Religion and the Public Square


Religious movements have long been viewed with a mixture of suspicion and patronage by Chinese rulers. A religious uprising nearly brought the downfall of the powerful Han Dynasty in the second century AD, and subsequent dynastic changes have frequently been precipitated by mass religious movements. On the other hand, religious observances and institutions played central roles in moral education, community cohesion, and social stability for much of Chinese history. Significant religious individuals and institutions regularly gained the patronage of the imperial household, and later Manchu emperors were revered figures throughout central Asian Buddhism.

With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the ‘New Culture Movement’ all religious belief came to be identified as ‘superstitious’, and detrimental to national development. The prominent role of Christian mission schools and universities during the 1920s led to a backlash against religious education in all forms. The Chinese Communist Party rose to power as an avowedly atheist and secular movement, and in the early 1950s began the active discouragement and in many cases persecution of public religious activity. Some religious leaders were invited to cooperate with the CCP in a ‘United Front’ for socialist, national development and all religious bodies were subsumed into five official, patriotic associations. Believers, clergy and groups who refused to accept oversight were labelled as rightists, imprisoned and in some cases killed. This persecution grew overwhelming during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when even the religious patriotic associations were purged. Mao’s dictum that ‘religion is poison’ led to the wholesale destruction or desecration of religious buildings, iconography, scriptures, monuments and paintings.

However, with the beginning of China’s economic and social reform, instigated by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, private religion became permissible once again. In 1982 a new State Constitution included protection of religious freedoms, provided that such freedom was exercised within the law and did not harm state security. Places of worship were reopened and registered with the reformed patriotic associations, a small number of faith-based NGOs were created for social welfare, disaster relief and mutual aid. Various religious ‘fevers’ gripped parts of Chinese society, including qigong in the 1980s and Protestantism in the 1990s. However the growth of official religious organisations and institutions was still subject to severe restrictions, which have been implemented to varying degrees by local governments.

Toward the beginning of the twenty-first century, Chinese leaders like President Jiang Zemin began to acknowledge that religion would exist ‘for a long time to come’ in a socialist society, and promoted a ‘mutual adaptation’ between socialism and the five recognised religions. Persecution of ‘heretical cults’ continued, and in 1998 an ‘anti-superstition campaign’ led eventually to the proscription and widespread imprisonment of Falungong followers throughout mainland China. More recently, the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to improve its management of religions through better educating officials and religious clergy about their mutual responsibilities. During the Seventeenth Chinese Communist Party Congress suggested that guiding principles and policies for religious work should be included in the Party Constitution for the first time. The Party’s General Program indicated that it would seek to ‘rally religious believers in making contributions to economic and social development.’

The religious sphere remains highly regulated in China. In sensitive geographical areas like Tibet and Xinjiang, the capacity of religions to unify and motivate social discontent often leads to heavy restrictions. However new forms of religious expression, through the internet for example, or in ad hoc groups dedicated to religious study, meditation or martial arts have proliferated. The place of religion in Chinese societies, often wrongly portrayed as marginal, continues to adapt and change in a changing social environment. The rapid development of new Buddhist movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong indicate the enduring power of Chinese religions and the continuing desire of Chinese people to find spiritual solace.


Chinese church congregation

Further reading

  • Daniel Bays, A Tradition of State Dominance in Jason Kinropp and Carol Lee Hamrin, eds.
  • God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions, (Washington DC: Brookings, 2004) Ying Fuk Tsang
  • New Wine in Old Wineskins: an appraisal of China’s religious legislation and the Regulations on Religious Affairs, China Study Journal, Spring/Summer 2007.
© Churches Together in Britain and Ireland 2010