Lead Article

Religious Policies in China

Defining Normal

The word “normal” is not something that those of us in the West commonly associate with the word religion or religious activities. Religious activities are simply religious activities, and to label one as normal and another as abnormal is, well, abnormal. What is normal for one religion or sect (baptizing people by dunking their heads under water) may seem strange, or even dangerous, to followers of another religion.

This concept of “normal religious activities” is at the heart of the religious regulatory regime in China. In this article, we will look at the government documents that address religion in China, as well as the thinking that undergirds them.

There are three key government documents that touch on religion. The first is the Chinese Constitution, promulgated in 1982, which references religion in Article 36:

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.[1]

While the first half of this article seems to grant some measure of religious freedom, the second half actually places limitations or restrictions. In other words, not only does it not guarantee non-interference in religious affairs by the state, it spells out how and where the state can interfere.

One of the key issues raised in this article is the definition of “normal religious activities.” Clearly, the state retains the right to declare that “this” religious activity is considered normal, but “that” is not. It also goes out of its way to stipulate that religion may not engage in certain activities that the state deems harmful.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, however, the Chinese Constitution is not a legal document that can be appealed to in a court of law. It is not “judicialized.”[2] A religious believer who feels that his/her right of religious belief is being infringed upon cannot use the Constitution to argue the case.

The second document that addresses religious issues is “Document No. 19: Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question During Our Country’s Socialist Period,” issued by the State Council (cabinet) in 1982, which detailed how religion could/could not function in Chinese society. It states:

The political power in a socialist state can in no way be used to promote any one religion, nor can it be used to forbid any one religion, as long as it is only a question of normal religious beliefs and practices. At the same time, religion will not be permitted to meddle in the administrative or juridical affairs of state, nor to intervene in the schools or public education. It will be absolutely forbidden to force anyone, particularly people under eighteen years of age, to become a member of a church, to become a Buddhist monk or nun, or to go to temples or monasteries to study Buddhist scripture.[3]

It reaffirms the protection of “normal” religious activities and that religious activities may not interfere with affairs of state or education. It also sets out to protect young people from being forced to participate in religious activities.

The third document is the Regulations of Religious Affairs, issued by the State Council in 2004, and which came into effect in 2005. This document further explains and clarifies the place of religion in Chinese society and lays down detailed regulations for managing it.

Article 3 states:

The State, in accordance with the law, protects normal religious activities, and safeguards the lawful rights and interests of religious bodies, sites for religious activities and religious citizens. Religious bodies, sites for religious activities and religious citizens shall abide by the Constitution, laws, regulations and rules, and safeguard unification of the country, unity of all nationalities and stability of society. No organization or individual may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State, or in other activities that harm State or public interests, or citizens’ lawful rights and interests.[4]

Further articles deal with issues such as the definition of religious organizations, qualifications of religious personnel, registration of religious venues and management of religious finances.

Underlying Principles

In order to understand the regulations themselves, it is important to understand some of their underlying principles.


When the PRC was founded in 1949, the state adopted the Marxist-Leninist view of religion. Atheism was declared to be the official ideology, and religion was considered to be the opiate of the people; therefore, it should be eliminated. Even though the earliest policies did not spell this out, elimination of religion from Chinese society remained the ultimate goal. Genuine attempts were made to achieve this goal during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Only one belief system was permissible, and that was Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

With the economic reform and opening policies of the early 1980s, the restrictions on religious activities were relaxed. Churches and temples were reopened as the government seemed to back away from its goal of eliminating religion, even though atheism remains the official dogma of the Chinese Communist Party and government.

Religious Belief—a Personal Matter

So long as a religion or a religious organization does not challenge them, the government and/or Party are not concerned with the content of religious belief. The religious policies do not comment on specific beliefs or teachings of various religions. In other words, a common perception in the West—that it is illegal to believe in Christianity in China—is simply not true.

Religious policies deal with the practice of that belief and the regulation (and definition) of “normal religious activities.” In other words, the state is saying to religious believers: “You can believe what you want, but we reserve the right to set the boundaries within which you can practice your beliefs.”

State Supervision of Religion

This is how the government sets those boundaries. According to Chinese scholar Shi Hua, this means that “religion acknowledges the political leadership of the government and receives guidance from it. The state recognizes religion, but provides supervision through state administrative departments. Religion does not play a role in public administration or justice.”[5]

Supervision is exercised through a religious regulatory bureaucracy that includes the State Administration of Religious Affairs, provincial and local level Religious Affairs Departments, and recognized religious organizations such as the China Christian Council / Three-self Patriotic Movement (“Two Committees”).

This view of the relationship between religion and the state was not a Communist invention. The Confucian tradition maintained an active role for the state in religious affairs, and the emperor had a semidivine status. The state always had the right to identify those religions it deemed correct or incorrect and limit or ban those that were in the latter category. In other words, the role of the state in religious affairs was (and continues to be) that of a referee.

So it is that the government can designate five approved religions for official recognition (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism) and ban religions and spiritual movements that it deems “evil cults (Falungong).”

The goal is to prevent any religion from emerging as a potential threat to state power. This fear does not exist in a vacuum but is rooted in knowledge of the role that the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, both quasi-religious movements, played in the eventual downfall of the Qing Dynasty. In 1999 10,000 members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement staged a demonstration outside of Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound in Beijing. Since the government viewed this as a direct threat, the religion was banned.

Rights Are Vested, Not Unalienable

Neither traditional Chinese philosophy nor contemporary political philosophy subscribes to the Western notion that human beings have certain rights that are unalienable; that is, they are granted by a creator and cannot be taken away. Rather, rights are vested, or granted to a citizenry by the government. Thus, any religious freedom, either of belief or practice, is subject to the goodwill (or lack thereof) of the government.

Harmony among Religions

In pursuit of its goal of social stability, the government promotes harmony between religions in China by discouraging religious followers of one religion from seeking converts from other religions. Article 2 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs states:

No organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in any religion (hereafter referred to as religious citizens) or citizens who do not believe in religion (hereafter referred to as non-religious citizens). Religious citizens and non-religious citizens shall respect each other and coexist in harmony, and so shall citizens who believe in different religions.[6]

This helps to explain the government’s sensitivities to Christian activities in ethnic minority regions where local religion and culture are intertwined, such as Tibet and Xinjiang. In the case of Tibet, the fear is so strong that it is the only province in China that does not have a registered church.

Future Prospects

Even though there have been no changes in religious policies since 2005, the actual practice of religious activities has changed. The most notable change is the growth of religious organizations, particularly house churches, which contain millions of religious citizens who practice their faith outside of the regulatory boundaries, ironically unencumbered by the stifling supervision of the state. How the government chooses to deal with this situation is, of course, something to pay attention to.

It would be nice to think that the government considers dealing with religious issues to be a major priority. Unfortunately, in the only document that would signal such a priority, the Government Work Report issued by Premier Wen Jiaobao in March, 2013, religion only received a passing mention: “We comprehensively carried out the policy on freedom of religious belief and managed religious affairs on a more law- and procedure-based basis.”[7] Clearly, religious issues are not a priority for the government at this time.

A growing number of scholars within the country are calling for major reforms of the religious policies, specifically citing the absence of a Law of Religion as the root cause of most religious problems in China today. Without a Law of Religion, religion sits outside the legal system. One scholar, Professor Liu Peng, of the Pushi Institute for Social Sciences,[8] has even gone so far as to write a draft Law of Religion which would be based on the principle of separation of religion and the state. It would also grant religious organizations the legal status of “religious legal person,” thereby granting it all the civil rights accorded to other legal persons.

The National People’s Congress is unlikely to take up such a controversial proposal, but it would go a long way to alleviating many of the underlying problems and getting the government out of the business of defining “normal.”

Image Credit: Joann Pittman
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio