Trans-Pacific View

The Politics of Religion in China

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Trans-Pacific View

The Politics of Religion in China

Insights from Fenggang Yang.

The Politics of Religion in China
Credit: Chinese church image via

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with  Fenggang Yang – Professor of Sociology, the founding Director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, founding Editor of the Review of Religion and Chinese Society launched in 2014, author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule and Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities, co-editor of ten books, and expert commentator in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Economist, CNN, BBC, etc. – is the 54th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

What is the role of religion in China from the perspectives of the Chinese government and communities of faith?

The official position of the Chinese Communist Party-State on religion is based on Marxist-Leninist-Maoist atheism, which believes that religion will die out when social conditions develops sufficiently. At the current stage of social development, however, religion persists because of social and psychological reasons. Since the 1990s, the Communist Party-State has affirmed that religion could have both positive and negative social functions. It may contribute to society through charity services as well as teachings that provide spiritual solace and moral guidance to ordinary people. Nonetheless, religion is the opium of the people that may lead people to anti-social beliefs and may be used by adversary forces for political causes. The Party-State insists that Communist Party members must be atheists, atheist education must be carried out through the education system and mass media, and political control over religious organizations is necessary to ensure political and social stability.

The perspectives of faith communities on the role of religion are of course different from that of the Party-State. Although different religions have different perspectives, overall they believe that religious faith is beneficial to individual believers and society by providing a moral basis for society and moral guidance to individuals.

Which religions are most prevalent and what does the growth of religion reveal about Chinese society?

The Communist Party-State allows five religions to operate legally if they join one of the “patriotic” associations: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestant Christianity. There are also faith communities of these five religions that operate illegally in the underground (banned by the government) or operate in the gray area of legality without joining a “patriotic” association (tolerated without official approval). There are also believers and practitioners of many other religions. Among the Han majority people, Buddhism and Christianity are prevalent. Nearly 20 percent of the adult population self-identify with Buddhism, even though very few of them have formally joined any Buddhist organization. Christianity has been the fastest growing religion in the last three or four decades, with an annual increase of more than 10 percent. If the Christian growth continues even at a lower rate of 7 percent per year, China will become the largest Christian country by the year 2030. Islam in China has become ethnicized so that few Han Chinese convert to it, but the 10 ethnic minorities have a significantly large population of more than 22 million.

The revivals of various religions, especially Christianity, show that the rapid social change has both generated the social needs and created the social space for religion. As long as social change continues in the current direction, that is, increasing urbanization, globalization, and migration, religions will continue to grow in the foreseeable future.

How do Chinese nationalism and consumerism affect the practice of religious faith and congregation?

Chinese nationalism has been on the rise along with China’s economic development and growing strengths in world politics. The Communist Party-State has encouraged patriotism mixed with nationalism. However, religious communities tend to emphasize the universal nature of their faith. In order to boost patriotism and nationalism, the Party-State has initiated the policy measures of infusing patriotic messages in sermons and raising the Chinese national flag inside churches, temples, and mosques. Some Christian churches and Muslim mosques have manifested certain levels of resistance against such measures, whereas Daoist and Buddhist temples tend to be receptive. Moreover, the Party-State has engineered the revival of Confucianism, which is not considered a religion by the authorities but nonetheless has a religious dimension. The Chinese government has established and funded several hundred Confucius Institutes in many countries. Within China, many institutes, associations, and Confucius temples have been established. A form of radical or fundamentalist Confucianism manifests strong sentiments of anti-Western and anti-modern nationalism.

Consumerism has become a social and political issue to Buddhism, as many Buddhist temples have been tourist sites that try hard to attract tourists and extract money from them. While Christian and Buddhist preachers often address consumerism as a challenge to individuals, I do not find much of a “prosperity gospel” in China.

Identify three current or emerging salient religious trends in China.

First, Christianity has been growing fast and begun to show social significance, such as the emergence of Christian lawyers courageously fighting for civil and human rights. Although Chinese Christians tend to be apolitical, their Christian beliefs and congregational life help to value human dignity and exercise democratic principles. In the long run, Christian growth in China will be beneficial to social and political democracy.

Second, Tibetan Buddhism is becoming popular among Han Chinese in some metropolitan areas, especially among business people and professionals. These people tend to be disappointed by the Han Buddhism that is perceived to be consumerist and corrupt, whereas Tibetan Buddhism is perceived to be pure and more efficacious.

Third, the Chinese Communist Party has intensified its fight to cleanse members of religious beliefs, practices, and commitment. However, this is bound to fail, as the vast majority of Communist Party members hold some supernatural beliefs or engage in certain religious or spiritual practices.

What should the next U.S. president understand about religion’s transformative effect on China?

Back in the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter made some effective appeal to the then Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping about granting religious freedom to Chinese people. In order to have economic reforms and opening up to the world, the Chinese Communist Party-State at that time adopted some modern norms affirmed by the United Nations. The next U.S. president should understand that religious freedom is the first freedom among various freedoms that would lead to human flourishing. She or he should encourage the Chinese authorities to expand religious freedom. In order for people to better understand and appreciate religious freedom, the president should support American-Chinese dialogues on religious freedom, not only by government officials, but also by scholars, religious leaders, and college and graduate students.