How will the relationship between the state and religion in China evolve in the next decade, presumably under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping? To make any sensible predictions about the future development of the state-religion relationship in China, we have to go back in time. Two reference points are especially important: 1979 and 1966.

In 1979, after thirteen years of failed attempts to eradicate religion from the entire society, the ban on religion was lifted. A limited number of churches, temples, and mosques began to reopen for religious worship services. It is important to know that this new policy stemmed from pragmatic considerations rather than from doctrinal change: its purpose was to rally people from all walks of life, including religious believers, for the central task of economic development under the new leadership of the CCP.

The doctrinal principles and policy tenets were articulated in the 1982 CCP decree “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country’s Socialist Period,” commonly known as Document Number 19. Although the ban on religion is no longer in place, this CCP document grants only limited religious tolerance within strict parameters. Religious organizations and activities must be under the close control and supervision of the CCP. Additionally, CCP members themselves must follow specific requirements. CCP members cannot personally adhere to any religion, and all CCP organs, agencies, and so-called mass associations must continue to propagate atheism relentlessly.

In practice, however, none of these parameters have been effectively enforced. There are rising numbers of Protestant house churches, underground Catholic parishes, and private or family temples (私庙/家庙, simiao/jiamiao) of Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religion outside the immediate control of the Party-State. According to a 2007 social survey, no more than sixteen percent of CCP members could be considered pure atheists who did not admit to any religious belief or participation in any religious practice. The propaganda of atheism has lost steam among most agencies and individuals, with the exception of some militant atheists who have mounted comeback attacks since 1999 (which I will explain below).

The religious activities and organizations outside Party-State control may not be legal, but neither are they illegal, strictly speaking. In fact, ad hoc rules and administrative orders imposed by the State Administration for Religious Affairs system or its superior Party-State agencies, rather than legislation passed by the People’s Congress, have largely shaped and governed religious affairs in China. Moreover, the 1982 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which was passed by the People’s Congress, includes a clause protecting the freedom of religious belief. Judicially conscious believers have referenced this clause to assert their constitutional right to believe and practice their religion.

Based on the doctrine of historical materialism, Document Number 19 declares that the demise of religion is inevitable, but that it may not disappear as quickly as radicals during the Cultural Revolution had originally hoped. Out of pragmatic concerns, the document urges CCP members and officials to realize that religion has five characteristics during the present stage of socialism, which would later become known as the primitive stage (初级阶段, chuji jieduan): religion (1) will exist for a long time; (2) has masses of believers; (3) is complex; (4) is entwined with ethnicity; and (5) affects international relations and, therefore, must be handled with caution. This plea for caution has further bound the control apparatus in their handling of religious affairs.

In contrast to the radical measures against religion of the Cultural Revolution period, Document Number 19 marks a significant change in state-religion relations. It would be imprudent, however, to claim that the document marks a breakthrough. Ideologically, it was more a continuation of official atheist doctrine than a real change. Reviewing the party-state documents and publications from 1979 to the early 1980s, it appears to me that the policy makers and the theoreticians who supported the principles and the policy tenets believed that religion was needed only by some “backward-thinking” people socialized in the pre-1949 “Old Society.” Thus, they wanted to allow for only a limited number of temples, churches, and mosques to reopen for these remnants of pre-revolutionary culture. Confident that the socialist-educated people striving for the “four modernizations of industry, agriculture, military, and science and technology” had already shed their parents’ backward religious beliefs, The theoreticians and policy makers seemed confident that the reopened temples, churches, and mosques would be defunct in due time.

Surprisingly, not only did pre-1949 generations return to the reopened religious venues, but some young people, raised in the post-1949 revolutionary culture and educational system, also participated in religious activities with zest and zeal, both within and outside of government-approved venues. The surprise of CCP theoreticians and policy-makers has been prominently expressed in the frequent exclamations of “religious fevers” in their public discourses.

The CCP leaders considered the growing interest in religion puzzling and incomprehensible because it seemed so contradictory to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist (MLM) doctrines. Indeed, it is even contradictory to the secularization thesis espoused by non-Marxist social scientists and philosophers in the West. Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967) and A Rumor of Angels (1970), along with many classic books by Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and other Western social scientists and social philosophers have been translated into Chinese since the 1990s. Although the new introduction of various theories of religion was stimulating to Chinese scholars of religion, these newly translated books only contributed to a heightened sense of confusion and bewilderedness among MLM theoreticians and policy-makers—so much so that the former czar of religious affairs, Ye Xiaowen, sought a private audience with Peter Berger during his first visit to Beijing, in 2008. Berger, flattered by the attentions of the top CCP official in charge of managing religious affairs, nonetheless went on to reiterate his resolute denouncement of the secularization thesis, as he had been doing since the late 1990s, and explained the resurgence of religion all around the world.

Finding no clear answers either in the orthodox MLM doctrines or in other social theories, CCP theoreticians and policy-makers have tried hard to speculate on what has ignited the so-called “religious fevers” of our time. Are they due to the infiltration of hostile forces from the Western world, or the lack of clearly specified rules and regulations, or the failure of atheist and scientific education in the school system and propaganda through the mass media? Or is it due to the lapses of the CCP organizational life for its members (such as regular criticism meetings of the party branches)? Driven by such speculations, CCP theoreticians and policy-makers have scrambled to devise measures in these various spheres to combat the “religious fevers.” Anti-infiltration against foreign missionaries has been a central piece of the religious policy since the early 1990s; formal regulations were instituted beginning in 1994 and have continued to proliferate since then; atheist propaganda has been intensified, including the launch of a new magazine, Science and Atheism, housed in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; anti-cult campaigns have been carried out since 1999; and CCP internal political education has periodically been reinforced.

Yet these measures have failed to contain the revivals of both homegrown and imported religious activities. Between secularist ideology and de-secularizing reality, there came the birth and growth of religious research in China. Without a working explanation for religious phenomena grounded in an orthodox MLM framework, the serious scholars of religious studies in China have explored and even adopted diverse theories of religion. Since the 1990s, scholarly research on religion has flourished, with ever increasing numbers of scholars, centers, institutes, books, journals, courses, and conferences. Interestingly, in the religious sphere in China at present, alongside the Party-State, on the one hand, and religious organizations and believers on the other, scholars of religion have become an important force unto themselves. Along with the diversification of scholarly theories, the proliferation and expansion of religious elements makes the restrictive parameters set out in Document Number 19 even more difficult to enforce.

In this context, religious policy has been left adrift, often in the hands of unappreciated officials in the CCP power system—the cadres of religious affairs bureaucrats who have retired from the military or from other offices, whose input in the collective decision-making process often carries less weight than that of the other bureaus. And, although recent graduates of religious studies programs exist within the State Administration for Religious Affairs subsystem, the actual decision-makers in the subsystem are not taking these young people seriously. At present, there is no sign of any initiative for a significant change of religious policy coming from those with the ability to affect such change. This impasse may not change for the next decade because the new leadership, under Xi Jinping, may have to deal with much more urgent social and political problems.

But this does not mean that there will be no debates among CCP theoreticians and policy-makers over the existing religious policy. In fact, the mood seems to be swinging toward the radical position that prevailed during the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966, as opposed to the more moderate one that has prevailed since 1979. The radical position treats religion as a reactionary political force that the Party-State must take political measures to conquer and control (and to eradicate, if possible). The moderate position treats religion as a false consciousness that may gradually be corrected through education and propaganda. Undergirding these positions are Bolshevik militant atheism and Enlightenment atheism, respectively. Both versions of atheism find support in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao, and both views have existed and competed with each other in the CCP throughout its history.

In recent years, some militant atheists—who are mostly housed in the College of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and use the Science and Atheism magazine as one of their platforms—have expressed criticisms of the existing religious policy for its lack of resolute measures against religion. They have mounted fierce personal attacks on numerous scholars of religion in China, condemning some scholars and institutions both inside and outside of the PRC as agents of infiltration. Their discontent appears to have been heard by leaders in the higher rungs, even though no clear signal has yet come down from Xi Jinping’s politburo. Meanwhile, members of the State Administration for Religious Affairs system and academic scholars of religion have made subdued responses to the criticisms and attacks, exercising greater caution in handling religious affairs and in publishing essays and books. Will the militant atheists prevail in the official discourse of the new leadership, resulting in significant policy backlash? This remains to be seen.

Regardless of religious policy, its underwriting doctrines, and restrictive parameters, the religious revivals have continued for more than three decades now. I have seen no signs that this renewal is slowing down. For social scientists of religion in China, the more important question is what roles various religions play in China’s social and political change. What kind of social capital are the different religions garnering? Do various religions play positive roles in the growing civil society? Will religion, or some religions in particular, become a driving force for economic marketization or for political democratization? These are theoretically important questions with great social significance that await scholarly research and active engagement.

[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.]