Control and faith: Religion under surveillance in modern China

China atheism

In 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong established atheism as the official religion of the People's Republic of China, a status that remains unchanged to this day. However, there are five alternative religious movements sanctioned by the state: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. All religious organizations must register with one of these organizations to legally practice religion, and unregistered practices are fraught with criminal prosecution. Confucianism, although not recognized as a state religion, has had a significant influence on China's socio-political system for centuries. Other existing Chinese religions, such as Hinduism, Falun Gong, Judaism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, and indigenous beliefs, are not sanctioned by the government. Despite constitutional protection for religious beliefs, the government tightly controls religious practices, especially of Muslims, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. However, the accuracy of official religious demographics has been questioned: there is reason to believe that more Chinese are practicing religion than official reports suggest.

History of religion in China

China's original religious practices centered around primitive forms of animism and shamanism, which evolved over time into more complex belief systems. In particular, the Zhou Dynasty introduced the Mandate of Heaven, a philosophical concept that legitimized the power of the ruling family. During the dynasty's decline, Confucius appeared, who promoted moral purity and social harmony in his teachings, later collected into Confucianism's central text, the Analects.

During the Qin and Han dynasties, there was an increased emphasis on humanity's connection to nature, along with the emergence of Taoism and the spread of Buddhism via the Silk Road. While Confucianism defined ethical standards of life, Buddhism offered an understanding of death and the afterlife, greatly influencing Chinese culture.

The arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the 15th century coincided with the fall of the Ming dynasty, leading to tension between Christianity and indigenous religions. As Christianity spread, attempts were made to suppress Buddhism and Chinese folk religions, increasing civil unrest amid growing European and American influence in Asia.

In the early twentieth century, nationalist movements sought to eradicate local Chinese religions, rejecting Christianity as a tool of imperialism. Despite this, leaders such as Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek openly called themselves Christians, supported by the Western world for their anti-communist stance.

By the mid-twentieth century, Mao Zedong had established state atheism in the People's Republic of China, downplaying religion as obsolete. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, aimed at revitalizing communism by eradicating outside influences, including religion, led to mass violence and loss of life.

After Mao's death, China introduced cultural reforms, including the recognition of religious freedom. Mao's anti-religious values remained influential until the early 2000s, when party leaders began to emphasize the importance of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism in creating a harmonious society.

State atheism and religious policy in China

According to recent demographic reports, 52% of Chinese citizens identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated, emphasizing the prevalence of atheism as the official state religion. Despite this, China officially recognizes five permitted religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. All religious organizations are required to register under one of these faiths in order to hold worship services legally. However, even after registration, religious groups face strict scrutiny from the Chinese government. Although there are few official reports from the government, various non-governmental organizations have documented cases of religious discrimination and harassment, especially against Muslims, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. In addition, members of the Chinese Communist Party and the military are strictly prohibited from engaging in any religious practice.

Confucianism, although not officially recognized as a religion by the Chinese government, has had a profound influence on Chinese history and culture since its inception by Confucius in 479 BC. By focusing on achieving social harmony through strict observance of rituals and respect for social hierarchy, Confucian teachings laid the foundation for China's social and political structure. Despite its considerable influence, Confucianism is often viewed more as an ethical system than a religion, perhaps contributing to its lack of recognition by the government. Mao Zedong's anti-Confucian stance may have also influenced this decision, but in recent years the government has made efforts to popularize Confucianism to foster social cohesion.

Chinese Islam

Control and faith

Buddhism is the largest religion in China, with about 18.2% of the population identifying themselves as Buddhists. Most adhere to the Mahayana tradition, although there are small communities of Theravada adherents, especially in the southern regions. Chinese Buddhism, influenced by Taoism and Confucianism, and Tibetan Buddhism, practiced mainly in Tibet, are the two significant branches. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, has been in exile from China since the 1950s, and Tibetan Buddhists have been discriminated against and persecuted.

Christianity, introduced by European Jesuits in the 16th century, is practiced by about 5.1% of the population. However, many Christians practice religious rituals underground, and official figures are likely underestimated due to government restrictions. State-sanctioned Christian groups are Protestantism and Catholicism, the latter independent of the Holy See. Unregistered Christian churches also operate in unknown numbers.

Islam accounts for about 1.8% of China's population, with Sunni Muslims making up the majority, especially among ethnic minorities such as Uighurs and Hui. However, Muslims, especially Uighurs, have been severely persecuted and discriminated against under the pretext of fighting religious extremism. Since 2017, hundreds of thousands have been detained, tortured or disappeared.

About 21.9% of Chinese adhere to folk religion, which includes practices deeply rooted in Chinese culture, such as ancestor worship and honoring natural forces. Although folk religion is often not counted in official statistics, it is a fundamental aspect of Chinese spirituality and influences other religious traditions such as Taoism and Confucianism.

Other religious affiliations in China, including Falun Gong, Hinduism, Judaism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, and indigenous beliefs, together account for about 1% of the population. Falun Gong, despite being banned as a "cult" by the Communist Party in 1999, still retains a significant number of adherents underground, reflecting the complex religious world of contemporary China.


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