The regulation of religion in China

The China Quarterly recently released it’s top ten most downloaded articles for free. Over the next few weeks I’ll summarize and comment on a few of these great articles (and save you 20+ pages of reading).

Belief in Control: Regulation of Religion in China By: Pittman B. Potter (link to full text)

Tom’s Summary:

Throughout China’s history, religion has been a source of opposition against imperial forces. Historically, religions that did not comply with current practices of the state were suppressed, which was exemplified by the Party’s efforts to destroy all types of identifiable religious practices under Mao.

In the post-Mao era the Party has maintained the view that religion is something that has the potential to undermine their authority and have sought to regulate and control religious belief and practice. At the same time the Party realizes the international value of creating the outward appearance of religious openness and tolerance.

“Document 19” which was drafted in 1982 showed that the Party’s view of the danger of religion had not changed, but that it was more convenient and more acceptable to let religion die on it’s own (as according to Marx), rather than to try and exterminate religion through force. This document helped to establish basic protections to the rights of belief for Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and Daoists, but notably excludes folk religions.  These protections only extend to “normal” religious practices though, which were never clearly defined.

These protections however are predicated on submission to State authority.

As of late 2000, the Party’s view toward the management of religion could be summarized with Jiang Zemin’s “Three sentences.” These were: 1) Enforce Party policy 2) Strengthen management of religion according to the law and 3) Actively lead the adaptation of religion and socialism. Around this time the promoted concept was to tolerate believers, but promote historical materialism and atheism among the youth.

Coincidentally, at the same time that the gov’t was cracking down on Falun Gong practitioners, many within the government were saying that it was important to limit interference with lawful practice (which Falun Gong technically was not, due to it’s origins as a folk religion outside of the legal protections), and accept religion as an integral part of society. Pan Yue, an important official from the Communist Youth League, even suggested that the Party drop its long standing objection to religious people holding Party membership (has not happened yet).

Presently, religion continues to create worrying situations for the Party in their efforts to control it. This is most visible in Tibet with Buddhism, and in Xinjiang with Islam, but can also be seen in the underground church movements in both Protestantism and Catholicism. This has lead the Party to incorporate political instruction alongside religious instruction into the curricula in theological institutions.

The author’s conclusion is that the Party’s mistrust of religion is seated in the conflict between individual’s loyalty to the Party and their devotion to a set beliefs that may be at odds with Party orthodoxy. However this insistence on controlling religion may actually further undermine their own legitmacy.

Tom’s thoughts:

I just want to highlight two aspects of this article, one being the segregation of religion from the public sphere, and secondly, the conflict between political and religious ideology.

In China, it is rare to see signs of religion anywhere but on religious property, with the exception of the occasional Buddhist monk or nun wearing traditional robes. Churches (and other institutions) are very limited in how they are able to advertise their services and beliefs.

This exclusion of religion from the public space also means that people of faith are absent from discussions of moral issues.

Just this week I was talking with two doctors from the OB/GYN department about abortion in China. They seemed very uncomfortable with how lightly people treat the issue. They told me that it was upsetting to see parents choose to end a life over small physical imperfections. These two doctors felt strongly that there was a moral component to abortion, but it could never be addressed because of the politics related to family planning.

I am not arguing whether or not abortion should be banned, but like I’ve said before, I think there is value in having that debate.

Secondly, I think the Party may have run with the assumption that religion is counter to stability without first seeking to understand the possible benefits of religion. By disrupting the typical role of religion in local communities, they have lost the services that religious institutions commonly provide. Also one could argue that it is these policies that seek to limit the role of religion that are in many places causing instability. In the past year, 11 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest of gov’t interference with Tibetan Buddhism and the exile of the Dalai Lama.

Finally I would just like to note that it is my understanding that the Party has less interest in shaping theology, and more interest in promoting theologians that pose little risk to their policies. I’ve met some nationalistic preachers, but the majority have simply had no interest in politics. Both seem to be acceptable. In theological institutions there are patriotism courses, but if they are anything like the ones taught in universities they are largely ignored.

Note: “Patriotic Re-education” campaigns are being used in Tibetan areas, but these are not routine parts of normal religious life in China.

11 responses to “The regulation of religion in China”

  1. Joel says:

    Did I get the 沙发?!

    Everything you’ve said rings true to our experience in TJ, but I’d add that the degree of tolerance for variety and visibility of religious activity varies greatly place to place, and that in Tianjin at least, tolerance is predicated both on submission to state authority AND willingness to remain obediently out of public consciousness — at least for the organized religions.

    • Tom says:

      and tolerance seems to be in the true sense of the word, religion is tolerated, but I get the feeling they would be quite happy without it.

      • Joel says:

        It must annoy them to no end that Marx’s prediction has so far failed to materialize. In TJ you get the sense (esp. if you’re attached to an openly Christian NGO!) that they give only the bare minimum degree of tolerance and they are not happy about it. As one guy I’m acquainted with, who’s the government interface guy for another Christian NGO in China, had it explained to him by a professor who was acting as a cultural informant for his meetings with local officials: “They hate you. But you’re useful.”

        wow that was a bad sentence.

  2. Joel says:

    Forgot the anecdote: even though TJ’s churches are literally overflowing on Sunday morning, many of my students didn’t even know they exist.

  3. […] in the Party have even considered materialism as a counter to religion, and that such “values” should be promoted. The other day, the People’s Daily approved the idea that gov’t officials […]

  4. mrchopstik says:

    The state sees the church (any church or religious institution, for that matter) as a rival to its unrelenting authority and therefore reacts with the repression thereof. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction. And Joel has a good point in that it’s only just tolerated because they feel that there is some use in permitting it. Otherwise, I suspect that many (if not all) religiously-ordered NGO’s would be out and there would be no tolerance whatsoever.

    This is not to suggest that churches are as benevolent as they would have outsiders believe nor as malevolent as others might suggest, but they are a source of power and order and certainly preceded the nation-state as exists today in ordering and doing for society.

    As a final random thought, it is worth noting the very antagonistic relationship between the official, state-supported Chinese Catholic church and the Vatican. Consider that relationship when viewing the subject of religion through the eyes of the Chinese state.

  5. […] The Regulation of Religion in China […]

  6. […] of a continuing series of journal article summaries. You can also read my summaries on The regulation of religion in China and Reconsidering the campaign to suppress […]

  7. Joel says:

    Is there a downloadable PDF?

    • Tom says:

      I haven’t been able to find it in a downloadable form unfortunately. It’s a shame too, just this last week the party has been discussing cracking down on religious groups (especially Muslims and Buddhists) which is very worrying.

  8. […] Change”, who publishes articles written on contemporary issues in China. One of the articles that I found some anecdotal comments on was a review on the article Belief in Control: Regulation […]

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