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Modern China Analysis of Religion in China: Sociocultural and Political Perspectives

Analysis of Religion in China: Sociocultural and Political Perspectives

05.12.2023
In the process of modernization of all spheres of life of Chinese society, when many old forms of social life are being replaced by new, somewhat Westernized ones, a boom in religiosity is nevertheless observed in China. One of the reasons for this interest, especially against the backdrop of economic growth, experts note the emergence of a spiritual vacuum, which seems to be a trigger for a growing number of believers. Of these, adherents of Christianity and traditional Chinese religious groups stand out.

Religious life in China differs from most countries in the world in its specificity. For example, the majority of Chinese citizens are atheists (the CCP prohibits party members from holding religious beliefs and demands the expulsion of party members belonging to religious organizations – E.B.). But the state allows religious beliefs. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religion” (Article 36). While prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, the Constitution also prohibits government agencies, public organizations or individuals from coercing citizens to believe or not believe in any particular religion.

For example, in the Western media, the Chinese authorities are often criticized for discriminating against believers of certain faiths. At the same time, official Beijing does not ignore such criticism, trying to make the life of believers and the activities of certain religious organizations more comfortable. For example, the Religious Affairs Regulation of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, which came into force in February 2018, allows state-registered religious organizations to own property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations, which was not the case before. However, government control has increased. The revised rules include restrictions on religious instruction, times and locations of religious holidays, and monitoring and reporting of online religious activity. donations exceeding 100 thousand yuan (about 16 thousand US dollars).

Declaring the protection of citizens’ rights to freedom of religion and normal religious activity, the official document emphasizes that the state prohibits illegal religious activity; prohibits the dissemination of extremist ideas and participation in religious extremist activities; counteracts the penetration of foreign forces hostile to the country using religion; and also fights illegal and criminal activities under the guise of religion (See: The PRC State Council Information Office , China ‘s _ Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief ( Religion White Paper / Apr . 2018) .

The main religions practiced in China are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. In total, according to official statistics, as of April 31, 2018, there are almost 200 million believers and more than 380,000 clergy in the Celestial Empire. However, according to research group Freedom House , in 2017 there were more than 350 million believers.

According to Freedom House , China has the largest Buddhist population in the world, with approximately 185–250 million practitioners (including more than six million ethnic Tibetans – E.B. ). Although Buddhism originated in India, it has a long history and tradition in China and is the country’s largest official religion today. At the same time, the number of Buddhist and Taoist believers is difficult to accurately estimate, since there are no established registration procedures that ordinary believers must follow. It can definitely be said that there are about 222,000 Buddhist and more than 40,000 Taoist clerics, respectively.

Pew report Research Center for 2012 showed that  over 294 million people , or 21 percent of China’s population, follow folk religions. Chinese folk religions do not have a rigid organizational structure, combine the practices of Buddhism and Taoism, and are manifested in the worship of ancestors, spirits, or other local deities. Although the number of adherents of traditional Chinese religion is difficult to accurately measure, the construction of new temples and the restoration of old temples signal the growth of Buddhism and folk beliefs in China. As of 2021, the number of adherents of Chinese folk religions accounted for more than 30% of Chinese citizens. Here we can agree with the statement of American journalist Barbara Demick , ex-head of the Beijing bureau Los Angeles Times that “Buddhism, Taoism and other folk religions are considered the most authentic Chinese religions, and these traditional religions are treated much more tolerantly than Islam or Christianity.”

Islam in China is represented by 10 ethnic minorities (Uighurs, Huizu (Dungans) , Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Sala, Bao’an and Dongxiang ). Muslims make up about 1.8 percent of China’s population, which is about twenty-two million people . China’s Muslims live mainly in Xinjiang (XUAR), as well as in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan.

For example, the legislative basis for managing religious affairs in Xinjiang is based on decrees of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, coupled with local regulations acts adopted by the Xinjiang authorities. So, in 1988 in Xinjiang adopted the “Temporary Resolution on the Management of Places of Religious Activities in the XUAR” (published in 1990). This is the first legal document on religious issues in the history of the autonomous region, which is of extreme importance.

In 1994, the Xinjiang government promulgated the “XUAR Rules on the Administration of Religious Affairs.” According to these documents, all places of religious activity are required to be registered in the departments of religious affairs in the people’s government of the county and above. Religious activities in Xinjiang are strictly regulated. Loyalty to the authorities on the part of the clergy is ensured by other methods. Currently, more than 1,800 clergy members work professionally in the Councils of People’s Representatives at various levels and the People’s Political Advisory Councils. Since most of the representatives of national minorities in Xinjiang adhere to a religious worldview, there are many places for religious activities in the autonomous region – about 25 thousand places for religious rites, the total number of people with religious rank is approaching 30 thousand.
    
With the beginning of the reforms, the number of mosques increased especially sharply. Currently, there are 24,400 mosques in Xinjiang ( more than in many Muslim countries – E.B. ) , where on average there is one mosque for every 530 Muslims. Numerous mosques have been renovated, expanded and equipped with ablution, heating and fire-fighting equipment, including Majid Yankhan in Urumqi and Id Kah in Kashgar. Over ten Islamic religious educational institutions (madrassas) have been opened. Islamic clerics in Xinjiang are trained at the China Islamic Institute, Xinjiang Islamic Institute and Xinjiang Islamic School. The government invested more than 200 million yuan in the construction of the new campus of the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, which opened in 2017. The institute also has eight new branches in Ili, Changji , Urumqi, Turfan, Aksu, Kizilsu , Kashgar and Khotan . They form a comprehensive clergy training system, where training plans are developed and objectives are defined in accordance with the principle of targeted and demand-driven training. This approach ensures that Islam is practiced and practiced in a reasonable and orderly manner. To date, the China Islamic Institute and the Xinjiang Islamic Institute and its branches have trained more than 4,000 students.

The Islamic Association of China organizes an annual pilgrimage for practicing Muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It funds medical care and translation for pilgrims, and offers other services to ensure a safe and orderly journey ( See: Respecting and Protecting the Rights of All Ethnic Groups in Xinjiang  // https :// english . www . gov . cn / archive / whitepaper / ¬202107/14/ ¬content ¬_ WS 60 ee 599 bc 6 d 0 df 57 f 98 dcd 8 c . html ). Muslims in Xinjiang can perform normal religious activities at will, such as reciting the Quran, salat, praying, fasting and celebrating Islamic holidays in mosques or at home. Currently, more than 40 Islamic publications are distributed in Xinjiang in the languages of various ethnic minorities. The Quran and excerpts from Sahih al-Bukhari have been published in standard Chinese, Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz languages.

As we can see, the Chinese central government attaches great importance to the freedom of religion of the local population in Xinjiang, takes various measures to protect it, and always ensures that the cultural rights of all nationalities living here, as well as the rights to use the national language, are respected. Today, the internal political situation in Xinjiang is quite stable. This is facilitated by the policy of the Chinese authorities in the national and religious spheres, namely: the wide participation of national minorities in the work of party and government bodies in the region, more free exercise of religious activities (compared to the 50-70s of the twentieth century), the opening of new mosques, religious schools, etc.

Catholicism in China is practiced by ten to twelve million people. The number of Protestant followers is estimated to be close to one hundred million, making it the country’s fastest growing religious group ( rise of Christianity observed in the Middle Kingdom since the 1980s – E.B ). Moreover, the number of unregistered Protestant parishioners is almost twice the number of members of official churches. Meanwhile, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CAS), Protestants number 29 million Christian believers.

In recent years, many foreign media have noted increased state repression in China against both Christian house churches and state-sanctioned Christian organizations (campaigns to remove crosses from church roofs, forced destruction of churches). This is because the practice of any other faith is formally prohibited by the state, although it is often tolerated, especially in the case of traditional Chinese beliefs, which are closely related to local cultures, traditions and customs in which a large number of people participate. However, religious organizations must register with one of the seven state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations, which are administered by  State Administration for Religious Affairs  (State Administration for Religious Affairs, SARA): Buddhist Association of China Association of China ); Chinese Taoist Association Taoist Association ); Islamic Association of China (China Islamic Association ; Catholic Patriotic Association of China (Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association); Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (Bishops ‘ Conference of the Catholic Church in China); National Committee of the Patriotic Movement “Trinity of the Protestant Church in China” (National Committee of the Three – Self – Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China ) ; Chinese Christian Society (China Christian Council).

Despite government criticism of worshipers, the Chinese government has significantly improved conditions at places of worship in recent years. The main requirement is to register places of worship for group religious activities in accordance with the law in order to provide legal protection and ensure the orderly conduct of all activities.

Thus, currently in China there are about 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities, including 33,500 Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist lamaseries (monasteries – E.B.) and 1,700 Buddhist Theravada temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 Islamic mosques, 6,000 Catholic churches and meeting places spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 Protestant churches and meeting places. Religious groups and places of worship follow the same government tax rules, pay taxes and enjoy tax benefits accordingly. The government ensures that places of worship have access to public services such as running water, electricity, gas, heating, roads, communications, broadcast facilities, television and medical services.

The system of religious education has been significantly improved. By September 2017, China had 91 religious schools approved by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), including 41 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, 9 Catholic and 21 Protestant schools. There are six national level religious colleges, namely: Buddhist Academy of China (Buddhist Academy of China), China High – level Tibetan Buddhism College Tibetan Buddhism college of China ) , Chinese Taoist College (Chinese Taoist College ), Chinese Islamic Institute (China Islamic Institute ) , National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China (National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China) and the Theological Seminary of Nanjing Union (Nanjing Union Theological Seminary). There are currently more than 10,000 students enrolled in these religious schools, with approximately 50,000 graduates.

Religious groups banned by Chinese authorities include quasi-Christian groups such as the Church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, and Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that combines aspects of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional qigong exercises. Such “heterodox cults” are prohibited on the grounds that their adherents use religion “as a disguise, deifying its leading members, recruiting and controlling its members, and deceiving people by forming and spreading superstitious ideas and endangering society” (See: Eleanor Albert and Lindsay Maisland. Religion in China // https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/religion-china , September 25, 2020). For example, at cult Falungu ́ n (Chinese :法輪功) on dive popularity was before seventy millions followers . By Freedom House estimates from seven before twenty million Human continue to practice the cult, despite on almost two decades persecution (from late 1990s _ gg)

Although the religious revival among Chinese citizens continues unabated, Beijing’s strict regulation of religious issues has noticeably increased. As a number of experts have noted, government suppression of religion often has less to do with religious doctrine and more to do with a group’s organizational abilities, due to fears that such a group could potentially challenge the CCP’s legitimacy. However, as rightly noted André Laliberte of the University of Ottawa (Canada): “China’s religious landscape is too fragmented for any one religion to pose a serious political challenge” (See: Eleanor Albert and Lindsay Maisland Religion in China // https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/religion-china , September 25, 2020).

Thus, the religious palette of the Celestial Empire today is somewhat reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s slogan “ Let blossom one hundred colors , let compete one hundred schools” (百花齐放,百家争鸣), borrowed from the unifying emperor of China Qin Shi Huang in the 1950s. However, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, according to the “Measures for the Administration of Religious Groups” law adopted at the beginning of 2021, must be loyal to the CCP. In essence, this is what is happening, since in the conditions of modernization and improvement of socio-economic comfort, the eradication of poverty, no one needs religious fanaticism and extremism. This allows Beijing to continue reforms and bring society closer to realizing the “Chinese dream of rejuvenating the Chinese nation.”

Author: Erkin BAYDAROV

The material is posted with the permission of the author of the publication. The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for China Studies.

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