The Rebirth of Religion
Religious Revival in Contemporary China

The Intersection of

Religion and Politics
In contemporary China there is an official policy of freedom of worship — with some important caveats — that is enshrined in the Chinese constitution [see box below]. For the most part, nowadays the Chinese people have relative autonomy to practice any of the officially approved religions, as long as that does not pose a challenge to the established social order or the political status quo. An increasing number of people are availing themselves to the varied opportunities for religious engagement and expression. On the whole, there is a discernible trend towards greater religious participation, although China still comes across as being much more secular when compared to other countries with high levels of religious belief and affiliation, such as the US or India. On the other hand, there is probably more religious participation in China than in much of Europe.
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. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 258)
  • Is this a reasonable guarantee of religious freedom?
  • Is it consistent with American conceptions of religious freedom as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights?
Notwithstanding the greater openness and freedom of the post-Mao era, there continues to be state supervision and control over religious groups and institutions, which is  exercised both from the political center in Beijing and at the regional level. The Chinese government is engaged in a balancing act: it tries to present itself as being tolerant and supportive of religious freedom, but at the same time it is greatly concerned with maintaining social stability and political control. Typically, the overarching concern with maintaining control still trumps the growing sense of religious liberty. At critical junctions, the government has shown itself to be quite capable of engaging in forceful repression of religiously-inflected challenges to its authority. Within such a framework, the government has the prerogative — or even the duty — to use coercive measures and stamp out religious heterodoxy, especially when it deems it to be inimical to the party’s conception of public interest and social progress. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 257-8)

Falun Gong
The Chinese government’s ongoing concerns about the intersections of religion and politics, as well as its willingness to undertake hard measures when it feels that a particular religious group has crossed the line and has undermined its authority, are evident in the ongoing suppression of Falun gong. In the aftermath of a silent and large-scale demonstration, staged by Falun gong in 1999 at the Communist Party’s headquarters in Beijing — said to have involved ten thousand followers — the government undertook a comprehensive persecution of the group, which it labeled as a subversive movement and deviant or evil cult. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 259)
Foreign observers have attempted to explain the Party’s rationale for banning Falun Gong as stemming from a variety of factors. These include Falun Gong’s popularity, China’s history of quasi-religious movements that turned into violent insurrections, its independence from the state and refusal to toe the party line, internal power politics within the Communist Party — and Falun Gong’s moral and spiritual content, which put it at odds with aspects of the official Marxist ideology. (Wikipedia/Falun Gong)

Xinjiang & Tibet
Regional “Autonomy”

The Chinese government is also concerned with the potentially subversive role of religion in outlying regions with restive minority populations, especially in places with nationalist and secessionist movements like Xinjiang and Tibet. The Communist government is keen to be seen as promoting regional autonomy and supporting local culture, which among Xinjiang’s Uyghurs is deeply rooted in traditional Islam, while the Tibetans have a unique Buddhist culture. Nonetheless, the government remains gravely concerned about any possible convergences between nationalist agendas and religious sentiments, and it has shown itself to be ready to come down hard on those who are using religion in connection with indigenous aspirations for political independence.The case for Tibetan independence — or autonomy, according to a different formulation — has also become an international cause celebre, bolstered by the worldwide renown of the current Dalai Lama (1935-) and the considerable popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in the West and elsewhere. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 259-61)

Islamic Uighurs


Tibetan Buddhists

The present-day situation facing Christianity exemplifies some of the crucial challenges that arise from the aforementioned intersections of religion and politics; it also sheds light on the impact of religious traditions on the ways in which contemporary Chinese negotiate key areas of modernity. During the post-Mao era, both Catholic and Protestant Christianity emerged as important participants in China’s religious resurgence. ... Various surveys and other sources put the number anywhere between ten and [one] hundred million. The Approximate number is probably somewhere in between the two, perhaps in the ballpark of fifty million (or roughly 4% of the total population), as indicated by some recent surveys, with Protestants probably outnumbering Catholics by a ratio that is close to three to one. ... Both the Catholic and the Protestant churches are further divided between official churches, which are closely regulated by the government, and underground or house churches, which lack official status and are occasionally subjected to harassment or repression. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 261-2)

Protestantism in China
The social and political predicaments faced by Chinese Protestants are similar to those confronted by the Catholics. There is also analogous division between the official churches, represented by the government-controlled Three-self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council, and the underground (or house) churches, although the Protestant churches are much more decentralized and diverse. Protestants do not have to deal with the ... issues of priestly appointments and ordinations, or with the kinds of divided loyalties that pit the Rome-based Catholic Church against the Chinese state. There also seems to be less open hostility and greater overlap between the official and underground churches, with many parishioners attending religious services at both. ...

Theologically Chinese Protestants tend to be fairly conservative, subscribing to evangelical and fundamentalist strands of Protestantism. ... There are also strong Pentecostal undercurrents that intersect with major aspects of popular Chinese religion. ...
These features of Chinese Protestantism are closely related to the fact that the majority of believers live in rural areas and have little education (with a large number of them being illiterate). Consequently, the form of Christianity they practice is influenced by their local culture and traditional religious practices, which differ considerably from those of many urban congregations. ...
These trends have led some scholars to suggest that the prevalent patterns of local or village-based expressions of Christianity in China could be looked upon as peculiar variations or alternative forms of Chinese popular religion. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 263-4)
Catholicism in China
The position and fortunes of Catholicism in China are to a large degree shaped by a longstanding conflict between the Roman Curia in the Vatican and the Chinese government. The conflict started as early as 1949, when the Pope prohibited Chinese Catholics to cooperate with the new Communist government. At the same time, the Communists were bent on bringing the church firmly under their control. To that end, in 1957 they organized the Catholic Patriotic Association, which to this day remains the only official Catholic organization acknowledged by the Chinese government. ...
In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI wrote a special letter to China’s Catholics in which he urged reconciliation between the followers of the official and the underground churches. There are also ongoing rumors about the reestablishment of full diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican, which were cut off in 1951. Nonetheless, there is still no final agreement on such key issues as the appointments of bishops and the ordination of priests. ...
While the Vatican insists on the Pope’s sole authority to appoint bishops, the Chinese government rejects the notion of an organized church led by clergy that owes its foremost allegiance to a foreign religious institution, as it conflicts with its expectation that all religions must follow the norms and dictates of the Chinese state. These conflicting priorities are evident in the deep splits that divide the Catholic community, pitting those who worship at official churches against those associated with the underground churches. The underground churches generally reject the authority of the Catholic Patriotic Association, which they perceive as a tool of government control over their religion; instead, they have their own religious network, with clergy that is trained in underground seminaries. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 262)
On September 22, 2018, China and the Vatican signed an historic agreement concerning the appointment of bishops in China. By this agreement the Chinese government also recognizes the pope as head of China’s Catholics. China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the agreement also works to maintain communications and to improve relations between both sides. However, it does not establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China. The Vatican currently has diplomatic ties to Taiwan, which China does not recognize. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, speaking in Lithuania, described the agreement as “not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.” While the agreement states that China will recommend the Bishops before they are appointed by the Pope, it also stipulates that the Pope has authority to veto any Bishop which China recommends. Francis then approved seven bishops who had been appointed by Beijing, after withdrawing church censures against them and also against one recently deceased bishop who had received episcopal consecration without papal approval. On September 23, the state-recognized Catholic Church in China pledged to remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Pope Francis’ reflection on the agreement came out in the Message of Pope Francis to the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church on September 26, 2018.
The Buddhist Resurgence
The recent resurgence of Buddhism involves many of the general elements noted in the above discussion about the current religious revival that is taking place in China; restoration of temples and monasteries, ordination of clergy, and resumption of traditional beliefs and practices. Since the early 1980s there has been considerable growth in the number of monks and nuns. The lack of leadership and other structural problems related to the serious generational gap between the senior and junior clergy — especially notable during the 1980s, when monastic ordinations resumed after the break caused by the Cultural Revolution — have to a large extent been ameliorated, even if in many instances prominent monks owe their leadership positions more to their administrative skills and political acumen than to their meditative prowess or scriptural learning. ...
Some of the famous public monasteries have also reinstituted traditional programs of monastic training, which depending on particular establishments might place greater emphasis on Chan meditation or Pure Land rituals and other devotional practices. In some locales there has also been a resurgence of traditional eremetic practices, undertaken by monks and nuns desirous of solitude and predisposed towards contemplative lifestyle.
Chinese forms of Buddhism are also thriving in other parts of Asia, often more so than in China itself, where Buddhism still remains under governmental control. ... Arguably the most vital and far reaching revival of Chinese Buddhism is currently underway in Taiwan. Even since the ending of military dictatorship by the Nationalist government in 1987, Taiwan has undergone a radical transformation that includes rapid economic growth and modernization, development of democratic values and institutions, increased social openness and mobility, and indigenous cultural flowering. The recent emergence and growth of large, highly organized and multifaceted Buddhist organizations — exemplified by groups such as Foguangshan and Ciji — is an especially noteworthy feature of religious life in contemporary Taiwan. Led by charismatic monastic leaders, despite their varying emphases these groups all combine modern approaches with traditional mores and practices, which are often recast in ways that reflect contemporary predilections and realities. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 265-8)

& Daoism

Final Reflections