This short essay sketches out the different views that may be identified within the Chinese Communist Party as we look at the recent actions of the party on religious affairs—actions that seem to end in contradictory directions. On the one hand, the promotion of international Buddhist and Taoist forums and the liberalization of regulations concerning the social activities religious organizations are allowed to perform, and, on the other hand, the continued harassment of some religious minorities. Debates about the involvement of religion in contemporary global politics have for the last four decades often overlooked China, an oversight rooted in two misconceptions widely held both in the West and among Chinese leaders themselves. The first is that, since the Communist Party of China took power in 1949, the People’s Republic has succeeded in establishing one of the world’s most robust and advanced secular states. The second is the notion that no religion has ever exercised political influence the way Christianity and Islam have done in the societies in which these faiths are practiced by the majority populations. This essay thus reconsiders these two misconceptions before going on to sketch out the Party’s views on religion’s place in contemporary society.

China as a secular state?

The misconception that China is a secular state conflates two different conceptions of what a secular state is. The first is the Communist Party’s programmatic ideal of removing religion’s influence in society. The second is the principle of the separation of religion and state. On neither of these counts, however, is China a secular state. First, the Communist Party has not eradicated the influence of religion in Chinese society: if anything, and if were are to believe China’s own researchers, that influence has grown over the past few decades. Not only has the number of adherents to the five state-approved religions increased, but the practices of both communal religions and new religious movements have also become increasingly visible. As research by anthropologists and sociologists over the last four decades has made clear, religiosity in China today is alive and well, notwithstanding the reports of persecution against Falun Gong followers, clampdowns against house churches, or harassment of Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims, all of which still happen all too often, but in the context of increasing participation in religious rituals. And this participation includes not only attendance at the state-approved Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and Muslim mosques, but also participation in the religious activities that are broadly known as popular beliefs, as well as practices such as qigong, spiritual healing, and others that straddle the boundaries between the sphere of religion and those of medicine, the arts, and the economy.

Second, the Chinese state has not put in place institutions preserving the separation between religion and state: on the contrary, the State Administration of Religious Affairs, which oversees the five state-approved religions and monitors other forms of religiosity, embodies quite the opposite of the principle of separation. Even setting aside the argument made by Alfred Stepan and Rajeev Bhargava that the definition of the secular state as a “non-religious” state ought to be abandoned, the claim that China is a secular state can be rejected on other grounds. While a secular state, in theory, does not get involved in religious affairs, the Chinese government remains extremely concerned about them. Even if the Communist Party’s ideology rests on a commitment to materialism, aspects of its governmentality display qualities that effectively make it a religious authority. How else to describe its claim that only the Party has the inherent right to approve the legitimate succession to the Dalai Lama, or to sanction the Patriotic Catholic Association’s nomination of cardinals? In doing so, the Party displays an approach not unlike that of the rulers of imperial China.

The view that religion has never had an impact on Chinese politics appears all the more misguided when we take the long term view. In ancient China, religion was a central part of governance, to such an extent that sinologist John Lagerwey wrote recently of China as a “religious state.” For example, in the middle of the nineteenth century China experienced the largest civil strife of the era with the Taiping Rebellion, a major social upheaval that killed an estimated thirty million people and that had a religious component at its core, with its leader claiming to have received a revelation from God and to have been the younger brother of Christ. The Boxer Rebellion, which brought foreign military intervention onto China’s soil, was another large-scale case of unrest with a religious dimension, with mass spirit possession leading insurgents to the belief that proper spiritual training protected them from bullets. But religion has also played a positive role: Christians, Buddhists, and followers of what Prasenjit Duara has named “redemptive societies,” were very active in providing social services, relief, and succor to the population when the country faced the upheavals of war and natural disasters during the first half of the twentieth century. In sum, the influence of religion in Chinese politics has taken many forms historically, more varied even than the variety of religions that have evolved in China through the millennia. When thinking about the future, it is important to look at this legacy from the past. What lessons will China’s leaders draw from this rich historical memory?

The Communist Party’s variety of perspectives on religious affairs

The Communist Party’s views on religion have gone through many changes, ranging from the strategic approach of the United Front policy of seeking support from religious leaders against the Nationalist regime to the extremist persecution during the Cultural Revolution, before heading in the 1980s toward a less radical approach that has combined administrative supervision by state-approved associations and close monitoring by the State Administration of Religious Affairs. Not surprisingly, these varying approaches have left a legacy of divided opinion on religion and its place in society, and debates within the leadership about the attitude to adopt towards “cults,” places of worship, and other issues of concern have occurred. The views of the Party on religion, as can be inferred from policies and actions of the last ten years, can be schematically divided in two approaches: religion as a “threat” and religion as “social capital.” This dichotomy tries to capture the two ends of a spectrum embracing the variety of views that different elements within the Chinese state may harbor on religious matters. This diversity of views is all the more difficult to identify because the Communist Party is ever wary of giving the impression of internal division. We can, however, assume that at present its position on religious affairs shows signs of moving away from the “religion as threat” and toward the “religion as capital” approach.

One lesson that the Communist Party has derived from China’s upheavals and that inspired its policy after it gained power in 1949 is the idea that “religion is a threat.”’ According to this view, which was behind the Party’s policy immediately after it took power in 1949, religions represent a challenge to the regime because they stand in the way of its efforts to change society and, moreover, because they may receive support from foreign opponents of the regime and the state. To prevent these threats from materializing, the Party, during the Land Reform of the early 1950s, launched campaigns against communal religions, which it attacked as “feudal superstitions” standing in the way of collectivization, and institutionalized only five religions at the expense of countless others. The numerous clampdowns over the years against “reactionary sects” have shown that this perception of “religion as a threat” has remained in force, and still informs the thinking behind the campaign against the Falun Gong, seen by the regime as a dangerous group with subversive intentions. We can also find echoes of the Party’s idea that religion is a menace in the tension between the state and “house churches,” a concern arguably fuelled by the expansion of Christianity, which is, by some accounts, currently the fastest growing religion in China. For many in the Party, unrest in the areas populated by Tibetans and Uyghurs, which is intertwined with state attempts to regulate the religious life of these populations, represents further “proof” that religion undermines stability. Certainly adding to the angst of the government is the fact that all of these religious movements are attracting sympathy, if not support, from outside the country.

The anxieties about religion “as a threat” are exaggerated, however. China today is in a totally different position in world affairs, and the scale of the problems it faces, on issues such as environmental degradation and demographic challenges, are unprecedented. Therefore, analogies with the past, even if relatively recent, are misguided. China is not in a position of subordination with respect to the core of the world-system, as it is itself rapidly moving from the periphery to the core of global political and economic power. Most importantly, no religion in China is in a position to create a credible opposition to the Communist Party, capable of challenging the state as did the Catholic Church in Poland or, more recently, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, both of which provided the training and the resources necessary for sustaining political alternatives that were already embraced by significant proportion of the population. With only eight percent of the Chinese population claiming that they “belong” to Buddhism, even the religion with the largest number of adherents, according to official statistics, is a long way from being able to rally a majority of the population to its views. Protestant and Catholic Christianity are even less likely to succeed in federating a political opposition, as they are bound to be tainted with the suspicion of being foreign agents by a population aware of the association between churches and colonial powers. Islam and Tibetan Buddhism may represent a source of concern for national unity, but they do not represent an alternative for the Han majority. Finally, if we take into account Taoists, adherents of communal religions, and followers of new religious movements on the fringe of legality, or what Fenggang Yang has called the “gray market of religion,” the religious landscape of China is too fragmented for any one religion to mount a credible political challenge to the regime.

It is unclear if the Communist Party leadership would agree with the above assessment, but it has shown in recent years a willingness to consider a different perspective: the idea of “religion as social capital.” The view that religion represents a positive force in civil society is gaining ground, not only among religious believers, but also within the Communist Party itself, in part thanks to the patient and often courageous work of the epistemic community of Chinese scholars who have studied closely and objectively religious life and its evolutions, and who have focused in particular on the philanthropic activities of religious associations during the Republican period and among overseas Chinese communities. The government’s facilitation of growing involvement on the part of religious organizations in philanthropy and disaster relief, including health care and poverty alleviation, indicates that the Party has listened to these scholars and understood the significance for society of religious adherents’ beliefs and values, and as a result has changed its approach to religion’s place in contemporary China. The Party increasingly looks at it as a resource not incompatible with progress and capable of contributing to social stability. Local government support for the rebuilding of Buddhist temples and for the expansion of the latter’s charities stand as a good example of this new appreciation. The newfound appraisal of traditional rituals known as popular beliefs represent another instance of this change of perspective in the state’s relationship with religion: dismissed until the 1970s as “feudal superstitions,” they are embraced today as a “national heritage” worthy of support.

However, the view of religion as social capital suffers from the same basic flaw as the view of religion as a threat: it overestimates the potential of religious institutions. This inaccurate perception results, not from a lack of goodwill on the part of religious believers, but from the institutional context in which they find themselves. The Chinese government would like religious institutions to devote more resources to the delivery of social services, but the regulations on the role of nongovernmental organizations remain marred by uncertainties. Unless they receive funding from abroad or from wealthy patrons at home, most religious institutions lack financial and human resources to deliver social services. After decades of persecution or neglect, lasting until the late 1970s, most of them lack the expertise necessary to manage social services. In other words, even if religious institutions would like to cooperate with the state, their limited resources are likely to lead them to become reliant on outside support, an option that could in turn expose them to mistrust from the Party.

This very short sketch of the Party’s views on religion remains limited by two important considerations. The view of “religion as social capital” necessarily excludes those religious movements that do not receive support from the state, and thus does not have much to say about forms of religiosity that are not institutionalized, though these may constitute the most important component of China’s religious and spiritual life. The second consideration has to do with what religious believers themselves derive from their beliefs on the political front. Are the political inclinations of religious believers likely to give credence to the idea that religion is a threat to the regime? Or can they reinforce the idea that religion is a form of social capital vital to social stability?

Religious believers and the future of China

Both views, that of religion as “a threat to the regime” and that of religion as “social capital,” meet in the argument that religion can be a source of opening and renewal for Chinese politics. This line of reasoning is based on the historical precedents of the prominent role played by the Catholic and Protestant churches in the transition away from the authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Africa, East Asia, and, most importantly, in the countries formerly ruled by Communist parties. This perspective has received added credibility from the fact that many of the individuals supporting the democracy movement converted to Christianity while in exile. It is reinforced by the profile of public intellectuals living in China, such as Gao Zhisheng, who have taken up the cause of human rights at enormous risk to themselves. But these may be heroic exceptions.

We should guard against embracing too quickly the idea that religion represents an alternative to the current social and political order. This is not only because of the relatively low numbers of religious believers belonging to each tradition and the fragmentation of the religious landscape discussed above. In addition to these factors, we should add the difficulty in inferring from the worldview of any given religion specific political values and orientations. The record in China itself shows that, even within a given religion, different interpretations of a theology can lead to a wide variety of calls for action, ranging from support for the regime to outright opposition. If some adherents of Mahayana Buddhism look at the existing social and political order as a great opportunity for the revival of their tradition, others among their co-religionists express unease at what they see as our age of corruption and spiritual decline. And while the state-approved Protestant and Catholic churches have to agree with the state’s official policies on family planning, Protestant and Catholic devotees express a wide range of views on such matters.

In sum, taken together, these views of religion as “threat,” as “social capital,” and as a source of renewal, have the merit of acknowledging that religions matter in Chinese society. There are limitations, however, to each of these approaches for our understanding of how religion can affect politics. We need to go beyond facile binary oppositions between “state” and “religion,” and, most importantly, we need to note that in China, perhaps more than in many other societies, “the religious” must always be understood in the plural.

[In conjunction with this series of essays on the state of religion in China, we have published a companion piece on the history of religion in China, written by The Immanent Frame’s Wei Zhu. Read What is religion in China? A brief history.—eds.]