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A Look at Religious Freedom in China

On October 1, the Cornerstone Blog of The Religious Freedom Project at The Berkeley Center published two helpful posts on religious liberty in China.

In "China at 65: Religious Freedom is Better and Worse," Loyola professor Dr. Carsten T. Vala highlights the "both/and" nature of religious freedom in China:

How can religious freedom in contemporary China be better and worse? First, religious freedom is better after contextualizing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) religion policies culturally, historically, and politically. Second, religious freedom is worse for some groups, because CCP treatment varies by religion, ethnic group, and religious history.

After briefly reviewing the history of government oversight of religion, Dr. Vala examines the ways in which the level of freedom (or tolerance) is different for different religions, based on how much the Communist Party (CCP) views them as a threat to its power or social stability. Religions that are perceived as being culturally assimilated (Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religions) experience the greatest amount of freedom, while those associated with different ethnicities and are in politically sensitive border areas (Tibetan Buddhism and Islam) experience the least.

About Christianity, he says this:

The CCP particularly suspects Christianity's overseas ties. In fact, only the bridge associations for Christians, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and the Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement include the word "patriotic" due to historic distrust of links to foreign domination before 1949. Still, Chinese Christians overall have a much freer worship environment than in years past because many worship in unregistered congregations apart from the state-sanctioned "official" churches. Local officials usually turn a blind eye toward these unregistered groups, so long as they remain small and do not link across jurisdictional boundaries, nor invite foreigners to train and preach.

He then goes on to detail the situation with each of the major religions in China.

Writing in "Freedom of Religion in China: A Historical Perspective," graduate student Olivia Lamb gives a helpful overview of the development of religious policies in China, beginning with the establishment of the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) in 1949. In 1954, freedom of religious belief was included in the constitution, but not freedom of religious practice. The 1960's and 1970's saw tremendous persecution as all religious activity was banned. Things began to change in the 1980's with the reform and opening movement launched by Deng Xiaoping, setting the stage for the tremendous growth of religion in China.

Her conclusion:

The tremendous growth in religious activity is a testament to the changing ideas and positions taken by the Chinese state in regards to religion. Like the Chinese economy, interest in religion doesn't seem likely to slow down anytime soon. The shift in official party stance demonstrates that the Chinese government is increasingly willing to grant religious organizations a place in society and work with them. The positive recognition of religious organizations and the importance of religion to the individual is a remarkable shift from 65 years prior. This is not to say that the current state of religious freedom is perfect or truly free. There are still issues with religions that fall outside of the state-sanctioned sphere of influence. However, the general pattern does suggest that China is slowly but surely moving closer toward true religious freedom.

Both articles are definitely worth a read.

Photo Credit: Kashgar Id Kah Mosque, by Alexander, Rusch, via Flickr

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource 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