The practice of religion in China was forbidden during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Churches, temples, and mosques were closed, and practitioners hid any religious leanings they might have had. Today, the practice of religion is arguably the strongest it has been in the last 60 years. In a survey conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2006, 31% of respondents ranked religion as being somewhat or very important in their lives, while 11% considered it not at all important. Though the number of believers are difficult to determine because many have kept their faith hidden in the face of the Communist Party’s traditional hostility towards religion, a separate survey conducted by the East China Normal Univeristy in 2007 found that nearly one quarter (about 300 million) of the population may be religious believers, three times the official figure of 100 million.
China officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Daoists, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, but allows worship only in its state-approved churches, temples, and mosques. The East China Normal University survey also reported that a majority of worshippers, an estimated 200 million people, are Buddhists.
But Christianity is flourishing as well. It is difficult to obtain hard numbers as there is an official state-approved church and an underground church, with estimates ranging from 40 million (in official approved churches) to 70 million (including underground churches or “house churches” — religious services held in practioners’ homes). Of the 40 million churchgoers, the majority are Protestants and about 12 million are estimated Catholics. Many believers still worship underground and refuse to sign on to the state-sanctioned church. The Catholic Church in China answers to Beijing, not the Vatican, with the former retaining the power to appoint bishops. In mid-2008, there are signs of some sort of rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican as the China Philharmonic Orchestra performed for Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.
In a further sign of Christianity’s growing importance and popularity in China, the city of Nanjing, China is home to the world’s largest Bible printing factory — Nanjing Amity Printing Company — which has printed more than 50 million Bibles in 75 languages in the last 20 years. Only bibles sold through a state-approved church in China are legal. Those caught smuggling unauthorized Bibles can end up in jail.
House churches are often harassed by the authorities, but there are also signs of a greater tolerance of them by the Communist Party. In March 2008, a Christian religious freedom group Open Doors International supported the United States' decision to remove China from its top ten list of human rights-abusing countries because “religious freedom in China, compared to five, ten years ago is in much better shape now.”
In its quest for a “harmonious society,” the Chinese government realizes that the practice of religion may be useful, and to that aim, has been relaxing some of its state control of religious organizations, acknowledging their contributions, and encouraging them to further social service. At the 17th Party Congress in October 2007, the word “religion” was even added to the Party constitution. The rule seems to be that as long as one is loyal to the Communist Party, practitioners can pray and worship as they wish. Any religion or independent movement deemed to challenge the authority or the legitimacy of the Communist party is strictly banned, such as the Falun Gong Movement a decade ago.
1 “Religion in China on the eve of the 2008 Olympics,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, May 2, 2008, http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=301 (accessed 7/26/08).
2 Wu Jiao, “Religious believers thrice the estimate,” China Daily, February 7, 2007, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-02/07/content_802994.htm (accessed 7/26/08).
3 Wu Jiao, “Thrice the Estimate.”
4 Evan Osnos, “Jesus in China: Life on the Edge,” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 2008, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-jesus-in-china_day_2jun24,0,357965.story (accessed 6//27/08).
5 Don Lee, “Beijing making concert effort at Vatican,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2008, http://articles.latimes.com/2008/may/01/world/fg-chinaphil1 (accessed 7/26/08).
6 Ching-Ching Ni, “China set to become top Bible maker,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2008, http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/21/world/fg-bible22 (accesed 7/26/08).
7 Preeti Bhattacharji, “Backgrounder: Religion in China,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 16, 2008, http://www.cfr.org/publication/16272/religion_in_china.html (accessed 6/23/08).
8 James Tong, “The Regulations on Religious Affairs of China: Provincial Regulations and Implementation.November, 2004 – November 2006,” Congressional-Executive Committee on China Issues Roundtable, November 20, 2006, http://www.cecc.gov/pages/roundtables/2006/20061120/Tong.php (accessed 6/24/08).
9 Evan Osnos, “Church and state in China: A primer,” Chicago Tribune, June 21, 2008, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-jesus_day_1_sidejun22,0,926043.story (accessed 6/27/08).