Over the past few years, the Chinese population has experienced a severe tightening of religious freedom. This has led to mass incarceration in Xinjiang, the ban on Islam related symbols in Beijing restaurants and the arrest of prominent “house church” leaders, to name only a few events. However, among these policy constrictions other Chinese folk religions are being encouraged by the government and as a result are experiencing a renaissance. Significant steps have been taken by the Chinese government to promote an atheist China, so why would they encourage certain religions when such efforts have been made to eradicate religion all together? This article investigates the use of religion in China as political leverage and how the Communist Party’s dream of an atheist China has lead to restraints so extreme that it has been likened to second holocaust.

Article 36 of the Chinese constitution says that Chinese citizens has religious freedom. As such, it effectively bans discrimination grounded in religion, and forbids both public and private organizations, alongside individuals, from trying to affect citizens beliefs in any way. In fact, in February 2018  the State Council passed new regulations that allowed state-registered religious organizations to own property, print literature, train and obtain clergy and receive donations. However, alongside these concessions come some increased governmental monitoring. These include restrictions on religious education, supervision of online religious activity, monitored and reported religious celebrations and donations. Specifically, all donations which exceed 100,000 yuan (roughly 14,500 €) must be reported to the Chinese government.

The Chinese government officially recognizes 5 different religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. All other faiths are formally prohibited, and all religious groups must register with one of the state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations that are monitored by the State Administration for Religious Affairs. So far, around one hundred million Chinese citizens are registered as religious believers which equates to less than 10 percent of the population.

Map of Chinese religions, Wikipeadia Commons

Under the rule of Mao Zedong religion was banned in China, but in 1982 the 5 faiths , six years after the death of  Mao Zedong. Despite the reinstatement, religious rules have tightened under President Xi Jinping who has called for all religions to eventually bow to a worldlier belief comprising of party-ordained patriotism and family values.

Muslims has been severely targeted by the Chinese government, especially in the Western province of Xinjiang where hundreds of thousands of Muslims, mainly Uyghur Muslims, have been confined in re-education camps. Tibetan Buddhists also live in a surveillance state, which is largely closed off to foreigners. In Beijing, authorities demanded halal restaurants and food stalls to remove all Arabic print and symbols associated with Islam from their signs and walls. In Zhejiang, crosses that were deemed too prominent were ordered to be removed from hundreds of Christian churches by state officials and unofficial “house churches” were shut down.

The persecution of “house churches” is ever vigilant in China, since Chinese law requires places of worship to register and agree to  government supervision. However, some religious groups have declined to do so for various reasons and  have become known as “house” or “underground” churches. In late December 2019, Wang Yi, the pastor of one of China’s most well-known “house churches” was sentenced to 9 years in prison on charges of inciting subversion of state power. Wang was also deprived of his political rights for three years and 50,000 yuan (approximately 6500 €). Wang had also openly criticized Xi and wrote an essay before his arrest saying that the Communist Party ideology was “morally incompatible with the Christian faith”. Moreover, in 2006 Wang was a part of a group of 3 Chinese Christians who travelled to Washington to meet with then-president George W. Bush in an attempt to ask for his support in their fight for true religious freedom.

Recently China’s government started encouraging worship of the Taiwanese Goddess Mazu. Mazu is said to protect fishermen and women in labor alongside creating social order. temple in Shipu now has a brass plate on the front of the building which effectively states that it is licensed by the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of Zhejiang province, a merit that is not easy to come by in an atheist, communist China. Taiwanese money was also used to build a new temple to Ruyi, a sister deity of Mazu. There are several perceived reasons behind the Chinese Government’s support of Mazu. The more obvious one is that Xi Jinping believes Mazu can be used to woo the Taiwanese population, while another is that Shipu-local protestants believe that Party Leaders see Christianity as an foreign intrusion and that is why they promote folk religion and “cultural confidence”. The protestants fishermen would typically, discreetly, write the Chinese characters for “Emmanuel” on their boats. For comparison one local Mazu devoted fisherman estimated that roughly 2,800 of the vessels in the harbor belong to followers of Mazu, whereas a local protestant fisherman estimates that only around a 100 of the vessels in the harbor belong to protestant fishermen.

Statue of the Goddess Mazu, by Rutger van der Maar

Religion has been under much pressure and persecution in China throughout different rules, and Xi Jinping’s current leadership is not very different. Only 5 strains of religion are allowed, and even the people belonging to those are experiencing the net tightening. As result of this, people are being abducted from their homes and put into internment camps, living in fenced off areas monitored by the government, alongside having their officially recognized places of worship taken over, laying them bare to governmental controls, and being denied the right to openly display expressions of religion.

The actions currently transpiring in China has been likened to a “Second Holocaust” by some, putting the world’s power organs inactivity in stark contrast. However, Chinese authorities continue to deny many of the atrocities that Uyghurs claimed happened to them in the camps, alongside refusing that they are blackmailing Uyghur Muslims living abroad by detaining their family members.

However, evidence and witnesses  has steadily been coming forward, helping to build a platform for action against China’s human rights breaches.

As for actively practicing religion in China could sooner be compared to an extreme sport rather than non-violent worship. That is, unless the Chinese Government finds the religion particularly useful for political gain.

Lærke Vinther Christiansen