Researcher Remarks 

Religions and Religious Policy in the 60 years of the PRC

     Commentary by Sergio Ticozzi, PIME


     On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China. Therefore, October 2009 marked the 60th anniversary of that famous event. December 2008 was the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's open door policy, launched in December 1978.

     Thus the first 60 years of the history of the People's Republic of China can be clearly divided into two periods, 1949-1978, and 1979-2009. From the perspective of Religion and Religious Policy, these two periods can be respectively characterized by two general terms: “control” for the first period and “liberalization” for the second.

Control Policy

     Following the Common Program, held in September 1949 by the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)[1], and the 1954 Constitution, which both affirmed ‘freedom of religious belief’, the official formula, repeated whenever the religious question was raised, was “Religious freedom is a fundamental and consistent policy of the Communist Party of China.” In practice, however, there were different interpretations of this ambiguous formula.

     In the first period, from October 1949 to December 1978, the Communist authorities tried their best to put every dimension of life of the Chinese people under their ‘full control.’ On February 12, 1951, the Religious Affairs Bureau was established, with the responsibility, together with the already existing United Front Department, to oversee the implementation of the religious policy and of the achievement of autonomy for the various religions.

     In May 1950, Zhou Enlai spoke to the representatives of the five officially recognized religions, namely Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity (all other religious manifestations were considered ‘superstition’), emphasizing that Chinese people should administer them and that they should be liberated from any foreign ‘imperialist’ control.

     The first step toward this goal was taken in June 1950, with the launching of the Land Reform Program: cadres accused the landlord class of ‘counter-revolutionary activities,’ and attacked religious leaders, who had charge of properties. Temples and churches were closed or used for other purposes. The government nationalized universities and high schools run by the Churches.

     The policy regarding Taoism and Buddhism followed two lines: on the one hand the government took over many temples and monasteries and turned them into schools, factories or residences. At the same time, Buddhist and Taoist clergy were forced to ‘take part in production,’ that is, to take part in manual labor together in rural cooperatives. In Tibet and in Muslim areas slower initiatives were taken along the same lines.

     For the Catholic and Protestant Churches, who had many foreign personnel in their ranks, the policy was to ‘liberate’ religions from every sort of foreign control. The government enforced this policy by sending all the churches' foreign personnel out of China. For this purpose, it promoted the Movement of the Three Autonomies, namely self-propagation, self-administration and self-support, among the churches. In September 1950, the Protestant Churches published a ‘Manifesto for the Three Autonomies,’ followed in November by a Manifesto advocating the reform and the ‘autonomy of the Catholic Church.’

     Under the charge of opposing the movement for autonomy, the authorities arrested, tried, sentenced and expelled foreign missionary personnel (1950-1954).

     Regarding religious believers, no matter to which religion they belonged, the official policy was to either win over their collaboration, or to eliminate the opposition of non-cooperators, by sending them to re-education camps, or even to prison, since they were considered guilty of counter-revolutionary crimes.

     In the meantime, efforts to spread the Movement of the Three Autonomies and to establish the Patriotic Associations of all religions increased day by day. In 1952, the China Islamic Association was founded, followed in 1953 by the China Buddhist Association. In summer 1954, the 1st Protestant National Council officially established the Patriotic Christian Association of the Three Self Movement. In 1956, the Russian Orthodox Church became the China Orthodox Church. 1957 saw the foundation of the China Taoist Association and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. In 1958, the latter association organized the first ‘democratic’ ordination of Catholic bishops. The establishment of provincial and local branches of all these patriotic associations soon followed. They became instruments in the hands of the CCP to relate with and to control the members of all religions.

     By the end of 1958, the religious activities of all the religions were under official control. Tibet, considered by the government as an integral part of China, was ‘liberated’ by the Chinese army on March 10, 1959. The Dalai Lama and his administration fled to Dharamsala in northern India, and took refuge there.

     The official trend, until the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, was to further restrict the public worship and all religious manifestations.

The Elimination Policy

     The Great Leap Forward and the Commune System, both launched in 1958, proved to be complete failures, which caused years of grievous economic and human tragedy. Mao Zedong, in the summer of 1966, then launched the “Great Cultural Revolution,” later called “ten years of catastrophe”, which advocated the elimination of the “Four Olds” (ideology, culture, customs and traditions). The revolutionaries totally rejected the policy of religious freedom. They considered religions as belonging to the ‘old or feudal culture,’ and as something to be totally swept away. All religious activities were considered as criminal.

     ‘Control, in practice,’ turned out to be ‘Elimination.’ Extremist activities, such as the destruction of religious buildings, the burning of books and religious articles, and the persecution, imprisonment, and even the execution of religious believers marked this period. Revolutionists attacked religious believers, including those belonging to the Patriotic Associations. They paraded them in the streets, and condemned to prison or labor camps. They not only invaded and destroyed temples, monasteries, convents and churches, but also private houses, which they searched and robbed of all ‘feudal superstitious’ objects. Everything went into the fire: statues, holy pictures, ancestor tablets, domestic altars, candles, images and books.

     During the Cultural Revolution, Communism itself was transformed into a ‘religious’ faith. A cult to Chairman Mao grew up, with his portrait hanging everywhere. The Little Red Book became scripture, and morning and evening rituals were performed in accordance with it. The activists demanded ‘total self-surrender’ (“revolution from the depth of the heart”) to their cause.

     A more relaxed climate of tolerance, even in the religious sphere, took place in 1970, near the end of the most severe period of the Cultural Revolution. In November 1971, the government opened the Nantang Catholic Church to an Italian delegation and kept it open for the use of diplomatic personnel; the opening of a Protestant Church for the same purpose soon followed. On October 1, 1974, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Peoples Republic, the government released some religious personnel from prisons and labor camps. In February 1978, 16 “representatives of religious circles” took part to the 5th Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference. From December 18-22, 1978, the 3rd Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party took place and launched the liberalization and open door policy. Part of this was the restoration of the freedom of religious belief.

The Liberalization Policy

     With the launching of the ‘liberalization’ policy, a few flowers began to bloom in the ‘religious desert’ with the opening of a few Buddhist and Daoist temples, as ‘cultural relics’ for tourism purposes, and of a couple of Christian churches for the religious activities of foreign diplomats.

     Officially, the government considered the shift to be a ‘return to the correct policy before the Cultural Revolution.’ In other words, the new policy marked a return to the ‘policy of control.’ It meant that there was now “freedom of religious belief” and a limited liberalization of only “normal religious activities,” but always under the full control of the Government. The government rehabilitated the United Front Department and the Religious Affairs Bureau in order to carry out their policy.

     In February 1979, the government held a national meeting on religious work in Kunming to plan future developments. The policy on religion was strictly linked with the policy toward national minorities. The guidelines and the spheres of the liberalization included the following:

  1. The release from prisons or labor camps of religious personnel, and their rehabilitation;
  2. The restoration and reopening of temples, mosques and churches;
  3. The re-establishment of religious organizations and structures, mainly of the Patriotic Associations;
  4. The formation and training of new religious personnel, both male and female, and the reopening of seminaries, monasteries and convents for this purpose.
  5. The publication of religious scriptures, spiritual books and official bulletins, as well as of historical and doctrinal research;
  6. The re-commencement of contacts with co-religionists abroad, as well as participation in religious activities abroad.

     These new initiatives were motivated not only by a concern for improving contacts with the outside world, but also by a concern for national unity, especially in border regions inhabited by several ethnic and religious minorities.

     From then on, each of the five officially recognized Religions underwent education on the above-mentioned directives.

     The year 1980 marked the re-establishment of the official organs of all five official religions, with each holding national assemblies: in April the Chinese Taoist Association, in May the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (which formed at that time also a Catholic Church Affairs Committee and a Catholic Bishops' Conference), in October the Protestant Three-Self Movement (which also established a China Christian Council), and in December the Chinese Buddhist Association. The establishment of provincial and local branches of these organizations soon followed.

     Each religious tradition soon employed its recently liberated and rehabilitated clergy in their newly re-established institutions. Temples, monasteries, convents, mosques and churches were restored or built anew, even with public financial support. For Buddhism and Taoism, the restoration of famous monasteries and temples, especially on their sacred mountains, was also motivated by their attraction as possible tourist destinations. In Tibet, monasteries and convents were rebuilt with the help of government money. In 1994, the government even helped to restore the Potala Palace in Lhasa with an investment of 55 million yuan. Financial assistance from the government also helped to restore or re-build many churches of the Catholics and Protestants. However, the government only gave back a limited number of properties, thus creating many cases of conflict and injustice.

     Within the open temples and churches, only ‘normal’ religious activities could be carried out, only those allowed by the civil authorities. At this time also the Muslims began again to make pilgrimages to Mecca.

     All religions could also now reopen centers for the formation and training of new leaders. Buddhists started a training course for monks in 1981 in its Fayun Temple, in Beijing, while the Daoist headquarters at the Baiyunguan monastery started courses in 1984. Almost all mosques opened religious schools, followed by national and regional institutes. Protestants reopened their theological seminary in Nanjing in the early 1980s, while the first Catholic major seminary started classes in Shanghai in 1982. The national Catholic seminary opened in Beijing in 1983, followed by other regional and provincial ones later.

     As far as publications are concerned, several religious research institutes and centers opened, and these published a large number of books and articles for internal use within each religion. These included each religion's Scriptures and their own journal. From 1986 to 1993, the Daozang Jiyao (Essential Collection of Taoist Scriptures) were reprinted, and in 1995, the Tripitaka of all the Buddhist Scriptures, both Chinese and Tibetan, were reprinted. Within the Catholic Church, the two most important publication centers are the Faith Press in Shijiazhuang and the Guangqi Research Center in Shanghai. For the Protestants, the Amity Press, within the Amity Foundation, started in Nanjing in 1985, has already published 50 million Bibles and many copies of other devotional books. Recently the internet has become popular with all religious institutions, and many have set up their own websites.

     The contacts with coreligionists, in particular of Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, started as soon as tourism was allowed, with exchanges of delegations and financial support for several projects forthcoming. Among the contacts with Buddhists outside China, those with Thailand and Myanmar deserve special mention, since there was not only an exchange of delegations but also of relics: a tooth of Buddha was brought to Myanmar in 1993, while a finger of Buddha went to Thailand in 1994.

     As for going abroad on exchange visits, religious representatives of all traditions have been members of official delegations participating in all sorts of international religious events.

Freedom of religion with ambiguities and within limits

     In implementing the religious policy, the concern of the authorities to maintain full control of all religious activities has led them to adopt different attitudes and trends, thus creating frequent confrontational situations.

     The major present trend of the Chinese authorities for the purpose of maintaining full control, is to continue to emphasize the autonomy of the religions in the name of patriotism (aiguo, aijiao). Part of this policy is to try to eliminate all the unofficial or underground communities and their activities, even with the use of force. They also attempt to unify the different denominations within a religious tradition (e.g., the post-denominationalism of the Protestant Churches, and the blurring of the differences among Buddhist sects). They also try to impose a ‘democratic’ management of religious personnel and institutions, under the full authority of the Patriotic Associations.

     Consequently, and particularly within the Catholic Church, there gradually reappeared three layers, namely, the Patriotic Association, which continues to be a tool of the government to maintain its control over the Church, the section of Catholics, who to a certain degree cooperate with the government (called ‘official’), and the section which refuses any compromise with it (called ‘unofficial’ or ‘clandestine’). Such a situation creates ambiguities and even conflicts, which can be exploited by the authorities for their own political purposes.

     A second trend is to encourage all Religions to play a role in the economic development of the country, by attracting foreign investment, by becoming secular ‘welfare agencies,’ through involvement in social services, such as for old people, the disabled and orphans, and by contributing to the relief of natural disasters (such as earthquakes and floods), and by participation in the movement for the protection of the environment.

     Another trend of action is the excessive sensitivity, which seems almost paranoid, in denouncing any suspected case of ‘foreign interference in domestic affairs.’ Concerning this, consider the official reactions against the reception by foreign governments of the Dalai Lama, the attacks against the ‘foreign forces,’ such as the Vatican, the blame put upon outside pro-ethnic minority movements of the Uygurs, Tibetans and Mongols, etc.

     As far as the relationship with the Holy See is concerned, Beijing considers it only as a state, the Vatican, and shows its willingness to deal with it only under two conditions: it should sever all ties with Taiwan and not interfere into the internal affairs of the Church in China. The second condition points especially to the ‘democratic’ election and ordination of bishops, which was reinstated with the ordination of Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan (1931-2007) as bishop of Beijing, on December 21, 1979, and followed by others. Negotiations between Beijing and the Holy See have dragged on, with ups and downs, due to a mutual lack of trust, but mainly due to the Chinese authorities' uncompromising stance on the creation of a national church. Compromises were reached in some cases of episcopal ordinations, and recently some positive results were achieved. The Catholic position was further clarified by the Letter of Benedict XVI to all the Catholics of China in June 2007.


     The historical development of the Religious Policy in the 60 years of the People's Republic of China clearly shows, first of all, the Communist authorities' unwillingness to practically respect the basic human rights of all Chinese religious believers, and to allow a certain space for autonomy to religions, without interfering in their internal affairs. Moreover, there appears to be a strong diffidence on the part of the Chinese authorities towards the drafting of a Law on Religion.[2] An initiative towards drafting such a law began more than twenty years ago, and it is still not yet approved. The authorities prefer to have rules and regulations for the administration of religious affairs on the local or provincial level, to which they can give their own interpretation, without having to submit themselves to a common national law. The rule of law, instead of the rule of man, will help the government to deal in a better way, not only with the above-mentioned unofficial sections of the religions, but also with the good number of sects and movements, mainly millenarian and charismatic, that have been rapidly developing in the rural areas.

     Moreover, the Chinese authorities face the challenges presented by the increasing presence of new religions, which are not within the number of the officially approved ones. These include cosmic religions, the Orthodox Church, Hinduism, Judaism, and other new international movements. They ask to be recognized and to be allowed to operate officially. All these challenges require a deeper understanding of the nature of religion, a larger vision and a more liberal policy in dealing with religions.

Appendix: Statistics on Religions in China

     Traditional cosmic religion, that includes elements of Daoism, Buddhism, and popular folk beliefs, is practiced, according to recent surveys, by at least 300 million people.

  • Buddhism: 200,000 Chinese and 120,000 Tibetan monks and nuns; 20,000 temples and monasteries; 32 Buddhist institutes.
  • Daoism: 5,000 temples and monasteries, with about 50,000 daoshi (clergy) of the two main traditions.
  • Islam: 20-37 million believers, with 45,000 imams, 40,000 mosques and 10 main Islamic Institutes.
  • Catholic Church: 5,300,000 (official figure) – 12-13 million, including unofficial believers, about 3,100 priests, 4,800 Sisters, approx. 6,000 churches and 12 major seminaries.
  • Protestant Church: 20-30 million believers, 50,000 churches and prayer venues, 20,000 ministers, 18 theological schools.

     NB. The Report on Religious Freedom of the US State Department (September 14, 2007) states: “According to NGO reports, SARA Director Ye Xiaowen (Wang Zuo'an replaced him as director in September 2009) reported to audiences at Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that the number of Christians had reached 130 million by the end of 2006, including about 20 million Catholics.”

Endnote :

  1. Among the 150 the participants there were one Muslim, two Buddhist and five Protestant delegates.
  2. See Wang Zuo'an, “Woguo Zongjiao Lifade Huigu Yu Sikao” (Review and Consideration on the Religious Legislation of Our Country), in Shijie Zongjiao Yanjiu – Studies in World Religions, No. 115, 2008, 3, pp. 1-11.
This article appeared in Chinese in Tripod, No.154, Autumn 2009. 

Back to Researcher Remarks Index

Copyright©2016 Holy Spirit Study Centre. All Rights Reserved.