Religious Repression and Revival in China

U.S.-based democracy and human rights advocacy group this week released the report “The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance Under Xi Jinping,” a close look at trends in Chinese state tolerance of different religions over the past four years. The 142-page report looks at five religious categories—Chinese Buddhism/Taoism, Christianity (Protestantism and Catholicism), Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, and Falun Gong—offering a detailed account of new controls placed on each, degrees of revival, and efforts at resisting state control; and finally rating the degree of (“very low” to “very high”) and trajectory of persecution facing each. From Freedom House’s executive summary of the report:

Since Xi Jinping took the helm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012, the authorities have intensified many of their restrictions, resulting in an overall increase in religious persecution. But believers have responded with a surprising degree of resistance, including in faith communities that have generally enjoyed cooperative relationships with state and party officials.

This escalating cycle of repression and pushback illustrates a fundamental failure of the Chinese authorities’ religious policies. Rather than checking religion’s natural expansion and keeping it under political control, the CCP’s rigid constraints have essentially created an enormous black market, forcing many believers to operate outside the law and to view the regime as unreasonable, unjust, or illegitimate.

[…] As China experiences a spiritual revival across a wide range of faiths, the Chinese government’s religious controls have taken different forms for different localities, ethnicities, and denominations. In many parts of China, ordinary believers do not necessarily feel constrained in their ability to practice their faith, and state authorities even offer active support for certain activities.

At the other extreme, Chinese officials have banned holiday celebrations, desecrated places of worship, and employed lethal violence. Security forces across the country detain, torture, or kill believers from various faiths on a daily basis. How a group or individual is treated depends in large part on the level of perceived threat or benefit to party interests, as well as the discretion of local officials.

[…] Yet there have also been a number of positive developments in unexpected quarters. Sino-Vatican relations have warmed, raising the possibility of an agreement on the appointment of Catholic bishops. Such a pact would remove a major source of division in the Chinese church. practitioners, though still subject to severe abuses, are experiencing reduced persecution in many locales, as top officials driving the campaign have been purged in intraparty struggles, and years of grassroots outreach by adherents and their supporters have won over some lower-level authorities. […] [Source]

On the spectrum of religious persecution defined by Freedom House, the three groups that fall in the “very high” section come as no surprise to even a casual China-watcher: Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, and Falun Gong practitioners—all religions whose positions have become heavily politicized. The report notes that Chinese forms of Buddhism enjoy far more state tolerance than Tibetan interpretations, just as ethnic Muslims have long been known to experience less state interference than their Uyghur co-faithful. Uyghur Muslims hail from the politically turbulent Xinjiang region which is currently the frontline of years-running nationwide crackdown on terror. For more coverage of the crackdown in Xinjiang, where the new regional Party chief Chen Chuanguo is currently staging massive and ostentatious military rallies, see prior CDT coverage.

In , a region that has become synonymous with Chinese religious persecution since the early days of the PRC, Freedom House found that Xi’s policies have been largely consistent with those of his predecessor Hu Jintao. Following protests by Tibetans ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, authorities began tightening religious and cultural restrictions in Tibetan regions. Since 2009, as many as 146 Tibetans in China have self-immolated in protest, a trend that Tibetan activist Woeser sees as a direct response to increased restrictions. Amid the crackdown, authorities have ordered Tibetan religious sites to aid in spreading Party propaganda, and have tested patriotism among the monastic community. Meanwhile, Party officials have reaffirmed a commitment to directly overseeing Tibetan religiosity for political expediency, vowing to name the reincarnated successor of the exiled and aging 14th Dalai Lama, and allowing their controversial pick of the Panchen Lama (Gyaltsen Norbu) to revive a tantric ritual not held in Tibet for 50 years. There have also been other indications that Beijing is grooming its Panchen Lama to fill in for the Dalai Lama after his death.

At Reuters, Ben Blanchard reports that China’s Panchen Lama praised CCP religious policies in Tibetan regions of China as part of his lunar new year message after visiting Tibet (he is believed to spend most of his time in Beijing):

In a message to mark the Tibetan lunar new year, carried by the United Front Work Department which helps oversee religious groups, China’s Panchen Lama discussed six months of Buddhist activities he carried out in Tibet last year.

“My deepest impression after the inspection tour was that Tibet’s ethnic and religious policies have been carried out very well,” he said in comments carried late on Monday.

“At the same time, the party has formulated a series of special beneficial policies, and the vast majority of have received real benefit. After seeing this I felt very happy,” he said. […] [Source]

Days earlier, Reuters’ Blanchard reported that China’s Panchen Lama had pledged to “uphold the ‘glorious tradition’ of patriotism.”

At The New York Times, Edward Wong reports that a panel of United Nations experts have released a statement condemning the ongoing expulsions of monastics from Tibetan religious sites:

In a sharply worded statement, the experts expressed alarm about “severe restrictions of religious freedom” in the area.

Most of the expulsions mentioned by the experts have taken place at Larung Gar, the world’s largest Buddhist institute and one of the most influential centers of learning in the Tibetan world. Officials have been demolishing some of the homes of the 20,000 monks and nuns living around the institute, in a high valley in Sichuan Province.

The statement also cited accusations of evictions at Yachen Gar, sometimes known as Yarchen Gar, an enclave largely of nuns that is also in Sichuan and has a population of about 10,000.

“While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, grave concern is expressed over the serious repression of the Buddhist Tibetans’ cultural and religious practices and learning in Larung Gar and Yachen Gar,” the statement said.

[…] The statement was sent to the Chinese government in November, but was made public only in recent days, before the start of this year’s session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The session began Monday and is scheduled to end on March 24. […] [Source]

Larung Gar, a site in Sichuan regarded as the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world, has seen residencies being destroyed since last summer.

At Quartz, Echo Huang reports on Freedom House’s findings that Chinese Buddhism and Taoism enjoy far lower degrees of persecution (“low” for the former, and “very low” for the latter), situating this trend into the context of the Xi administration’s ongoing crackdown on foreign ideology and Western values. At a national conference on religion last year, President Xi urged officials to “resolutely resist overseas infiltration through religious means and guard against ideological infringement by extremists.”

As “Asian religions,” the party is able to “harness China’s religious and cultural traditions to shore up [the party’s] legitimacy,” says Freedom House, and at the same time use them to “help contain” the spread of Christianity and . The latter two religions are viewed as “so-called Western values” by the party, according to Freedom House.

The preference for and Buddhism over other faiths fits with the larger crackdown by Xi against Western ideas in China. In education, the Chinese government is purging Western ideas like democracy and replacing them with Confucianism, which emphasizes obedience. Xi has also urged families to educate their children with imperatives like “love the party” while cracking down on international-style education. According to Freedom House, Buddhism and Taoism are in line with the party’s signature campaigns, the “China Dream” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Those two faiths are compatible with the government’s “Sinicization” drive, says the NGO.

But religion has been gaining ground in China in spite of the government’s efforts. China is undergoing “one of the world’s great spiritual revivals,” according to a recent book by long-time China journalist Ian Johnson. And an increasing number of Chinese view religion as a way to escape the iron grip of the Communist party—Christianity, for example, is seen by many higher-income Chinese people as a symbol of modernity and Western prosperity, says Freedom House. […] [Source]

Pulitzer-winning journalist Ian Johnson, author of the forthcoming book “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao,” published a summary of the findings of his research into religious revival in the PRC—a topic he has long written on (via CDT)—in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs. In the write-up, Johnson explains that the focus on repression common in coverage of religion in officially atheist China obscures the “reality of present-day China, where hundreds of millions of people are […] turning to religion and faith for answers they cannot find elsewhere in their radically secular society”:

Across China, hundreds of temples, churches, and mosques open every year, attracting millions of new worshippers. The precise figures are often debated, but even a casual visitor to China cannot miss the signs: new churches dotting the countryside, temples being rebuilt or massively expanded, and even new government policies that encourage traditional values. Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life.

[…] It is hardly an exaggeration to say that China is undergoing a spiritual revival similar to the Great Awakening that took place in the United States in the nineteenth century. Then, as now, a country on the move has been unsettled by great social and economic change. People have been thrust into densely populated cities where they have no friends and no support systems. Religion and faith offer them ways of looking at age-old questions that people everywhere struggle to answer: Why are we here? What really makes us happy? How do we achieve contentment as individuals, as a community, as a nation?

This burst of religious and spiritual activity poses risks for the Chinese Communist Party. But China’s leaders have also benefited from it, and have even encouraged and fostered it in some ways. So far, the party has managed a delicate balance, tolerating the spiritual awakening without overreaching or provoking a dangerous backlash. But as Beijing pursues a new, harder line on social, economic, and political change, this equilibrium may become harder to maintain. […] [Source]

Following the release of the Freedom House report, Johnson published an op-ed in CNN making a similar argument. While Johnson praises the “carefully researched study” and notes how his own research has shown him how tightly religion is controlled in China, he focuses in on the report’s negative representation of cross-removals in Zhejiang as an example of what he sees as a common misrepresentation of the true situation in China:

Let me highlight one area where I think Freedom House could have done better: Protestant Christianity. The Freedom House report focuses on a cross-removal campaign, which ran from 2014-2016 and saw over 1,000 crosses removed from the spires of churches, or the tops of buildings. In addition, a church was demolished.

[…] And yet I think this is not typical of Protestantism in China. I’ve made several trips to the area where the crosses were removed and feel I know the region well.

I’d say that the most important point is that virtually none of these churches have been closed. All continue to have worshipers and services just like before. In addition, the campaign never spread beyond the one province. Some pessimists see it as a precursor for a campaign that might spread nationally, but so far that hasn’t happened and there is no indication it will.

[…] Now, it’s true that all this could change. Last autumn, the government issued new regulations on religion. The most important point of the rules was to reemphasize a ban on religious groups’ ties to foreign groups — for example, sending people abroad to seminaries, or inviting foreigners to teach or train in China. This is clearly part of a broader trend in China that we see in other areas. Non-governmental organizations are also under pressure, and the surest way to get unwanted government attention is to have links abroad. [Source]

Freedom House’s section on Christianity notes that, since the 1980s, the religion has experienced rapid growth in China, reporting decreased persecution of Catholicism alongside increased persecution of Protestantism. In 2014, the State Administration for Religious Affairs announced plans to promote a Christian theology “compatible with the country’s path of socialism.” Since Pope Francis’ election to the papacy, he has made the improvement of relations with China a top priority. The Vatican has since 1951 been diplomatically estranged from Beijing, and in 1957 China set up the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to oversee the religion domestically. A deal between Beijing and the Holy See about the ordination of bishops in China is approaching completion, and while the Pope has expressed optimism about it, not all Catholics see the completion of the deal as a win. More CNN coverage of the Freedom House report contrasts the mixed reception among Chinese Catholics, some of whom would benefit greatly from improved Beijing-Vatican relations:

[…] Such a deal would not be welcomed by [underground member] Dong and many of his fellow illegal worshipers.

“Jesus said one person cannot serve two gods, now the Vatican is willing to serve God and the Communist Party,” he said.

[…] Asked about the potential for a deal, the Vatican would not comment, with a spokesman saying it was a “work in progress.”

Father Simon Zhu, a Chinese priest in an officially-sanctioned church, told CNN “we pray for this normalization between Rome and Beijing.”

But other leading Catholics in the region have been less supportive. Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong, told CNN such a deal risked “selling out” underground Catholics and undermining the authority of the Pope. […] [Source]