17 Things You Should Know About Religion Policies in China

SharePinEmailThe Chinese government has long maintained stringent policies on religion and aims to align religious practice with the ideals of the Communist Party. This strategy, known as “Sinicization,” mandates that religious groups conform to Chinese culture and show loyalty to the state. Let’s look at the various facets of China’s policies on religion and how…

The Chinese government has long maintained stringent policies on religion and aims to align religious practice with the ideals of the Communist Party. This strategy, known as “Sinicization,” mandates that religious groups conform to Chinese culture and show loyalty to the state. Let’s look at the various facets of China’s policies on religion and how they impact different religious communities.

Constitutional Promises vs. Reality

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China’s constitution promises “freedom of religious beliefs,” but this freedom is heavily regulated. The government officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Daoism. But these groups are subject to strict oversight, and their activities are closely monitored. 

The Sinicization Campaign

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Sinicization requires religious doctrines, customs, and morals to submit to Chinese culture and socialism. This policy particularly affects religions deemed “foreign,” such as Islam and Christianity. Adherents are expected to integrate Chinese traditions and prioritize loyalty to the state.

Targeting Religious Symbols

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As part of Sinicization, authorities have removed crosses from churches and domes from mosques to make them look more Chinese. Clergy are encouraged to focus on teachings that celebrate socialist values, and religious texts, such as the Quran, are being reinterpreted to support “Chinese culture in the new era,” a policy which has upset a great many people both in China and around the world, as it feels like editing religious belief. 

Muslims Under Surveillance

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The Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang, face severe repression. The Chinese government has been accused of mass internment, surveillance, and torture. Over a million Uyghurs are reportedly detained in camps, although China claims these are for vocational training and countering extremism.

Christianity: Controlled Worship

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Christians can worship in government-registered “official churches” for Protestantism and Catholicism. Many Christians opt for underground churches to avoid state control. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, the government has tightened restrictions on Christian activities, shutting down unregistered churches and arresting church leaders.

Vatican-China Agreement

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In 2018, the Vatican and China reached an agreement on bishop appointments to ease tensions for Chinese Catholics. Despite this, the Chinese government has intensified pressure on Catholic churches to join the official system, leading to increased scrutiny and control. And there are many who believe that the Vatican lost out on this deal. 

Buddhism’s Unique Position

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Han Buddhism, the most widespread branch in China, enjoys a more lenient stance from the government compared to other religions. Xi Jinping often praises Han Buddhists for integrating traditional Chinese beliefs. But Tibetan Buddhists face harsh crackdowns, with the government accused of “political re-education” and destroying Tibetan monuments.

The Role of Folk Religion

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Folk religions and ancient spiritual traditions play a prominent role in Chinese culture. The government supports activities deemed part of cultural heritage and has funded the renovation of folk religion temples. Religious activities outside the five recognized religions are often labeled as “superstition” or “evil cults.”

Crackdown on “Cults”

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The Chinese government categorizes groups like Falun Gong, the Unification Church, and the Children of God as cults, and prohibits their activities. Falun Gong practitioners have faced arrest and systematic torture, including alleged organ harvesting.

Communist Party’s Atheist Agenda

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The ruling Communist Party promotes atheism and discourages religious practice among its 281 million members. Party members are forbidden from engaging in spiritual activities, though occasional participation in cultural customs is tolerated. Frequent religious engagement can lead to expulsion from the party.

Religious Restrictions on Youth

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Chinese law prohibits children under 18 from formal religious affiliations or receiving religious education. Schools focus on promoting atheism, and youth are encouraged to join Communist Party-affiliated groups and pledge commitment to atheism.

Historical Context of Religious Policies

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China’s approach to religion has deep historical roots. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party has conflated religion with foreign imperialism and feudalism. During the Cultural Revolution, many religious sites were destroyed, and faith was repressed.

Efforts to Regulate Folk Religion

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Local governments are tasked with regulating folk religious activities to ensure they mirror cultural heritage and socialist values. Temples with a historical value are registered and monitored, while those deemed insignificant are often demolished or repurposed.

International Criticism and Human Rights

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China’s restrictive policies have drawn persistent international criticism. Human rights organizations and foreign governments have condemned the treatment of Uyghurs, Christians, and other religious minorities. The U.S. State Department has even described the situation in Xinjiang as genocide.

Adapting to Changing Policies

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Religious communities in China must continually adapt to the changing landscape of government policies. Compliance with state regulations often means compromising religious autonomy, while resistance can lead to severe repercussions. The balance between faith and state control remains a hugely contentious issue in Chinese society.

Global Implications

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China’s policies on religion have major global implications. As China asserts its influence on the world stage, its approach to religious liberty raises questions about the balance between state control and individual rights. The international community’s response to China’s religious policies will shape future discourse on human rights and religious freedom.

Looking Ahead

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As China continues to navigate its complex relationship with religion, the ongoing dialogue between faith-based communities, the government, and international bodies will be crucial. The outcomes of this dialogue will determine the trajectory of religious expression and the preservation of cultural heritage in China.

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