Religion and the Chinese State: Three Crises and a Solution

Thomas David DuBois. Australian Journal of International Affairs. Volume 64, Issue 3. June 2010.

On the surface, religious policy in China may appear contradictory. On the one hand, the state is officially atheist. It has mounted a highly publicised campaign to suppress Falun Gong, and maintains restrictions on Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity that reveal a profound fear of independent religious organisation. On the other, China insists that it respects religious freedom. The Chinese government proudly supports the staging of certain religious festivals, finances reconstruction of historic temples, and sponsors Chinese Muslims to visit Mecca. In fact, both tendencies are part of a consistent pattern of religious policy that seeks to establish firm political control over religious organisations, while visibly integrating religion into nation-building discourses. This same policy impulse applies to the treatment of both illegal and legal religions. Suppression of groups such as Falun Gong recreates the political theatre of earlier political campaigns, while support for ethnic religions and Christianity also allows the state to interpret religious ideology within a nationalist framework. In this regard, the most overt and successful ideological policy has been the state’s sponsorship of Confucianism, which, unlike the other religions mentioned, has no existing organisation to overcome, and can thus be completely moulded to fit political needs.

This article will introduce four recent developments in the relationship between religion and the Chinese state. Three of the four developments, the ones identified in the title as ‘crises’, will be at least familiar to anyone who is following current events. Each of the three—repression of Falun Gong, frequent conflict with Tibetan Buddhists and ongoing suspicion of Christianity—all seem to support the common misconception that the formally atheist Chinese state is monolithically opposed to religion. However, while the frequent and very public campaigns to police religion tend to garner a greater share of publicity, a great swath of ordinary religious practice in China is either legal or informally tolerated, and certain types of religious expression are actually supported by the state. Chinese policy towards religion is subtle and highly utilitarian. The primary goal is to establish strict political control over religious organisations, and to eradicate organisations that resist this control. At the same time, policy towards religion is integral to establishing the identity of the state. The campaign against Falun Gong is equally an exercise in control and one in nation-building: it combines the tangible instruments of repression with propaganda that portrays the group as an enemy of the Chinese people. Other types of religious activity are formally tolerated, so long as they remain within certain guidelines. Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity are organised under strict state control, not merely of their organisational apparatus, but also of how the place of these religions in the construction of the Chinese nation is to be interpreted. The fourth example—the resurgence of Confucianism—is what I identify in the title as a possible solution, and shows the Chinese state actively promoting an ethical philosophy. State sponsorship of Confucianism has been interpreted as a softening of policy towards religion, but is very much a continuation of existing trends. As much as the campaigns against Falun Gong or the Dalai Lama, policies in support of Confucianism aim to establish state control over religion, and to integrate religion into a continuously evolving nation-building agenda.

Falun Gong

Although not currently as prominent in the news as it was a decade ago, Falun Gong remains a consistent and visible presence outside of China. In countries where such activities are allowed, Falun Gong practitioners will often be seen practising meditation in public parks or on university campuses. They are frequently seen sitting, usually wearing yellow, in silent vigil in front of Chinese embassies or consulates. The reason for their protest is the treatment they have received at the hands of the Chinese government, which banned the group in 1999 and continues to persecute them at home, and harass them abroad.

Falun Gong was founded in the early 1990s as a school of meditation and exercise, and operated quite openly in China until the summer of 1999, when approximately 10,000 members converged on Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the central government in Beijing, to request formal recognition. For reasons that few observers claimed to understand, the then president, Jiang Zemin, unleashed the full force of the state against the group, banning its practice, persecuting its followers, and initiating an intense propaganda campaign that fronted the news for weeks on end. In the face of such pressure, most followers abandoned the group, but a significant number, concentrated particularly among Chinese students overseas, remained with it, and responded with a propaganda campaign of their own demonstrating the violence of the repression. Today, both sides remain deeply entrenched: the Chinese security apparatus closely follows Falun Gong movements abroad and pressures governments to drop any hint of support or sympathy for them, while Falun Gong itself has developed a variety of media outlets, including newspapers, cultural shows and a television station, to further propagate its message (Ownby; Palmer).

In order to approach the obvious question of why the Chinese state would react with such disproportionate alarm and violence to this group, we might best begin by asking whether Falun Gong is, in fact, a religion? Or, more precisely, would the two parties most involved in the crisis—Falun Gong itself and the Chinese state—consider it as such? The answer is inconsistent. Falun Gong itself often suggests that it is something less than a religion, emphasising that it is merely a regimen of meditation and exercise, similar to yoga. Even the name suggests this limited aspiration: Falun is a gong, meaning an ‘art’ or ‘practice’ (such as the collection of medical and martial arts practices lumped together under the name qigong), rather than a jiao, a ‘religion’ (as are Buddhism—fojiao—or Daoism—daojiao). When presenting itself to outsiders, the group will often downplay its metaphysical teachings, and foreground its ethical teaching of ‘truthfulness’, ‘compassion’ and ‘forbearance’ (zhenshan and ren), presumably on the assumption that non-believers will find this abbreviated presentation more easy to accept. Similarly, the campaign against Falun Gong will refer to the group as superstition, a cult, a criminal organisation, or simply nonsense—but assiduously avoids using terms like ‘religion’.

Despite this portrayal, both sides do use the implicit language of religion to make their case to the public. Particularly since the campaign against them was initiated in 1999, Falun Gong has freely incorporated religious metaphors into its own imagery. The rapidly growing corpus of Falun Gong iconography (readily available online at sites such as, for example, will portray practitioners being attended by divine figures, such as interracial angels or Buddhist-style devas. Some of the images allude to themes from Chinese religious art, being painted in a style to suggest the Buddhist grottoes at Dunhuang, imagery from Buddhist scriptures, or traditional folk themes, such as the Daoist Eight Immortals. The most striking religious themes depict the persecution itself. Many employ symbolism taken from Christian art, such as halos and the martyr’s crown. One depiction is of a woman chained to a wall in a pose that seems to be an unmistakable allusion to the crucified Christ. Certainly, such images show how Falun Gong’s own self-image has transformed in response to the persecution, but also the new strategies the group has developed to elicit sympathy from a largely Western base of human rights organisations and a growing number of Falun Gong practitioners who are not of Chinese origin.

The Chinese government has taken up the challenge posed by Falun Gong on two fronts. On the one hand, it refutes the group’s religious credentials—in essence, calling it an illegitimate religion. This tactic is by no means new. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the imperial state banned and actively persecuted a group of religious teachings known to history as the White Lotus. Their reasons for doing so were obvious: White Lotus teachings often dwelt upon matters such as the apocalypse, which made them a genuine threat to public order. In response, the imperial state drew a clear line between ‘legitimate’ or ‘orthodox religions’ (zheng jiao), such as Buddhism or Daoism, and illegitimate ones, such as the White Lotus, which it labelled ‘heterodox’ (xie jiao), but which we might more simply label ‘heresy’. The current campaign against Falun Gong on the one hand dismisses their beliefs as superstitious nonsense, but also reveals many of the same concerns, and even some of the same language as this centuries-old war against illegitimate religion. On the other hand, the government campaign portrays the group as a threat to social order. The most common charges levied against Falun Gong are on the more pedestrian plane of theft, rape and fraud. The victims are the ordinary practitioners. On this issue, the state perspective is extremely clear: Falun Gong leaders brainwash and manipulate their rank-and-file followers, who require rehabilitation, but are otherwise not to be faulted for their affiliation with the group.

But returning to the original question, why would the Chinese government see fit to unleash such an intense and coordinated attack against this particular group? Based on a very unflattering depiction of Falun Gong itself, Maria Hsia Chang suggests simply that the Chinese Communist Party knows that socialism is an ideologically spent force, and reacts violently against any competing ideas, regardless of how ridiculous they may seem. The idea is that if the Party is sufficiently sensitive to mobilise the full weight of the state against a relatively innocuous New Age group, it must truly be on its last legs. However, certain elements of Falun Gong would attract legitimate official scrutiny: the apocalyptic connotations of Li Hongzhi’s own writings, the criticism of China’s social safety net implicit in qigong healing, and, of course, the fear among policy makers that the movement might spin out of control even of its own leaders (Chen). Some have suggested that the violence of the campaign was a panicked overreaction to the role that new communication technologies—cellular telephones and the Internet in particular—had played in organising the ill-fated 1999 demonstration. Beijing was certainly aware that such technologies had toppled presidents in Indonesia and the Philippines, and had added fuel to the ‘colour revolutions’ in Eastern Europe. The mere fact that such a large number of protesters were able to suddenly converge on the doorstep of the Chinese central government shows quite clearly that the security apparatus was caught by surprise.

In retrospect, the Chinese government was probably equally concerned with preventing Falun Gong from becoming a spark that ignited further social unrest, and with using the suppression of Falun Gong as the platform for a more traditional nation-building exercise, one that, like earlier political campaigns, was based on the identification of enemies lurking within. The state’s dual intentions may be better understood by analysing a similar campaign that did go according to plan. A little more than a year after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the new government prepared for its first mass campaign, one aimed at solidifying its power and purging old enemies. First on the list was a religious group called Yiguandao (The Way of Penetrating Unity), which the government accused of theft, fraud and treason. Through a well-planned propaganda blitz, including movies, newspaper serials and travelling sideshows, the campaign spread word of the group’s supposed malefactions: criminalising the leadership, while portraying the rank-and-file membership as innocent victims. The campaign also made use of the stylised political theatre perfected in earlier campaigns such as Land Reform. In staged meetings, cadres encouraged ordinary members to stand up and give testimony about the group and its crimes, and how they had been duped into joining. Lest anyone mistake the campaign for a purge against religion, leaders of the state-sanctioned Buddhist, Daoist and Christian churches also made prominent public statements against Yiguandao. The 1951 campaign was a huge success. It drove Yiguandao out of the Chinese mainland. It was also quite clearly the model for the campaign against Falun Gong, which mirrored both its tactics and its goal of mobilising the population in a campaign against a common enemy (DuBois: 133-51).

Minority Religions

With foreign protests over the Beijing Olympic Torch relay in 2008, and the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising the following year, Tibet continues to figure prominently in Western news. Early in 2009, the Dalai Lama pronounced Tibet under Chinese rule a ‘Hell on Earth’, and even by Beijing’s own count, hundreds of monks have been recently jailed for civil disturbances (Wong). In contrast, other ethnic minorities, such as its 17.6 million Muslims, appear less frequently in the headlines. Even with the violent repression in 2009 of ethnic strife between native Uighurs and Han settlers in Xinjiang, and continued harassment of prominent figures such as exiled Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, the struggle of the Muslim minority is nowhere nearly as prominent as that of the Tibetans. This difference may, indeed, simply be one of perception, but it does warrant a closer examination of how China regards the religions of its minorities, and why certain minority religions, such as Islam, would appear to be treated so much more gently than others, in particular the Tibetan Buddhists.

Before asking how Beijing views ethnic religions, we must first understand how China views its minority nationalities, and for that we must step back even further to the former Soviet Union. As the first socialist state, the Soviet Union was in many ways the model, not merely for China, but for any socialist polity. The Soviet experience provided practical guidance on how a socialist state should organise production, how it should build an industrial base, how it should fight a war, etc. As the Soviet Union was also a multi-ethnic state, one in which ethnic minorities traditionally held much of the most strategic land, its ethnicity policy was particularly important to China.

The question that Soviet and, later, Chinese planners would both face was how to treat expressions of minority identity, such as language, dress and religion. One option would be to repress ethnic identity in the name of national unity. This response has historically been common to the building of ethnic unity within nation states—and expressed in policies to curtail the use of minority languages such as Welsh or Catalan. The other option would be to adopt a policy of cultural federalism. This option defines the state in terms more expansive than ethnic nationalism, thus making the state and its approved bodies the proper conduit for nationalist expression. This response is something more common to empires, and underlies the caricature of ethnic diversity portrayed, for example, in British exhibitions of the native peoples of its empire, or in Japanese wartime propaganda of its ‘co-prosperity sphere’ in Asia (DuBois). Over the years, Soviet policy vacillated between the two options of cultural unification and cultural federalism, but by the 1950s had come down firmly on the side of the latter. This policy is visible in the ‘happy nationalities’ motif of Soviet propaganda, in which the peoples of the various Soviet Republics, visibly identifiable as minorities because of their ethnic costumes and languages, gather to bask in the glow of a central, unifying figure such as Joseph Stalin (Martin).

The Soviet Union followed a similar trajectory in its treatment of ethnic religion. From the outset, Soviet authorities were violently anti-religious, owing not merely to Marxist sentiment about religion being the ‘opiate of the masses’ but also to the opposition the new state faced from a strong, wealthy and hostile Russian Orthodox Church. The Soviet authorities responded by arresting priests, closing churches and expropriating ecclesiastic property—by 1939, only about 500 of over 50,000 pre-Revolutionary churches remained open. The government was particularly aggressive towards minority religions, such as Ukrainian and Lithuanian Catholics and Jews, which many viewed as a permanent fifth column. The treatment of Central Asian Muslims was more mixed. Muslims did weather periods of oppression, but overall were more gently treated—partially for fears that excessive force would drive them towards pan-Islamic separatism, and partially in order to protect vital oil and other resources in the Caucasus during the war with Axis powers. In short, Soviet policy treated religion as an integral part of ethnic identity, albeit a particularly dangerous part. Campaigns against ethnic religion were ideological in origin, but also tempered by practical concerns, especially during times of crisis such as World War II (Knox).

Chinese ethnicity policy emulated the Soviet experience, but also learned from its mistakes. Like the former Soviet Union, it subscribes to the ‘happy nationalities’ model. China’s official roster of 56 ethnicities is frequently featured on occasions such as the National People’s Congress, television galas or the opening of sports competitions, and always in exaggerated ethnic dress (Leibold). The difference lies in the treatment of ethnic religion. Like the Soviet Union, the government of China envisions a socialist future without religion. However, while, in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party led the drive to destroy religion, in China the official ideal is for the Party to lead the people (the ‘masses’ in correct parlance) to the stage of social consciousness where they realise that religion is not necessary. In the end, it must be the Chinese people themselves who overthrow religion, not the Party. In his ‘Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan’ (which would become the ideological standard for later policy towards the countryside), none other than Mao Zedong stated that: ‘it is the peasants who made the idols, and when the time comes they will cast the idols aside with their own hands; there is no need for anyone else to do it for them prematurely’. In 1954, a different iteration of this same basic idea appeared as Article 88 of the first Constitution of the People’s Republic, which stated that: ‘every citizen shall have the right to religious belief’. A right, yes, but one that socialist progress would make obsolete. Moreover, since each ethnic minority is on its own developmental track—some being faster or slower than others—so, too, must each ethnicity arrive at the stage of casting off religion at its own pace. Of course, reality was never as tidy as rhetoric, but the ideology has proven extraordinarily powerful. Regardless of reality, control or suppression of ethnic religion always had to take the form of popular action, in which the people of that minority rose up and overthrew their own imams, lamas or priests.

As it had been in the Soviet Union, Islam in China is a particularly sensitive issue because many of its adherents live in strategic or sensitive areas, such as the resource-rich North-West. The Xinjiang region came under Chinese rule as the result of a brutal military campaign at the end of the eighteenth century, and many of its Muslims, such as the Central Asian Uighurs, are racially and ethnically distinct from other Chinese. On the other hand, many of the 8.6 million Chinese Muslims known as Hui are otherwise almost indistinguishable from the majority Han. In this latter case, it is impossible to draw a line separating religion and ethnicity: the two are quite literally the same thing. Yet, the sense of difference has endured. Historically, ethnic tensions between native Muslims and Han have often been bitter and violent, and were often sparked by religious differences. During the first decades of the People’s Republic, particularly the late 1960s, there were periods in which Islam was very overtly suppressed (during which imams were forced to consume pork, mosques were used as pig farms, and the like). Yet, overall, policy has not aimed to purge Islam as much as to control it by filtering and co-opting its leadership. Uncooperative Muslim clerics might be arrested and replaced with someone more sympathetic to the Party. When such changes did take place, they were most often portrayed as the ‘liberation’ of loyal Muslims from a cabal of corrupt individuals. As with campaigns against Yiguandao or Falun Gong, propaganda would emphasise the secret crimes of deposed religious leaders, who murdered, raped, stole and plotted against the Revolution, all unbeknownst to the ordinary faithful. Moreover, these portrayals would always emphasise that neither the government nor the Party deposed the troublesome leader. Rather, the Revolution gave people the courage to get rid of corrupt leaders for themselves.

At the same time, the People’s Republic has very actively sponsored Islam both as part of a larger policy of visibly promoting ethnic identity and as a way of reaching out to potential allies and business partners in the Middle East. Particularly since the 1980s, the Chinese government has enacted preferential policies for minorities (in areas such as university admissions, urban residence, and exemption from the one-child policy), from which the Chinese Muslims have materially benefited. The government has also rebuilt historic mosques, granted special travel permission and financial assistance for tens of thousands of pilgrims to join the Hajj, and sponsored instruction i n the Arabic language and Islam. Even if such support is part of a larger process of exerting control over religion, China does so by portraying itself as a friend of Islam, not an enemy.

In many ways, the story of Tibetan Buddhism is similar, the fundamental difference being the ambiguity that surrounds Tibet’s political status. For much of its history, Tibet had no particularly strong political or economic connection to China. The region did spend much of the past 1000 years under Chinese rule, but always as an autonomous entity, with a discrete political structure: essentially a kingdom within an empire. It was made part of the Republic of China in 1911 and of the People’s Republic in 1949, in each case as a formally self-governing region. China came to exert more direct control over Tibet during the mid 1950s, and in 1959, the People’s Liberation Army moved in and brutally crushed the Tibetan independence movement. The Buddhist lamas and the landed lamaseries were at the centre not only of this movement, but of almost every other aspect of Tibetan society and economy, as well. For this reason, methods used to exert control over Tibetan Buddhism were always much more harsh than those directed towards Islam.

Over the Himalayas in the Indian city of Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama has maintained a Tibetan government in exile since he and tens of thousands of followers arrived there in 1959. He has consistently maintained that his goal is not to separate Tibet from China, but merely to regain the autonomy for the region. In response, the government of the People’s Republic continues to portray him and his followers as a dangerous fringe group with traitorous motives. As with Islam, propaganda concerning Buddhism in Tibet is careful to separate the religion from the leadership, emphasising that the problem only comes from what it generally characterises as ‘a handful of troublemakers’. The state is no enemy of Buddhism: by its own depiction, the Chinese government is among its truest friends. Official portrayals always emphasise that Chinese troops did not capture Tibet, they liberated it. Under the guidance of the revolution, the Tibetan people themselves removed the ‘corrupt Dalai Lama clique’ from power, and overturned their feudal society. In order to help bring the Tibetan people into the modern world, the state instituted ‘democratic reform’ in the monasteries, rebuilt the Potala Palace, sponsors classes in Tibetan Buddhism and language and, most recently, completed the engineering miracle of a railway to Lhasa (the portrayal of the state as a guardian of Buddhism also explains the rationale behind why it would see fit to monitor activities such as the reincarnation of figures such as living Buddhas [SARA [21]).

This perspective does not stop at the government. For most Chinese people, who considered the many billions of yuan spent improving Tibet’s infrastructure, the overwhelmingly negative reaction of many countries to the passage of the Olympic Torch through Tibet was a bewildering surprise. Conversely, many of the pro-Tibet activists were equally surprised at the reaction their activities prompted, not merely from the Chinese government, but from ordinary Chinese people in chat rooms and online newsgroups. Certainly, most Chinese people do not see themselves as occupiers of Tibet and, indeed, there is a wave of fascination with the exotic cultures of China’s ethnic minorities. Recent years have seen a boom in tourism, not only to Tibet itself, but even more to places like the Huanglong Gorge in eastern Sichuan, where Han and Tibetan cultures mix, and where middle-class tourists from Shanghai can sample a small piece of borderland exotica (Sutton and Kang). Hospitals specialising in Tibetan traditional medicine have begun popping up in all of China’s major cities, even those that are very far from Tibet itself. The lure of the Tibetan exotic has found its way into every corner of popular culture and marketing, including such unlikely products as mineral water.

The point is simply that, without in any way backtracking on the question of repression, it is important to take Chinese views of ethnic religion seriously. Unlike the former Soviet Union, there is no official policy of enforced atheism, for any of the minorities. Instead, a tightly controlled and highly scripted version of ethnic religion is accepted and even promoted as a vital part of the identity of China as a multi-ethnic state.


Like Islam and Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity in China is a foreign religion that is effectively the private belief of a small minority but, unlike them, it is a religion of choice, rather than one derived from ethnicity. Although legal, Christianity in China is, in practice, highly restricted. The government remains extremely suspicious of the religion’s Western origins and connections: foreign mission is strictly restricted, nor does the Chinese Catholic Church recognise external religious authority, including that of the Vatican (SARA). Owing to fears of Christianity spreading beyond the control of the official churches, even Chinese Christians are not allowed to preach their religion outside church walls, and a proliferation of unofficial, or ‘house’ churches faces growing repression.

One fundamental source of difficulty derives from the view that Christianity is incompatible with Chinese culture. The question on both sides revolves around authenticity: how can a Christian be truly Chinese, and how far can Christianity adapt to China and still remain genuine? Such questions are, in fact, not new at all—Christians, missionaries and Chinese governments have been confronting them for over four centuries. Soon after Iberian Christianity first reached China in the early seventeenth century, competing orders of Catholic missionaries came to conflict over whether Chinese Christians should be allowed to participate in the Confucian funeral rites required by custom and law. When the Vatican finally came to the decision that the Confucian ritual was, in fact, idolatry, Chinese authorities responded first by expelling the foreign missionaries and later by prohibiting Christianity altogether (Latourette: 118-47; Minamiki). For the next three centuries, this problem of exactly where to draw the line between the Christian faith and the culture of Western missionaries continued to haunt both missionaries and Chinese Christians, occasionally producing heated disagreements that, in retrospect, seem quite inconsequential, such as whether Chinese paintings of the Last Supper should depict Jesus and the 12 Apostles wearing shoes (in Chinese style) when the Bible suggests that they were barefoot. These trivialities aside, the deeper and more important question was deciding at what point Chinese converts would be considered true Christians. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were thousands of Catholic and Protestant missionaries in China, compared to nearly 200,000 Chinese Protestants and a million Catholics. Many Chinese had been Christian for generations, and had passed through repeated waves of anti-Christian violence, such as the Boxer Uprising of 1900, yet in many cases were still being treated as less than equal partners. Some of these would begin to call for the foundation of a truly Chinese Christianity—one that would give Chinese Christians control not only over the material wealth of the church, but also a greater say in interpreting doctrine (Latourette: 583-633; Yates: 57-65, 79-82).

Together, these two elements—centuries of government mistrust over foreign religious influence and the desire of Chinese Christians for an indigenous Church—laid the foundations of policy towards Christianity after 1949. One of the main agents for the new place of Christianity in the People’s Republic was a man named Wu, often known in English as Y.T. Wu. Born in 1893, Wu had converted to Protestant Christianity as an adult, and attended seminary in Shanghai’s large foreign enclave. In the 1930s, Wu became politically active, developing sympathies both for social revolution and for the emerging communist movement. He bridged his beliefs and politics through the ‘social gospel’, which emphasised ethics as the true essence of Christianity. Wu began to incorporate Marxist language into his theological writings, terming the missionary church a ‘reactionary organisation’ that served an ‘anachronistic capitalist society’. After 1949, he became the chief voice of a very political Christianity that prospered under official patronage. In 1950, he wrote in his ‘Three-Self Declaration’ (‘San zi xuangao’, often rendered in English as the ‘Christian Manifesto’) of the need to purge Christianity of its ‘imperialistic influences’. This redefinition of Christianity captured its moral authority in nationalist terms—it retroactively demonised the missionaries as enemies of China, and anything but true Christians. For Wu, a true Christian is one who does not listen to foreigners (Wu 1950).

Political Christianity also spawned the development of state churches. Although state churches were first founded under the People’s Republic, some of their groundwork had actually originated with the missionaries. As far back as the 1870s, a strain of mission attempted to strip Christianity to its basics, separating it from the context of Western culture and foreign aid. American missionary Rufus Anderson proposed a policy of founding truly independent ‘Three-Self’ (self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating) churches (Wollons: 76-9). Nationalist Christians like Wu adopted this phrase as the slogan of their Christian indigenisation movement, which was itself under the control of the People’s Republic. In 1951, as anti-Western sentiment intensified after the outbreak of the Korean War, all religions were put under government control, and remaining Christian congregations shunted into the official Three-Self churches. The final step came in 1958, when the Three-Self Protestant congregations were combined into the state-led Chinese People’s Patriotic Protestant Church, while the Catholics, already separated from the Vatican, were formed into the Chinese People’s Patriotic Catholic Church.

As with the other religions seen thus far, policy toward Christianity combined the two goals of extending state control over the organisation and reinterpreting the teaching within a nationalist framework. In its current formulation, Chinese Christianity is deemed to be both compatible with socialism and a truly Chinese religion. Having been stripped of much of its theology and forcibly torn from its foreign roots, it is, of course, a very different religion than what the missionaries had intended to spread. It is, without doubt, a Chinese Christianity, but also one that is uniquely acceptable to the government of the People’s Republic.


So far, this article has presented only problems—three cases that portray the Chinese government reacting, often violently, to perceived threats. Such cases are what one is likely to see in the news, but they are not the entire story. Daoism and Buddhism, each with its own state-led ‘patriotic’ organisation, have prospered over the past few decades, aided by a generally friendly policy atmosphere, an increasingly open society, and the development of a middle class. Through the official organisations, the accepted religions enthusiastically return this support (see, for example, the 2006 essay by the monk on religion as a foundation for the widely touted ‘harmonious society’). The focus in this essay on crises is thus not meant to suggest that repression is typical, as much as to demonstrate how particular campaigns to control or eradicate particular forms of religious expression fit into a larger framework of social engineering and nation-building policies. The government also, in the case of ethnic religions, has adopted a policy of support for religion, at least for those manifestations of religion that are firmly under its control. In this same vein, it has over the past few decades also actively promoted ethical, if not religious beliefs in its drive to revive Confucianism.

This movement began in the late 1970s and 1980s with a group of intellectuals who sought to reinvigorate Confucianism in the wake of the extreme iconoclasm of recent decades. Their interest was quickly reciprocated by the government, which made Confucianism a priority in state-funded research. Confucius himself was returned to a place of social prominence (‘rehabilitated’, in the language of political purges). By the mid 1980s, local governments had begun rebuilding Confucian temples and erecting statues of the sage. Confucian tourism accelerated during the 1990s: the Confucian temple complex at Qufu was vastly expanded and named a World Heritage Site, and otherwise featureless cities such as Changchun even began planning Confucian theme parks. Although official support among the highest levels of power may be waning, Confucianism is still being portrayed as China’s national essence, a unique contribution to world culture, and a counter to Western values of individualism and unchecked personal freedom. In many circles, Confucius and Confucian values are the new face of Chinese soft power: it is no coincidence that the new wave of China studies centres being founded with Chinese government grants in universities across the world are named ‘Confucius institutes’.

Seen from the perspective of recent history, official promotion of Confucianism may appear as something of a mystery. It certainly does seem odd for a socialist state to be promoting any belief system, particularly one that many over the past 100 years considered the embodiment of everything that was wrong with China. In a relatively gentle expression of this sentiment, progressive intellectuals of the 1910s and 1920s had ridiculed Confucian hypocrisy in satire and fiction. Anti-Confucian movements during the mid 1970s were more direct and violent, with crowds of students, goaded by official propaganda, destroying Confucian books and relics.

However, looking at the longer term, Chinese governments have spent far more time promoting Confucianism than suppressing it. Over two and a half millennia, Confucianism has evolved in numerous ways, but remains at its core an ethical philosophy that instructs people to respect those above them and be kind to those below. It promotes social stability and political loyalty, both of which are obviously very desirable to those in power. As early as the first century ad, the Han Dynasty proclaimed Confucianism to be the official state ideology. By roughly the year 1000, the Chinese imperial state was fully committed to Confucius and his teachings. Until the collapse of the final dynasty in 1911, Chinese imperial courts conducted foreign relations through Confucian idioms, recruited civil servants based on Confucian examination, and legally enforced Confucian ethics in the daily lives of their subjects.

The current government might appear to be pursuing an updated version of imperial-era policies—sponsoring Confucian scholarship, rebuilding Confucian temples, and selling T-shirts bearing the likeness of the great sage—but it has also taken care to redefine Confucianism in terms that would suit it. Modern Confucianism is still at its core an ethical system, primarily because ethical rhetoric is so politically malleable. Even after the fall of the final dynasty a century ago, the lines of political debate rarely divided those for or against Confucian ethics. Indeed, nearly every competing political faction found some way to lay claim to the language and idioms of Confucian moral regeneration (Zhao).

At the same time, in Confucianism, just as in Christianity, an exclusive focus on culture and ethics comes at the expense of other ideas, such as theology. It should be clear that the Chinese government is by no means monolithically anti-religious. However, it is notable that Confucianism is promoted in China not as a religion, but as an ethical philosophy. Unlike Buddhism, Daoism, Islam or Christianity, Confucianism is not counted as one of China’s official religions, nor does it have a comparable state-led ‘patriotic’ organisation. But even as a philosophy, however, the Confucian tradition is not exclusively ethical: it also explores metaphysics and is based strongly on ritual. Historically, some of these concerns had been integral to state Confucianism: imperial law carefully regulated the conduct not merely of the emperor’s own ritual regimen, but also of family rituals, such as funerals (Zhao: 82-118). Government officials were instructed to perform annual sacrifices of Confucian reverence. In a later incarnation of ritual Confucianism, the New Life Movement, a political campaign from the 1930s, combined elements of Confucian morality and Italian fascism in an attempt to spiritually revitalise the Chinese people. Nothing resembling these concerns has made its way into the current version of Confucianism being officially promoted in China (or elsewhere in Asia, such as South Korea or as the focus of Singapore’s ‘Asian Values’ campaign [Barr]). As the current government of the People’s Republic revives its interest in Confucianism, it is important to remember that it is also actively choosing what to keep and what to leave behind.


This brief overview demonstrates that if the Chinese state’s influence over religion is still very limited, its ambitions are clear. Particularly since the late 1970s, the Chinese government has not merely accepted religion; it has in many ways embraced it. Historically, Chinese states have had much to fear from religion, and in exerting strict surveillance and control over the monks, priests and imams within its borders, the current government has achieved the ideal of many of the regimes that preceded it. In exerting control over the religions themselves, privileging ethical elements over theological, and weaving their teachings into a framework of national unity, it has far exceeded them.