China stands out as one of the few officially atheistic states in the world today. Yet, with the exception of uprisings among Tibetans and Uyghur Muslims that were often as much about national identity as about religion, China has largely been spared the kind of political unrest inspired by religion experienced elsewhere. This does not reflect the absence of organized religion in China; indeed, many sociologists have noted a dramatic revival of belief and practice in that country. Rather, it suggests a remarkable ability on the part of the Chinese state not only to punish or pre-empt unrest instigated by religious believers, but also to co-opt some religious associations and even to promote the growth of certain forms of religiosity that the state considers more compatible with its own goals. André Laliberté, a Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and professor with the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, spoke at a June 13, 2011, event presented by the Wilson Center's Asia Program and co-sponsored by the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
Laliberté first explained that China has had a long history of religious upheavals challenging the authority of the ruling regime and, at times, inviting foreign interference and threatening the sovereignty and independence of China as a whole. The mid-19th century Taiping rebellion, whose leader proclaimed he was the brother of Jesus Christ sent to establish an earthly utopia, demonstrated how a movement with religious dimensions could destabilize the Qing dynasty and set the stage for its eventual decline. The Boxer uprising, whose protagonists mystically believed they could make themselves bulletproof, and whose anti-foreign sentiment prompted direct foreign intervention, provides another historical example of domestic upheaval with religious undertones, but in addition one that threatened Chinese sovereignty.
Laliberté mentioned that after 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), aware of the important role that religion played in Chinese society, sought to institute state control over religious institutions to prevent such subversive challenges to its authority. The CCP initiated a two-tiered strategy in its efforts to establish control. First, it repressed "feudal superstitions," its term for traditional Chinese religions. Second, the CCP established control over other organized religions. In implementing its directives, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) established and oversaw five legally recognized religious organizations—Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam.
In Laliberté's view, Buddhism and Taoism are clearly favored by the CCP. Both religions have deep connections and large followings in both Taiwan and in overseas Chinese communities, and play an important role in the CCP's vision of reunification with Taiwan and its relations with other nations with significant Chinese populations. Buddhism is, by far, the religion most supported by the CCP, which funds the rebuilding of monasteries and temples while encouraging Buddhist charities. Religious charities are technically prohibited by the CCP, but this ban is often applied only to Christian charities. Chinese Buddhism tends to be more conservative and supportive of the state. Laliberté argued that many in the CCP worry about Protestantism's propensity to support democratic change, its adherents' ties to overseas communities, and its status as the fastest growing religion in China today. Yet, other officials see the existence of Protestantism in China as an asset for international cooperation. Tibetan Buddhism and Islam are treated more as minority issues than religious issues, and the tensions between these populations and the CCP are viewed as more nationalistic in nature. One of the most serious issues for the CCP is the existence of religions that are not legally recognized but try to become institutionalized, such as Falun gong. The CCP represses this religion because, in its view—and wrongly, according to Laliberté—it reminds them of the Taiping. The CCP's largest concern regarding religion is the support and recognition of legitimacy that foreign governments give to Falun gong, Christians, and individuals such as the Dalai Lama, which the party considers an attempt at foreign interference to dismember China, even though that support is more symbolic than real.
Laliberté's conclusion that religion does not actually pose a threat to the Chinese state was illustrated by three specific points. The first is that religious organizations are unlikely to challenge the CCP. The actual numbers of religious adherents are relatively small in comparison to China's overall population, which consists of a majority of atheists or adherents of religious organizations not easily converted into mass movements against the government. Government control of religion is very efficient, not only in regards to repression and co-opting, but also in playing to nationalism and stoking fears of minority separatism. The second point regards the lack of unity among religions. Laliberté pointed out that there remains deep divisions in the world views of the various religious organizations in China, and that they are unlikely to mount a unified challenge to the government. The CCP, meanwhile, has been successful at presenting itself as being above these differences. The final point states that there are obvious perils in supporting religion as a vehicle to challenge the CCP. Any outside support to organized religious movements opposing the CCP would trigger a lethal response from the state, with tragic consequences to the individuals belonging to that religion, regardless of any attempt, real or imagined, to organize an opposition or initiate a challenge to the establishment. Such repression, in turn, could trigger a cycle of religious radicalization and further violent repression by the government.
By Joshua Spooner
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
- Public Policy Scholar