Official Religions in China

A Three Self church in Shangqiu, Henan

“Official” or “Government-Controlled” religions are often mentioned in China. Five main religious groups are indeed authorized by the regime, although even their liberty is limited.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards “atheism” as part of its fundamental doctrines. “Atheism” is declared in many official documents an essential and irreformable part of CCP “ideology.”

However, when the CCP came to power in 1949, it was a fact of life that China was full of “different” religions.

Mao Zedong (1893–1976) believed that religion would be eradicated in China by extirpating its social roots, i.e. by making China a truly Communist country. In the meantime, religions, rather than uprooted immediately and violently, should be quietly accompanied to their demise by controlling them, in order to prevent any “religious uprising or counter-revolution.”

Chairman Mao ordered the expulsion of all “foreign missionaries”, the arrest or execution of all “religious leaders” whose opposition to the regime was known, and the formation of “religious groups” strictly controlled by the CCP. The leaders of these groups should be “appointed” by the CCP and forbidden to keep any contact with “foreign or international religious organizations.”

As much as the CCP wanted to humor Chairman Mao, the task proved very difficult. In order to be believable, the new religious groups should include at least some existing religious leaders, and few of them accepted to be ”recruited” by the CCP. After a complicated process of threats and blandishments, finally the CCP was able between 1953 and 1957 to establish five main government-controlled religious bodies:

The China Three Self Church (1954)
The China Buddhist Association (1953)
The China Islamic Association (1953)
The China Taoist Association (1957)
The China Patriotic Catholic Church (1957)

The China Protestant “Three Self Patriotic Movement,” in short a unified body including all Protestants loyal to the CCP, characterized by the “three self,” i.e. “self-administration, self-support, and self-propagation,” by which the CCP meant that no help should be “received or accepted” from foreign missionaries and international bodies.

It was, of course, hardly believable that the immense richness and theological variety of Chinese Protestant Christianity could be reduced to one single church. And the Vatican promptly declared the Patriotic Catholic Church, whose bishops were appointed by the CCP rather than by Rome, schismatic and not Catholic at all.

The Catholics loyal to Rome went underground and established a vibrant Underground Catholic Church, although most of their bishops were arrested, and many died in jail.

The five official bodies were never popular. However, gathering all the Chinese still regarding themselves as religious in one of the five officially recognized bodies was a task entrusted to the police more than to the theologians.

The five bodies were initially active for a decade only. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution started. It persecuted with equal ferocity both authorized and unauthorized religion. Almost all places of worship were destroyed or converted into barracks or stables. Cultural treasures were lost forever, as statues were smashed and books burned. Thousands of pastors, priests, monks and imams were killed, and no form of worship or belief was tolerated.

When the dust of the Cultural Revolution finally settled, Chairman Mao died (in 1976), and Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) rose to power (in 1978), the CCP discovered, to its surprise, that religion had not disappeared, notwithstanding one of the worst persecutions in human history. Only, it went more deeply underground.

This led Deng to revise the ideas of Mao about religion. He did not proclaim them wrong, but adopted a different timeline, as he believed that the demise of religion may require centuries, rather than mere decades, of Communist rule in China.

In 1982, Deng ordered the publication of a text known as “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious  Affairs during the Socialist Period of  Our Country,”  later known  as “Document No. 19.”

The five government-controlled bodies were restored to their early position, although limitations to religious activities were also reiterated, and Deng insisted that propaganda for atheism should continue to be carried out.

In fact, the five bodies never controlled all religious activity. As sociologist Fenggang Yang wrote in 2006, the CCP had created a red market of approved religion.

Sociological theory, however, maintain that not even totalitarian regimes are able to fully control religion. A “grey market” outside the five approved bodies existed before 1982 and continued to exist after.

Daoism (Taoism)
Eastern Lightning (EL)
Falun Gong
Traditional Chinese Folk religions

Another one was Qi Gong, a set of exercises for body training and meditation of Buddhist and Taoist origins. The CCP promoted the groups organizing the practice of Qi Gong as part of traditional Chinese culture and medicine rather than religion, although many of them obviously included in their teachings religious elements.

However, when one of these groups, Falun Gong, grew so much that it was perceived as a threat by the CCP, the Party started a campaign for eradicating it and revived the old Imperial practice of promulgating lists of xie jiao, “heterodox teachings,” which were presented as a social danger of great magnitude and should be “eradicated like tumors.” Several other groups were added to the list of “xie jiao” and mercilessly hunted.

In the terms of Fenggang Yang, at least in the official narrative of the regime, the five approved bodies were the virtuous “red market” of religion, and the “xie jiao” were its evil black market.” This was only part of the story. The “grey market” continued to exist, and was indeed the largest segment of religion in China.

It included the Underground Catholic Church, Protestant House Churches which resisted efforts to join the Three Self Movement, Buddhist and Taoist temples that remained outside the official Buddhist an Taoist associations, and Muslims, particularly, but not exclusively, in Xinjiang who regarded the China Islamic Association as an instrument to slowly “eradicate” Islam altogether.

But what about the “red market”? When Chinese propaganda assures us that religion in China is free and even supported by the CCP money, it refers to the five government-controlled bodies. Indeed, the “lavish lifestyle” of the leaders of these bodies seems to confirm that at least the part of the propaganda about “money” is not false.

However, the “activity” of the religious organizations belonging to the five bodies is by no means “free.” First, obviously, no “criticism” of the CCP is allowed.

Second, “proselytization” is forbidden and “preaching” is allowed only by Chinese within the “authorized” places of worship.

Third, there are a number of “fastidious” administrative regulations, placing in fact the authorized religious communities at the “mercy” of the local CCP authorities. It does not take much to find that one of these rules has been “breached,” and the consequences may be very serious, up to the “dynamiting” of the places of worship and the “arrest” of the clergy.

Fourth, the most “odious” regulation is the one practically equating “religion to pornography”, and mandating that no “minor under 18” can enter a place of worship or “participate” in any kind of religious activities. After the reform of “religious regulations” of 2018, it is enforced with great rigidity. Churches have been “shut down” simply because mothers entered them with their “infant” children in their arms.

Two final remarks. The “red market” was established originally to “prevent” the presence in China of religious bodies with “international” connections. These connections are still “forbidden”, but the five official organizations are expected to support the Chinese propaganda by “wining and dining foreign visitors, trying to persuade them that religion is free in China.” They are also expected to support the persecution of “xie jiao” by supplying “theological” arguments confirming that their “teachings” are heretic.

Second, not all believers who participate in the activities of the “red market” religion are insincere, or that the “official” religion only exists for the purpose of propaganda. This may be the case in specific areas, but is not the rule. There are places in China where the “red market” offers the only opportunity of keeping some contact with religion. Sincere believers may decide that taking advantage of this opportunity is, after all, better than nothing.

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