The article, “Contemporary Issues in State-Religion Relations,” written by André Laliberté in the volume Chinese Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2011), presents a lucid account of the evolution of Chinese Communist Party’s policies on religion. The interplay between the state and religion in China is very different from the West. In modern Western civilization, we see separation between religion and the state; whereas in China, we see an atheist regime on one hand implements heavy restrictions on religious activities, and on the other hand promotes the campaign of harmonious society and admits the contributions made by religion. The policy on religion is subtle, sometimes dubious. To know more, please read Laliberté’s full article.
André Laliberté: CCP’s view of religion
André Laliberté, the author of the above article, explains Chinese Communist Party’s view of religion, which is quite similar to the views of some intellectuals in the West, who assert that secularization will take place as societies become modernized. However, as the country moved towards modernization, many Chinese people are still attached to their beliefs and religions. Modernization did not take religion away, but the Party still thinks that they should somehow control religion. Will the control continue? Is there any chance to change? Please watch the video.
Robert P. Weller: China’s policies on religion throughout the 20th century
Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did not invent their anti-religion ideology. People’s call for modernization started in the beginning of 20th century and was stirred up by the New Culture Movement which influenced Chinese intellectuals for more than half a century. Elites and intellectuals looked down on local popular religions and claimed that these religions were superstition that hindered the process of modernization in China. After 1949, as the CCP established its regime, it inherited the above ideology and launched several anti-superstition campaigns. And many other Chinese societies, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, showed a similar trajectory of policy implementation as well. For a brief history of policies on religion throughout the 20th century, please watch Robert P. Weller’s interview.
Philip L. Wickeri: Religious freedom since the 1980s
Philip L. Wickeri, one of the editors of the volume Chinese Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2011), recalls his memory in China in the 1980s, where he witnessed greater expression of religious freedom during the economic reform period. Although the state had persecuted some religious groups in the 1990s, Wickeri foresees an expansion of religious space for believers in China, and the reason is simple – “as in countries all over the world and as innate to humankind, there’s a religious dimension for human life.”
André Laliberté: Misconceptions of secularization in China
Modernization ushered in secularization in western countries, such as Canada, France, but not in China. André Laliberté thinks that the misconception of secularization in China leads to more misunderstandings of Chinese culture and society, such as the lack of respect of human lives and human rights. Is this the case? Is China a country of atheist with weak moral consciousness of human rights? Laliberté has offered an alternative perspective.
André Laliberté: Private freedom, public control on religion
Can the government of China, a country of 1.3 billion population, control every single individual’s faith? Probably not. The control of religion is strict and rigid in the public sphere, and yet, individuals in China still enjoy spiritual freedom in private space, and that, as André Laliberté comments, “for the individual lives of the people, as long as their religious beliefs are not accompanied by political statements, by opposition to the government, by criticism, that’s fine.” When we study China, we should notice the distinction between the public and the private. For more information, please check Laliberté’s explanation.
Robert P. Weller: China’s religious policy — officially the same, changing in practice
The distinction between the private and the public is best explained by Robert P. Weller’s views on China’s religious policy. We still see atheistic propaganda by the state, however, as Weller says, “unofficially there’s clearly much more openness.” He gives several examples to support his argument. For example, scholars and officials are looking into the possibility of recognizing “popular religion” as the sixth religion; and in the year of 2008 when the terrible earthquake struck Sichuan, religious groups were allowed to take part in relief actions. It’s hard to predict when will China open up religious freedom, though, Weller believes that the the policy makers are thinking hard about it right now.
Thomas DuBois: Local-state relations
The official line of the state can be quite different from local practice. The state may make laws that prohibit religious activities, but at the local level, religions are clearly recognized by local officials in a subtle way. Thomas DuBois says, “The state is very remote. It’s sort of a universal fact in Chinese history that the state is what we call ‘minimalist state.’” The notion of “minimalist state” contradicts most people’s impression of China’s authoritarian state. Let’s see how Thomas DuBois explains.
André Laliberté: Harmonious society
In the above article, you can find how the CCP changed its policies on religion, from United Front Policy (1949-1957) to the Leftist Period and the Cultural Revolution (1957-1978), and then, to the Reform and Opening (1978-present). And since 2004, the Party has been advocating “hexieshehui” (harmonious society) which expresses the government’s intention of reducing social tensions. Religion, heavily suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, is now considered an important contributing force to social harmony. Will “harmonious society” open CCP’s next stage policy on religion? Let’s see how André Laliberté explains.
Robert P. Weller: The future trend in China’s religious policy
It is too early to predict whether China will loosen up its policy on religion. But from the examples of other Chinese societies, such as Taiwan, religions have grown strongly as their politics move towards democracy. Will similar growth take place in China? Will an authoritarian regime allow religion to grow? Though we don’t know the answer yet, Robert P. Weller describes the pattern of China’s policy on religion in this way – get nervous, repress, relax, step back, and the growth resumes. Is this pattern a cycle? Will the state return to the “repress” stage after a blossom of religious revival? Soon we will see.