In 2013, Do the Chinese Have Religious Freedom?
Now China is mainly a secular country, and since many of its citizens work seven days a week, Sunday often seems like just another day. However, many people do practice a religion in China. How easy or wise that is depends on whom you ask. The situation now is much different than in the past.
Before the Cultural Revolution, China had several religions and philosophies to guide ethical living: Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism were the main practices. Taoism sought inner peace and harmonious surroundings. Buddhism with its temples and monks and rituals was a more conventional religion that arrived from India in the 1st century AD. Confucianism involved a set of obligations to create a just and harmonious society. Folk religions that contained elements of Buddhism and Taoism served local regions. Catholic Jesuits arrived in the early 17th century; Protestant missionaries came in the early 19th century. Islam came to China mainly from Central Asia. The Communist government, however, has discouraged religious practices as being anti-socialist. Especially during the 1966-1977 Cultural Revolution, religious practitioners were prosecuted, temples and churches destroyed. Since 1977, some temples have been reopened and citizens allowed to practice religions, but the Chinese government is still cautious especially if the religion involves foreigners.
There is not agreement even on the numbers of Christians or other religious followers in China. The Chinese government says 100 million; religious groups estimate double that number. I’ve read that soon there will be more Christians in China than in any other country.
On our first trip to China in 2003, my family visited American missionary friends teaching English at a university for minorities in Chengdu, in the west of China. Our friends said the government didn’t care that they were missionaries since the Tibetan ethnic minorities were their focus. However, being Christian in China can lead to problems.
What do some conservative Christians say? American Phil Sheldon, self-described as being active in conservative Christian politics since 1977, has a Chinese wife, and is living and working in Beijing. Sheldon says, “Many of the bad things you have heard [about being a Christian in China] are generally true. Nevertheless, there are profoundly wonderful things happening as well. . . I walk through many nice indoor malls to avoid the weather and the smog. While there, I have seen and heard Christianity expressed in public. I have been in restaurants with Christian music playing. I was moved to tears the first time I heard a real Christmas carol proclaiming Jesus Christ is Lord in English, coming through the background music loud and clear. [Since the carol was in English, whoever chose the song may not have known what was being proclaimed]. I have seen people sitting out in public, witnessing over a dog-eared, well-marked Bible.”
Sheldon and his family attend the 800 member Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church in Beijing. He says that he “first visited there on Easter Sunday 2012 out of curiosity. When I heard the pastor say, ‘All government should submit to the authority of Jesus Christ,’ I knew that I was called to attend that church.” Sheldon doesn’t report that this church has been targeted or persecuted by the Chinese government.
What does an on-line Christian newspaper say? A recent article in Christianity Today notes that what some see as persecution, others see as having reasons for trouble with the Chinese government. “Beijing, which had the highest number of persecution cases in 2012, reportedly has more than 3,000 house churches, yet the China Aid report mentions only two cases involving Beijing house churches for the entire year. . . . [However] certain triggers … prompt authorities in China to take action against Christian activities. These include directly opposing the Communist Party (especially in a public manner, which embarrasses government officials and is bound to provoke a response); engaging in political activity, openly championing human rights, or being identified with a group that does so; and having foreign involvement. With China’s rapid urbanization, property disputes are often another factor, with Christians being forced out of their churches (whether registered or unregistered) at the hands of greedy developers collaborating with corrupt local officials. A related factor is simply local abuse of power, especially in regions where there is a history of tension between Christians and officials, or in ethnic minority areas, where Christians may be seen as a threat by the dominant religious majority.
Of the nearly 5,000 Christians reported by China Aid to have suffered persecution in 2012, more than two-thirds were involved in cases where one or more of the above triggers were present. These Christians were either engaged in activity which the government perceived as a threat, or they ran afoul of the economic or political interests of corrupt local leaders. Examples of the former include Christian dissidents, human rights lawyers, and those who attempted to utilize public space for Christian activities (the most well-known being Shouwang church in Beijing, whose outdoor worship drew international attention and incurred the wrath of Beijing officials. . . .
China ranks 37th on the 2013 Open Doors World Watch List, an index that ranks 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution. This indicates that China is still one of the countries where Christians are oppressed because of their faith. However, less than 10 years ago China was in the top 10. Last year China ranked 21st. China was 13th in 2010.
By far the most persecution in China happens predominately in Muslim and Tibetan minorities [regions]. . .
Christians among the Han majority still experience limitations, especially compared to democratic countries. ‘Generally, we feel the government is on the right path,’ says one Chinese Christian. ‘Of course there is still room for improvement.'”
What does the current Chinese government say? The Chinese government has its point of view too. According to a 2013 Reuters report by Ben Blanchard, China says it aims to banish superstition while promoting knowledge.
“Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, said there had been an explosion of religious belief in China along with the nation’s economic boom, which he attributed to a desire for reassurance in an increasingly complex world. While religion could be a force for good in officially atheist China, it was important to ensure people were not mislead, he told the Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School which trains rising officials. ‘For a ruling party which follows Marxism, we need to help people establish a correct world view and to scientifically deal with birth, ageing, sickness and death, as well as fortune and misfortune, via popularizing scientific knowledge,’ he said, in rare public comments on the government’s religious policy.
About half of China’s religious followers are Christians or Muslims, with the other half Buddhists or Daoists, he said, admitting the real total number of believers was probably much higher than the official estimate of 100 million.
Wang did not address specific issues, such as what happens after the exiled spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism the Dalai Lama dies, testy relations with the Vatican or controls on Muslims in the restive Xinjiang region in the west.
Rights groups say that despite a constitutional guarantee of freedom of belief, the government exercises tight control, especially over Tibetans, Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and Christians, many of whom worship in underground churches.
“LURE FOR UNREST”
Beijing also takes a hard line on what it calls “evil cults”, like banned spiritual group Falun Gong, who it accuses of spreading dangerous superstition.
Still, while religion was savagely repressed during the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the government has taken a much more relaxed approach since embarking on landmark economic reforms some three decades ago.
The ruling Communist Party, which values stability above all else, has even tried to co-opt religion in recent years as a force for social harmony in a country where few believe in communism any more.
China had avoided the religious extremism which happened in some places with the collapse of the Soviet Union or the religious problems seen with immigrants in Europe and the United States, Wang added, something to be proud of.
Still, China could not rest on its laurels.
“Religion basically upholds peace, reconciliation and harmony … and can play its role in society,” Wang said.
“But due to various complex factors, religion can become a lure for unrest and antagonism. Looking at the state of religion in the world today, we must be very clear on this point.”
(Editing by Robert Birsel)
A fourth-generation Chinese Christian, Brother “Chen,” who is the leader of a large network of house churches notes a bigger challenge to religions in modern China. “When asked about persecution of Christians in China, he refers to secularism, materialism, and money. ‘Money now dictates every aspect of life. Most Chinese, especially the youngsters, live to earn as much as they can, so they can have that nice apartment, and can get married and afford a family. They are so occupied with working there is hardly room for ministry anymore.'”
What about religious holidays?
Since I was in China for Easter this spring, I wanted to see how it would be celebrated in a Shanghai church. I found a Christian church just two metro stops from my guest house. On the way to the Easter Sunday service, I met two foreign students on their way to the church; one from Haiti studies business communication and the other from Papua New Guinea studies petrol-chemical engineering. Both had an intense year of studying Mandarin Chinese before beginning classes taught in Chinese in their majors! Christianity is an important part of their lives.
About 600 people attended the Easter Sunday services conducted in English: the church was packed. Any U.S. church would be proud of the turnout. We were, however, required to hold foreign passports to go to this service. No one asked to see my passport perhaps because I don’t look Chinese. The prayer books in the pews, however, were all in Chinese, and at other times of the day, services were offered for Chinese citizens. So is this restriction on attending this particular service persecution or just a crowd control strategy? I don’t know.
I love singing in a group, and although I didn’t know any of the hymns, I could see the words projected on large screens at the front of the church, and we had enthusiastic song leaders.
An official church choir group sang hymns such as Amazing Grace.
Many at the service were obviously friends and attending the service seemed a common activity for them. During the service, I heard nothing against the Chinese government. However, after the service one attendee that I talked with said she was waiting for a sign from God to know whether she should go home to help her own country or to stay in China to save Chinese people for the Lord!
There weren’t police outside the door or any signs of harassment that I could see. The one issue was the number of beggars, the most I’d seen anywhere in China at one time. Before and after the service, they waited just outside the church gate. These were not able-bodied people: triple amputees in a country where there is limited medical support; old sick people in a land where if you don’t have a child or the child has died or is in some way incapacitated, the old have little in the way of help; one guy looked like he had Hansen’s disease, which can now easily be arrested with medication (if you have money for it). Hopefully, those participating in this Easter service opened their hearts to the suffering on the street before them.
What about other religions in China? It’s not just Christians who have challenges attracting believers or feeling free to practice their beliefs in China, other religions face the government’s secular way to live as well.
What do Barry and I think about religious freedom in China? From what Barry and I have heard and seen (but we don’t speak Chinese and haven’t really been in the countryside), it’s okay to be a Christian or Buddhist. In Shanghai, no one seems to care. However, I wasn’t able to find a Quaker group in this city of 24 million people. Also if we were criticizing the government or pushing our beliefs, we might have had another experience.
Some of my students have made reference in passing to God or Jesus or Buddha. Some have worn crosses although a cross is just as likely to be a fashion statement as a symbol of belief. Some Chinese students have asked me about my religion, and I’ve heard about their concern during the elections over religious factions in the U.S.
What I have noticed is a lack of respect for religious institutions: such as the shops around the base of the Jing’an Temple, and other temples I’ve visited seem more like tourist stops than places of worship.
In Wuzhen, for instance, at the base of the White Lotus Tower, a structure that must have some significance besides being tall, a loud speaker boomed out music, and everyone was encouraged to play games.
I knew the tower must have some religious significance or there would not have been so many distractions around it.
When I got home, I looked up the White Lotus Tower and found an article in Shanghai Today that noted, “Wuzhen used to have one Taoist Temple, two towers, nine temples and thirteen nunneries.”
I hadn’t seen any of these historically important religious sites were mentioned while we were in Wuzhen.
“The ‘one Taoist Temple’ refers to Xiuzhen Taoist Temple at Dongzha, and the White Lotus Tower is one of the ‘two towers’, . . . of the Buddhist cultural architectures in Wuzhen.”
We’ve also been at temples where the trees were the focus of attention. When I taught at ZAFU, Barry and I walked the rugged trails on nearby Tianmushan Mountain. Before the Cultural Revolution, Tianmushan was the site of numerous Buddhist monasteries and hundreds of monks.
The focus is on nature. The trees have plaques with names and history. For instance, one huge Japanese Cedar, named by an emperor during the Qing Dynasty, is called the “Giant Tree King.”
Today, only one monastery is in use. Most people who come to Tianmushan Mountain are there to hike and to see some of the 2,000 plant species.
Tianmushan is an important Buddhist site. Although Buddhism had come to China from India in the first century, at Tianmushan monasteries, Japanese monks learned of Pure Land Buddhism and introduced the practice (and tea drinking) to Japan. You won’t learn that important fact if you visit Tianmushan and just rely on the official plaques for your information.
Now foreigners come for retreats: <http://www.taishendo.com/Chinese-Temple-Stay.html>
So is there religious freedom in China today? Like much of what Barry and I have seen in China, things are changing. Actual religious persecution is going down. Those most eager about organized religions are the evangelists. Most Chinese, however, seem too busy studying, working, and worrying about their financial futures to be concerned about religion. A spiritual life is important too. Until recently, religion and ethical thought have been important for thousands of years in China. Now for those who are interested, that spiritual search and practice seems again to be a possibility in China. Perhaps the Chinese can seek not only material well being but also spiritual strength.
Zài Jiàn and Aloha, Renée
(Photos by me)