Freedom of religion / 宗教信仰自由
Freedom of religion is protected in international human rights law and includes the right to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, practice, and teaching. This freedom may be limited by laws to protect public safety, morals, or the rights of others. Countries take different approaches in regulation. The relationship – or degree of separation – between state and church, or religious organisations, is also shaped by the historical evolution of institutions.
In English translations, China’s official documents and statements often refer to “freedom of religion”. But the term used in the Constitution and regulations is more correctly translated as “freedom of religious belief” (宗教信仰自由). Citizens are free to believe but limited in their right to express their faith. Only “normal religious activities” (正常的宗教活动) defined by the Party State are protected. Laws and policies not only place religion under close supervision, but also require religious organisations to actively propagate CCP ideology through religious content.
The Chinese state recognises five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestant faiths. Since the early 1950s, they are organised and represented by official patriotic associations. According to a 2018 government White Paper, China has more than 200 million registered believers. This does not account for the plethora of traditional folk beliefs. There are also numerous underground churches and religious groups, despite repeated attempts to integrate them into the official structures or disband them.
The CCP itself is secular. Party members are forbidden from following religious beliefs. The Party’s relationship with religion has been fraught and tumultuous. Under Mao, religion was regarded as backwards and something to be overcome by force. Practices and publications were banned, and many religious sites destroyed in political campaigns, such as those during the Cultural Revolution. From the mid-1980s, the reform era permitted new space for religious practice and numbers of believers rose significantly.
But the leadership upheld its Marxist convictions that religious beliefs were a “temporary phenomenon” and would fade with economic progress. These expectations were not met. Alongside rising membership in officially recognised religious organisations and unofficial house churches, new movements emerged, most prominently the Falun Gong. After attempts to restrict them resulted in large scale protests, China’s government banned the Falun Gong in 1999, declaring it an “evil cult”.
The Party State remained concerned that religious faith could fuel existential risks for the regime’s security. Some of the most prominent human rights activists and lawyers in the 2000s were Christians; advocates for more autonomy in minority areas were often practicing Muslims or Buddhists. From protests and violent clashes in Xinjiang to self-immolation by Tibetan monks and nuns after 2009, the party identified “misguided” or “extremist” beliefs as root causes – not failed state policies and structural discrimination of minorities. Under Xi, “foreign-originated” Islamic, Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist beliefs have come under further scrutiny. The 2018 White Paper emphasizes the need to ensure independence from foreign influence.
Ultimately, the secular Party State demands authority over key religious affairs, as when insisting that the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama follow Chinese law. The distrust in religion is reflected in the tight surveillance of places of worship, especially bigger temples, churches, and mosques. The Party State regards ethnicity and religion as indicators of potential threat in individuals or groups, leading to close monitoring and various restrictions. State policies highlight the arbitrary nature of what is treated as “normal religious practices”: While celebration of religious festivities, fasting and praying may be tolerated in other parts of the country and even lauded by China’s diplomats abroad, some of these expressions of Muslim faith were interpreted as signs of extremism and cause for deprivation of liberty in Xinjiang.
The past decade was marked by a fundamental change in approach. All religions must now “love the country and the party”, support political stability and promote Chinese mainstream values and national identity. This ambition is reflected in various policy initiatives, from Five-Year-Plans for the Sinicisation (中国化) of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, to Daoist education plans including Xi Jinping thought. Since 2018, the State Administration of Religious Affairs has been placed under the Party’s United Front Work Department to strengthen guidance. Places of worship are required to promote Party ideology and policies with banners and by inclusion in sermons, including content shared online. The intention is clear: In today’s China, religion must spread the gospel of the CCP.