Religious Repression in China

China continues to violate the right to freedom of religion, although the worst forms of persecution -- long-term imprisonment and physical abuse of religious activists -- appear to have eased, in part because of the effectiveness of other means to achieve the same ends. The number of believers in all religions has increased sharply, with Buddhism growing the fastest of all. As interest in religion has increased, so have efforts by the state to control it, in part because the government is convinced that religion breeds instability, separatism, and subversion, with Christianity and Islam in particular seen as vehicles for foreign influence and infiltration.

Related Material

Excerpts from Questions and Answers on the Patriotic Education Program in Monasteries

Although harsh prison sentences and violence against religious activists are still reported, state control increasingly takes the form of a registration process administered by the State Council's Religious Affairs Bureau through which the government monitors membership in religious organizations, locations of meetings, religious training, selection of clergy, publication of religious materials, and funding for religious activities. The government also now undertakes annual inspections of registered religious organizations. Failure to register can result in the imposition of fines, seizure of property, razing of "illegal" religious structures, forcible dispersal of religious gatherings, and, occasionally, short term detention. In Tibet, control takes the form of political vetting of monks and nuns and strict supervision of their institutions. These controls not only violate the right to freedom of religion, but also the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. As Ye Xiaowen, director of the Bureau of Religious Affairs, points out, "Our aim is not registration for its own sake, but...control over places for religious activities as well as over all religious activities themselves."

The Chinese government is wary of religion for several reasons. China is officially an atheist state and Communist Party members are banned from believing in or practicing any faith; there is concern that religion can function as an alternative to Communism and thus undermine loyalty to the government. The lessons from Eastern Europe and the role of the church, particularly in Poland, in generating opposition to Communist governments are still fresh. In addition, China's leaders view with suspicion the role of religion in ethnic minority areas., which they see as furthering pro-independence, or so-called "splittist" or separatist movements, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang. (See briefing papers on Tibet and Xinjiang.)

Article 36 of China's constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, but that freedom is seriously limited by the requirement that congregations adapt their "theology, conception, and organization" to socialist principles. There are other limitations as well, including the following:

1. The government defines what constitutes a religion. Five religions are officially recognized, Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Everything else is considered to be superstition. By this definition, "popular religion," a syncretic blend of Daoism, Buddhism, and polytheistic elements, that attracts the vast majority of Chinese believers is not a religion at all, and therefore people are not authorized to practice it.

2. The government defines what is orthodox. Even within acknowledged religions, the government can deem a particular group's practices or belief structure heterodox. The group in question then becomes labeled a "cult" or "sect" and can be banned accordingly.

3. The government insists that all religious practice take place under the auspices of official, state- and Party-sanctioned religious bodies. Congregations formed apart from these bodies, such as those associated with the Protestant "house church" movement, are illegal. Their meeting sites may be closed down or even demolished. Members are often fined and harassed, and sometimes detained. Unofficial gatherings, such as the traditional celebration of religious holidays by Catholics on a hill in Jiangxi province on feast days, are absolutely forbidden, and many participants in these gatherings have been detained.

4. The government uses the registration process to control all aspects of legal religious practice and to separate legal worship sites from illegal ones. Legally registered sites are bound by a host of regulations including those mentioned above, selection of leaders, restrictions on publication, supervision of finances, and regulation of foreign contacts. No religious structures may be built without authorization including "temples, churches, Daoist temples, shrines, open-air statues of gods or of the Buddha." The government not only has refused to issues permits but has demolished many structures because, officials say, the number of worship sites already exceeds the needs of the population. Applications in advance are required in order to hold "non-regular" religious activities. Proselytization is proscribed by restrictions on travel for would be evangelists. Religious debates are banned. In Shanghai and Guangzhou, organizations can be fined as much as 50,000 renminbi (approximately US$7,000) for a breach of the regulations.

5. In addition to religious regulations, the government uses other regulations and laws to restrict religious practice. Urban building and land use codes are used to stop construction of religious sites, the Law on Assembly and Demonstrations eliminates large-scale meetings and training classes; laws governing printing and publishing restrict dissemination of religious material. According to the government, no one is punished for religious practice but for breaking the law as defined in China's Criminal Code.

6. Chinese authorities use campaigns -- intensive efforts involving education and force organized either locally or from Beijing -- to break up large concentrations of unofficial sites, as in Hebei province (where underground Catholic churches are concentrated) or Tibet. Tactics include arrests, fines, forced confessional statements of illegal worship practices, destruction of monasteries and convents, school expulsions, and job loss. Respected local figures with followings are particular campaign targets. They may be placed under heavy surveillance and isolated from their followers and from foreign contacts..

The arrest and sentencing of Xu Yongze, the influential leader of the large and well-organized Born Again Christian movement, is a telling example of China's efforts to suppress the activities of religious leaders who refuse to be subject to state control and whose religious practices fall outside the pale of orthodoxy. The Born Again movement requires a person wishing to be saved to cry for three days. One highly-placed Chinese religious official said that since Xu Yongze believed that to be true, he was not really a Christian. The official said Xu "poisoned people's minds" by spreading the view that the end of the world was coming and by gathering people illegally to do nothing but cry. "The normal life and production of local people were seriously affected," the official said. Xu Yongze was arrested in March 1997 and received a sentence variously reported as three years or as four years reduced to three.

In Tibet, the repression has taken the form of patriotic reeducation of all monks and nuns and enforced expulsion of those who refuse to conform and to renounce the Dalai Lama. It is estimated that close to 3,000 monks and nuns were expelled from their monasteries and nunneries in 1996 and 1997. Chinese officials regularly vilify the Dalai Lama. There is a cap on the total number of monks and nuns permitted in Tibet, and individual caps on the numbers in each monastery and nunnery. In addition, China has imposed secular control of monastic leaders and has interfered in the selection of the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

US-China Summit (June 1998) and Human Rights - Campaigns Page

Back Button