianity has had a permanent presence in the country since Jesuit missionaries arrived in Beijing in 1601, while Islam arrived in China along with Persian traders in the seventh century.

Instead, the CCP is worried about these faiths’ foreign affiliations. Muslims are part of Islam’s global umma (Arabic for “community”) of believers, and until recently, young, pious Chinese Muslims often studied in Muslim countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. In addition, one of the five pillars of Islam is the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Christians, meanwhile, are thought to have strong overseas ties either to the Vatican, for Catholics, or to overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and the West, for Protestants in particular. 

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By contrast, Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions are seen as indigenous faiths with fewer overseas ties (the main exception being Tibetan Buddhism, whose spiritual head, the Dalai Lama, lives in exile in India). Chinese President Xi Jinping began alluding to the importance of local ties to Buddhism as early as 2014. During a speech at the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris, he said that even though Buddhism originated in India, it has indigenized over the centuries and now is firmly rooted in Chinese culture. Xi also praised Christianity and Islam for their contributions to China but, tellingly, didn’t say they had indigenized.

This explains the party’s skepticism toward these faiths. The problems facing China’s Muslims are well known, especially the forced assimilation of Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been sent to camps for “retraining,” with officials saying they are meant to learn employable skills. But watchdog groups argue that the camps serve as a reprogramming away from Islam. Muslims have been forced to eat pork, which Islam forbids, and give up some of the pillars of the faith. During a recent trip through Xinjiang, Economist correspondent David Rennie reported that some Muslims were not allowed to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, which is obligatory under Islam.

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A Softer Approach to Christianity

The party’s concerns about Christianity are different. While Islam is practiced by ethnic minorities and is mostly sequestered in China’s borderlands (perhaps helping to explain the draconian measures), Christianity is practiced among the Han Chinese majority, especially urban, white-collar professionals. In some ways, the CCP faces a greater challenge from Christianity because the religion is practiced among the very people the party needs to modernize the country.

To deal with this problem, the party has adopted a two-fold policy. Toward Catholicism—which seems to be hardly growing, with just ten million adherents—the party has sought control through diplomacy. In 2018, Beijing and the Vatican agreed to jointly appoint senior clergy in China, which Beijing believed would reduce the need for an underground church. For Protestantism, which is arguably China’s most dynamic faith, the party has sought to close down big churches that have civil society structures. For example, the Early Rain Covenant Church, which once had its own school, seminary, book shop, and charitable organizations, was shut down in 2019. It was one of many urban mega-churches that grew up in the 2000s and early 2010s as part of a flowering of civil society that has since been broken up.

Christian leader stands on Protestant church after Chinese government workers came down to cut down the building's cross on July 29, 2015.
Protestant lay leader Tu Shouzhe stands next to a cross severed by Chinese authorities at a church in Zhejiang Province. Associated Press

Other churches have also been cut down to size—often literally. Churches in eastern Zhejiang Province, for example, once were famous for their bright red crosses. In some towns, red crosses were ubiquitous. Over the past decade, however, Zhejiang’s churches have been decapitated so that they no longer have such a prominent presence in the region’s landscape, even if the congregations still meet. In general, the number of new churches has stagnated. New construction takes place, but usually only to replace churches demolished during urban renewal.

An Indigenous Exception

By contrast, the state’s treatment of the so-called indigenous faiths is strikingly different. By and large, their places of worship have not been torn down or given restrictions. Statistics and my on-the-ground observations indicate that Buddhism and Daoist religious sites and participation are increasing. 

The dragon in the room, however, is folk religion, or minjian xinyang (民间信仰) in Chinese, which the government also endorses. Officially, this does not exist as a religion in China but instead is a catch-all designation for local and popular deities. For most of the twentieth century, China’s modernizers—the communists and their predecessors, the nationalists—tried to discredit folk religions by labeling them “superstitious.” Chinese elites largely held Christianity as the norm for a “real” religion, causing them to reject the diffuse and syncretic views that traditionally held Chinese society together. According to scholars, up to one million temples were destroyed in the twentieth century, especially during the first thirty years of CCP rule. 

After the death of founding CCP leader Mao Zedong in the late 1970s, traditional religious life returned but was tolerated at best, with campaigns against “feudal superstition” continuing for another two decades. By the beginning of this century, however, the state had begun to change its view on folk religion. Local communities that rebuilt temples sometimes obtained support from local governments, or at least got them to turn a blind eye. The state sees some geopolitical benefit to folk religion—the CCP often points to worship of the seafaring deity Mazu, for example, as a link between southeastern Chinese communities and the island of Taiwan, where the deity is also popular. 

By some measures, there are as many as 220,000 places of folk religious worship in China, dwarfing the 43,500 Buddhist and Daoist temples. Some of these folk religious sites get direct government support. Borrowing terminology from UNESCO, Beijing has designated many cultural practices as “intangible cultural heritage.” The designation often involves a small subsidy, such as to a master of Sichuan cuisine, Mongolian throat singing, or traditional papercutting. But the state also supports folk religious practices just by giving them intangible cultural heritage status. 

One such practice is the temple fair held each spring on Miaofengshan, a mountain west of Beijing. The fair marks the end of what was one of China’s largest pilgrimages for much of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, when thousands of people made the trek each year on foot. By the 1950s, the fair had been shut down, and in the 1960s, Maoist zealots tore down the temple. A nearby village rebuilt the temple in 1986 as a tourism project. Village leaders then contacted people in Beijing who used to run what are known as “pilgrimage associations,” to organize visitors for the annual trek. Many of these groups also honor Miaofengshan’s deity by performing traditional cultural practices such as walking on stilts, dances, and skits. The first revived pilgrimage was held in 1992.

Over the past decade, however, state support for the fair has increased. Many of the pilgrimage associations are now designated as intangible cultural heritage, as is the entire pilgrimage to Miaofengshan. That translates into government money to renovate the temple, police to help guide crowds, and firefighters to make sure the vast amounts of incense burned don’t spark a fire. It also means positive media coverage and, for the association, money to hire buses to the temple.

Beijing’s Turn to Tradition

Religious policy toward traditional faiths isn’t uniformly supportive. State regulations on religion ban minors from entering places of worship, a rule that applies to temples as well as churches and mosques. The state’s heavy hand can also be seen by the enormous national flags that most temples now fly, often in their main courtyard. When I went to the Miaofengshan pilgrimage last year, I saw an enormous billboard with a hammer and sickle and the oath of allegiance that all new CCP members take when joining. It seemed jarring, and many of the visitors I chatted with felt it was out of place.

But in some ways, the Chinese state’s embrace of religion shouldn’t be too surprising. Beijing needs new sources of support, especially given China’s slowing economy. In addition, the disasters of communist rule in the twentieth century mean that for at least fifty years, few people have bought into the state’s main ideology, communism. Under Xi, China has pushed a return to communist values, urging the country’s nearly one hundred million CCP members to “return to the original mission.” Some of the party’s stated values include widely accepted virtues such as honesty, integrity, patriotism, and harmony. But belief in communism is low, forcing the state to turn to traditions.

In doing so, the CCP draws on China’s imperial past when ruling. Imperial officials often decided which faiths were orthodox and heterodox, regularly banning sects that violated norms. Indeed, traditional China was a religious state, with the emperor serving as the mediator between heaven and earth, and his main palaces—including the Forbidden City—representing the empire’s spiritual focal point. 

China’s modern-day rulers have drawn on this past but also on the lessons of modern authoritarian states. Similar to how Russian President Putin evolved from KGB operative in Soviet times to defender of the Russian Orthodox Church today, Xi is positioning himself as a champion of Chinese traditional values. It’s unlikely Xi will ever be seen praying in a Buddhist temple, as Putin worships in churches. But in its own way, the Chinese Communist Party is taking a page out of the same authoritarian playbook, where endorsing traditions as a source of legitimacy is seen as a way to compensate for problems at home.

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