Have faith in China

Posted by Martyn.

Religion has made a big revival in China over the last two decades, bringing with it important implications for both society and politics. Some comparisons can be made with the rise of the Orthodox Church in post-communist Russia and Catholicism in Eastern Europe. Some commentators argue that the rapid post-Mao demise of socialism left a spiritual vacuum within modern China. However, whatever the reasons, religion is on the rise since China embraced economic reform, and with it, a more open and free society โ€“ within certain government limits.

Nevertheless, despite adopting a more tolerant attitude to the practice of religious beliefs, the government still remains deeply suspicious of any third force, other than the state and the market, exercising control, or at least influence, with sections of the population.

Both the popularity of religion and subsequent government suspicion are adequately illustrated by the speed in which the quasi-religious movement, the F*L*G, swept across China several years ago, gathering supporters and converts in huge numbers. The governmentโ€™s subsequent reaction was to strike hard and to strike fast. The movementโ€™s supporters were rounded up and the governmentโ€™s propaganda machine went into overdrive.

Chinese practitioners of the traditional and long-established religions and beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Nestorianism (a form of Christianity from the Assyrian Church whose missionaries reached China in 635 A.D.) are conservatively estimated at 100 million with at least another 100 million more casual devotees. Government-sanctioned places of worship are regularly packed and underground churches are springing up all over the country like mushrooms after spring rain.

The potential problem, however, is that the government still insists on controlling almost every single aspect of religion in China. As this article points out, this risks the very real danger of provoking widespread resentment:

Why must Beijing continue to treat religion as something suitable for strict control, even quarantine, like some deadly infectious disease? Sometimes historical reasons are invoked to bolster the state’s antireligion stance. In the past, it is said, religion has encouraged factionalism, fanaticism and that paramount Chinese taboo, disorder.

At another level, the attitude seems driven by a deep fear in the Communist Party of allowing any kind of independent civil society to emerge. Even in today’s China, the country of headlines about miracle growth and irresistible rise, religious groups, like every other kind of association of any scale, from chess clubs to writers’ leagues, must be officially sanctioned, which actually means carefully controlled.

All true, but like so many other issues in China, blame cannot be simply laid at the feet of the CCP. Communist rule in China is but a tiny blip in her history. Even many centuries ago, China’s Confucian elite had little respect for religion and its practitioners. Throughout history, the state suppressed or controlled organized religion. Also, it can be argued that any government might be wary of organized religion after, for instance, the Taiping Rebellion was estimated to have killed some 20-50 million people between 1851-1864.

The current attitude of the government towards religious freed0m was also highlighted by U.N. rights envoy Louise Arbour during her recent visit to China. She concluded that two hum@n r1ghts issues needed special and immediate attention: trafficking of women and children, and freed0m of religion.

The Discussion: 15 Comments

Just last night on the Phoenix channel news there were some comments about China (Hu) making overtures to the Vatican. China’s campaigns are always carefully orchestrated. Why did this letter pop up now? It will be interesting to see if more articles appear calling for religious freedom. That seems to be the way China news works. Some articles call for something (though usually not in foreign newspapers) and them the government acts. What do you think. We did an article at the NYT a few years back on an underground church in Beijing, religion has been growing for a number of years.

September 15, 2005 @ 7:04 pm | Comment

Not directly related … but I found out recently what is the slogan of the Chinese religious affairs bureau.


Which they translate as something like “harmony through diversity”

Reactions, anyone? ๐Ÿ™‚

September 15, 2005 @ 9:56 pm | Comment

As a practicioner of religion myself, this article strikes with me a cheerful tone. However, whoever wrote it doesn’t seem to have done too much research. Nestorianism has only one parish in China. To list it on par with Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism is misleading.

September 15, 2005 @ 10:13 pm | Comment

Hi Derrick, I think the Beijing-Vatican affair has more to do with usurping the long and steady ties between Taiwan-Vatican. Beijing exerts a great deal of time and effort squeezing Taiwan diplomatically and stealing the Vatican away would be a bit of a coup.

From what I’ve read, Beijing appears to gaining some ground in this tussle. However, if the Vatican think that they can dicate religious freedom to Beijing and/or improve the life of China’s Catholics by ‘engaging’ with it – then they’ve got another thing coming.

September 16, 2005 @ 2:25 am | Comment

9, sounds like propaganda-speak to me.

Unknown, thanks for that. Surpirisingly, I did research Nestorianism as you can see from my explanation in the post. I didn’t know much about it. It was just mentioned in the original article I cited and I wanted to be consistent with it.

It’s also arguable whether Confucianism is a religion as such. It’s more of a belief-system. One feature of China’s religions is that some don’t even include a ‘god’ as such.

As you posting anonomously, I’d be interested in your further views if you have direct knowledge of practising religion in China.

The only thing I’ve heard is that’s foreigner-only religious groups are ususally left alone on the strict condition that local people are not included in the service, bible-study etc.

September 16, 2005 @ 2:32 am | Comment


You’re mostly right about Beijing/Vatican relations, although, to be fair, the Vatican was not the side which cut off relations with Beijing. Beijing cut off the Vatican in 1951, which was then left with only Taiwan to keep relations with, by default.

The Vatican’s main concern is not Taiwan; they’d be happy to ditch recognition of Taiwan in favor of the PRC. The main issue for Rome is to have a final say in appointment of all Bishops (and thereby also Priests of course, who are anointed by Bishops)
I’m no great fan of the Vatican, but still, it’s absurd for the Communist Party – which is officially atheist – to claim authority to appoint Christian bishops.

But there does seem to be some slow, gradual accord growing between the two sides. I think part of the problem on the CCP side is that very few of them really know anything about Catholicism, and how it places such an emphasis on obeying the law. It’s a very authoritarian religion, and so, it would actually be better for stability in China if there were more Chinese Catholics.

I mean, not to bash the Catholic Church, but it has a long history of cooperation with European Fascists and vice versa. So I see no reason why it shouldn’t be good for the CCP as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

September 16, 2005 @ 2:59 am | Comment

I still remember one of the Chinese text book said “Religion is a tool for the ruling class to rule its people”, which I think is totally true (hope I’m not offending anyone here).

Looks like CCP is catching up in using the tool.

September 16, 2005 @ 7:56 am | Comment

The CCPs control of religion is similar to the way they approach the Internet. Rather than trying to stop an essentially unstoppable force, they, instead, try and control it.

That further explains the duel policy of allowing heavily controlled state religious organisations (no doubt filled with informers) and mercilessly crushing the underground churches and religious gatherings.

It’s like the government are forcing people to submit to control or face jail.

Nice choice.

September 16, 2005 @ 9:45 am | Comment

Ivan: “I’m no great fan of the Vatican, but still, it’s absurd for the Communist Party – which is officially atheist – to claim authority to appoint Christian bishops.”

You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? Merely one of the million contradictions that exisit in China and only seem to make sense to Chinese people!

September 16, 2005 @ 9:49 am | Comment

Well, in some part of the world, using a true identity to post online can be pretty dangerous, China included! So be warned that this is posted using a fake identity!

I think most of the people have missed the point on the issue of the religious freedom. For years, the chinese government has been proclaiming that there is the religious freedom in China. Well, I have to agree with them. The issue is not on the freedom of religeous belief in most of the case, it is rather on the freedom of gathering! The government just simply doesn’t allow private meetings to take place in China. It’s especially a taboo for the religious meeting!

I hope my point of view will help some friends here to turn the focus on the freedom of religion into the freedom of gathering in China.

September 16, 2005 @ 10:45 am | Comment

Here’s a Joseph Kahn article from NYTimes on the underground Christian churches in China. The article is long, but it’s a good read if you’re interested in the subject.


September 16, 2005 @ 2:23 pm | Comment

I wonder why churches have to go “underground”, could it be that they have intent to break China’s laws?

It might be because of this: I heard in China children under certain age are not allowed to be indoctrinated by religion, ie kids can’t go to church.

Is that why? But instead of breaking laws, why not advocate and reform the laws? Does our religious freedom not limited by our laws?

IMO to say “they don’t have rules like ours” is kind of ignorant.

Has anyone gave it some thought wrt why things are the way they are in China? Not thru our eyes but theirs. And by that I don’t mean the few dissidents our propaganda promotes, but rest of the billion Chinese people who’s daily lives are unaffected by Christianity.

September 16, 2005 @ 4:57 pm | Comment

jesus freaks invading china now??? great!

September 16, 2005 @ 10:26 pm | Comment


No, it’s because they want to maintain relations with the Vatican (if they are Catholic).

Catholics must have their priests appointed by Rome, through bishops that have the Pope’s blessing. There are also other issues such as abortion – the Holy See says that is wrong, but the CCP doesn’t like that because it makes the one-child policy difficult. Then there is also the issue that the CCP simply does not like the idea of any foreign organisation having any kind of “loyalty” from its citizens.

In a nutshell, they want to be Catholic. If you can’t have relations with Rome, then you’re Protestant. It’s like the government saying you can eat rice, but only CCP-brand rice. Or you can buy a car, but only of a colour and make that the CCP likes.

China is becoming a free market economy. So why can’t Chinese choose their religion and beliefs freely?

September 17, 2005 @ 7:44 am | Comment

That’s right raj, the governemnt can’t handle having anything outside of their control.

Every little tiny aspect of the lives of mainlanders must be within the government’s grasp – expect innocuous stuff that cannot threaten their precious rule.

It’s paranoia gone mad, or as the ccp would say ‘ensuring national stability’ or some such rubbish – all while the sons and daughters of cadres attend US universities, apply for Green Cards and they live in big houses, stuff cash in Swiss bank accounts, drive expensive cars and steal from the people at every opportunity.

Great government.

September 17, 2005 @ 2:42 pm | Comment

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