Religion in China

May 16, 2008

Author: Preeti Bhattacharji

Source: Council on Foreign Relations


Religious observance in China is on the rise. According to a survey published in a state-run newspaper, 31.4 percent of Chinese adults are religious, a figure that is three times the initial government estimate. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is officially atheist, but it has been growing more tolerant of religious activity for the past twenty years. China's constitution explicitly allows "freedom of religious belief," and in 2005, the State Council passed new guidelines broadening legal rights for state-sanctioned groups. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recognized these efforts and removed China from the State Department's list of top human rights violators. But experts say that Muslim Uighurs, Buddhist Tibetans, unregistered Christians, and groups that the party brands as cults, such as Falun Gong, are still persecuted and repressed.

Freedom and Regulation

Article 36 of the Chinese constitution says that Chinese citizens "enjoy freedom of religious belief." It bans discrimination based on religion, and it forbids state organs, public organizations, or individuals from compelling citizens to believe in—or not to believe in—any particular faith. In 2005, the State Council passed new Regulations on Religious Affairs, which allow religious organizations to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations as long as they have registered with the state. According to Chinese criminal law, officials who deny citizens of their right to religious belief can be sentenced up to two years in prison.

But religious freedom is still not universal in China. The state only recognizes five official religions—Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—and considers the practice of any other faith illegal. Religious organizations are required to register with one of five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations, each of which is supervised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). Religious groups that fail to affiliate with one of the five official religions are denied legal protection under Chinese law.