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People's Republic of China - Religion

China has an area of 3.5 million square miles and a population of 1.3 billion. A February 2007 survey conducted by researchers in Shanghai and reported in state-run media concluded that 31.4 percent of citizens ages 16 and over are religious believers. About two hundred million respondents to the survey described themselves as Buddhist, Taoist, or worshippers of folk gods. In its report to the United Nations Human Rights Council during its Universal Periodic Review session in February 2009, the government stated there were 100 million religious believers in the country. It is difficult to estimate the number of Buddhists and Taoists, because they do not have congregational memberships, and many practice exclusively at home. A 2007 Chinese public opinion polling firm found that 11 to 16 percent of adults identify themselves as Buddhists, and less than 1 percent of adults identify themselves as Taoists. The Xinhua news agency estimated there are 100 million Buddhists in the country.

Traditionally, China's Confucian elite disparaged religion and religious practitioners, and the state suppressed or controlled organized religious groups. The social status of Buddhist monks and Taoist priests was low, and ordinary people did not generally look up to them as models. In the past, religion was diffused throughout the society, a matter as much of practice as of belief, and had a weak institutional structure. Essentially the same pattern continues in contemporary society, except that the ruling elite is even less religious and there are even fewer religious practitioners.

The attitude of the party has been that religion is a relic of the past, evidence of prescientific thinking, and something that will fade away as people become educated and acquire a scientific view of the world. On the whole, religion has not been a major issue. Cadres and party members, in ways very similar to those of Confucian elites, tend to regard many religious practitioners as charlatans out to take advantage of credulous people, who need protection. In the 1950s many Buddhist monks were returned to secular life, and monasteries and temples lost their lands in the land reform. Foreign missionaries were expelled, often after being accused of spying, and Chinese Christians, who made up only a very small proportion of the population, were the objects of suspicion because of their foreign contacts. Chinese Christian organizations were established, one for Protestants and one for Roman Catholics, which stressed that their members were loyal to the state and party. Seminaries were established to train "patriotic" Chinese clergy, and the Chinese Catholic Church rejected the authority of the Vatican, ordaining its own priests and installing its own bishops. The issue in all cases, whether involving Christians, Buddhists, or members of underground Chinese sects, was not so much doctrine or theology as recognition of the primacy of loyalty to the state and party. Folk religion was dismissed as superstition. Temples were for the most part converted to other uses, and public celebration of communal festivals stopped, but the state did not put much energy into suppressing folk religion.

The constitution states that Chinese citizens "enjoy freedom of religious belief." It also bans the state, public organizations, and individuals from compelling citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion. The constitution and laws protect "normal" religious activities," which are overseen by the five (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations." By law only they may register religious groups and places of worship. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members are discouraged from participating in religious activities. The government permits proselytizing in registered places of worship and in private settings.

Proselytizing in public, unregistered places of worship, or by foreigners is not permitted. Some religious or spiritual groups are outlawed, including the Falun Gong. Other religious groups, such as Protestant "house churches" or Catholics loyal to the Vatican, are not outlawed, but are not permitted to openly hold religious services unless they affiliate with a patriotic religious association. In some parts of the country, authorities have charged religious believers unaffiliated with a patriotic religious association with "illegal religious activities" or "disrupting social stability." Punishments for these charges range from fines to imprisonment.

Local governments have legalized certain religions and practices in addition to the five nationally recognized religions. Examples include Orthodox Christianity in some provinces, including Xinjiang, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong. Some ethnic minorities have retained or reclaimed traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi. The worship of the folk deity Mazu reportedly has been reclassified as "cultural heritage" rather than religious practice.

The criminal law defines banned groups as "evil cults." A 1999 judicial explanation stated this term "refers to those illegal groups that have been found using religions, Qigong or other things as a camouflage, deifying their leading members, recruiting and controlling their members, and deceiving people by molding and spreading superstitious ideas, and endangering the society." There are no public criteria for determining, or procedures for challenging, such a designation. The government maintained its bans on the Guan Yin (also known as Guanyin Famin or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy); Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline); and Falun Gong.

Falun Gong is a self-described spiritual discipline that combines qigong (a traditional Chinese exercise discipline) with the teachings of founder Li Hongzhi. Prior to the Government's 1999 ban of Falun Gong, it estimated that there were 70 million adherents. Falun Gong sources estimated that since 1999 at least 6,000 Falun Gong practitioners have been sentenced to prison. Falun Gong adherents have also been subjected to administrative sentences of up to three years in reeducation through labor (RTL) camps. Falun Gong estimated more than 100,000 adherents in the country have been sentenced to RTL. Family members reported the harsh treatment of Falun Gong practitioners, including the use of torture. Falun Gong practitioners were also subjected to detention in psychiatric hospitals on the orders of public security officials.

Much of traditional ritual and religion survives or has been revived, especially in the countryside. In the mid-1980s the official press condemned such activities as wasteful and reminded rural party members that they should neither participate in nor lead such events, but it did not make the subject a major issue. Families could worship their ancestors or traditional gods in the privacy of their homes but had to make all ritual paraphernalia (incense sticks, ancestral tablets, and so forth) themselves, as it was no longer sold in shops. The scale of public celebrations was muted, and full-time professional clergy played no role. Folk religious festivals were revived in some localities, and there was occasional rebuilding of temples and ancestral halls. In rural areas, funerals were the ritual having the least change, although observances were carried out only by family members and kin, with no professional clergy in attendance. Such modest, mostly household-based folk religious activity was largely irrelevant to the concerns of the authorities, who ignored or tolerated it.

The Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) does not recognize the authority of the Holy See to appoint bishops; therefore, approximately 40 Catholic bishops remained independent of the CPA and operated unofficially. The CPA has allowed the Vatican discreet input in selecting some bishops, and an estimated 90 percent of CPA bishops have reconciled with the Vatican. Nevertheless, in some locations, local authorities reportedly pressured unregistered Catholic priests and believers to renounce ordinations approved by the Holy See. The Vatican has also given official approval to the majority of Catholic bishops appointed by the government through "apostolic mandates."

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Page last modified: 24-05-2012 19:27:12 ZULU