The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, but it recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. Authorities tightly monitor registered and unregistered groups. There are a growing number of religious believers, including those who practice folk religions and more than a dozen other banned faiths. China has one of the largest populations of religious prisoners, and some groups, including Uyghur Muslims, face high levels of persecution. Religious observation in China is on the rise. Amid China's economic boom and rapid modernization, experts point to the emergence of a spiritual vacuum as a trigger for the growing number of religious believers, particularly adherents of Christianity and traditional Chinese religious groups. While China's constitution allows religious belief, adherents across all religious organizations, from state-sanctioned to underground and banned groups, face intensifying persecution, repression, and pressure to adhere to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution says that citizens "enjoy freedom of religious belief." It bans discrimination based on religion and forbids state organs, public organizations, or individuals from compelling citizens to believe in-or not believe in any particular faith. The State Council, the government's administrative authority, passed regulations on religious affairs, which took effect in February 2018, to allow state-registered religious organizations to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations.
The state recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism.
Yet alongside these rights come heightened government controls. The revised rules include restrictions on religious schooling and the times and locations of religious celebrations, as well as monitoring of online religious activity and reporting donations that exceed 100,000 yuan (around $15,900). " Religious practices are limited to "normal religious activities," though "normal" is left undefined and can be broadly interpreted. The state recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. The practice of any other faith is formally prohibit, although often tolerated, especially in the case of traditional Chinese beliefs. Religious organizations must register with one of five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations, which are supervised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). The government's tally of registered religious believers is around two hundred million, or less than 10 percent of the population, according to several sources, including the UN Human Rights Council's 2018 Universal Periodic Review. Yet some independent reports suggest the number of religious adherents in China is far larger and is steadily increasing. The research and advocacy group Freedom House estimated in 2017 that there are more than 350 million religious believers in China, primarily made up of Chinese Buddhists, followed by Protestants, Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners, Catholics, and Tibetan Buddhists. Many believers do not follow organized religion and are said to practice traditional folk religion. These practitioners, along with members of underground house churches and banned religious groups, account for many of the country's unregistered believers. Chinese public security officials monitor both registered and unregistered religious groups to prevent activities that "disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State," as stipulated by the Chinese constitution.
In practice, however, monitoring and crackdowns often target peaceful activities that are protected under international law, say human rights watchdogs. Xi Jinping," writes Freedom House. Under Xi, the CCP has pushed to Sinicize religion, or shape all religions to conform to the doctrines of the officially atheist party and the customs of the majority Han Chinese population. New regulations that went into effect in early 2020 require religious groups to accept and spread CCP ideology and values Faith organizations must now get approval from the government's religious affairs office before conducting any activities. In addition, China is home to one of the largest populations of religious prisoners, likely numbering in the tens of thousands; while in custody, some are tortured or killed, rights groups say. The CCP is officially atheist. The party prohibits its more than ninety million party members from holding religious beliefs, and it has demanded the expulsion of party members who belong to religious organizations. Officials have said that party membership and religious beliefs are incompatible, and they discouraged families of CCP members from publicly participating in religious ceremonies. Although these regulations are not always strictly enforced, the party periodically takes steps to draw a clearer line on religion.
China has the world's largest Buddhist population, with an estimated 185-250 million practitioners, according to Freedom House. Though Buddhism originated in India, it has a long history and tradition in China and today is the country's largest institutionalized religion. Separately, a 2012 Pew Research Center report found that more than 294 million people, or 21 percent of China's population, practice folk religions. Chinese folk religions have no rigid organizational structure, blend practices from Buddhism and Daoism, and are manifest in the worship of ancestors, spirits, or other local deities. Though the number of traditional Chinese religious adherents is difficult to measure accurately, the building of new temples and the restoration of old temples signals the growth of Buddhism and folk beliefs in China. "Buddhism, Daoism, and other folk religions are seen as the most authentically Chinese religions and there is much more tolerance of these traditional religions than of Islam or Christianity," says journalist Barbara Demick, former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Since China's opening and reform in the 1980s, the party has been tolerant of, and tacitly approved, the rise in Buddhist practice. Buddhism because it believed doing so helped bolster the image of China's peaceful rise, supported the CCP's goal of creating a "harmonious society," and could help to improve relations with Taiwan, according to the University of Ottawa's Andre Laliberte.
China. Since Xi has come to power, experts have noted and apparent easing of tough rhetoric against, and even a promotion of, traditional beliefs in China. The Tibet Autonomous Region and its adjacent provinces are home to more than six million ethnic Tibetans, most of whom practice a distinct form of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Since 1987, he and his exiled government in India have played a prominent role in garnering international support for Tibetan autonomy. Buddhist monks within Tibet have also participated in largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations, though some have included riots and self-immolations. Experts say that discontent among Tibetan Buddhists stems in part from economic disparities between ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese, as well as from religious and political repression. Tibetans are believed to account for nearly 90 percent of the autonomous region's population, though large numbers of Han Chinese have migrated to Tibet as part of a broader campaign by China to modernize its western regions. A summary of global news developments with CFR analysis delivered to your inbox each morning. A weekly digest of the latest from CFR on the biggest foreign policy stories of the week, featuring briefs, opinions, and explainers. A curation of original analyses, data visualizations, and commentaries, examining the debates and efforts to improve health worldwide.
China's religious policy in Tibet is inherently tied to the ethno-religious status of Tibetan Buddhists. To quell dissent, the CCP restricts religious activity in Tibet and Tibetan communities outside of the autonomous region. The state monitors daily operations of major monasteries, with facial-recognition cameras posted outside, and it reserves the right to approve an individual's application to take up religious orders; restrictions also extend to lay Tibetan Buddhists, including people who work for the government and teachers. For example, in 2018, party cadres and officials were given control over Sichuan Province's Larung Gar, one of the world's largest Buddhist study centers. Authorities demolished nearly half of the center in 2019, displacing up to six thousand monks and nuns. Tibetan Buddhists face high levels of religious persecution. Authorities have reportedly detained and tortured monks and nuns for refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama, and laypeople have been ordered to replace photos of the Dalai Lama with Chinese leaders.
A Tibetan child believed to be a reincarnated, high-ranking religious leader, known as the Panchen Lama, was disappeared in 1995 and has not been seen since. The government designated another child as the official Panchen Lama, though many Tibetans do not accept him as such. Since the 1980s, China has seen a significant growth in Christianity, and today Protestantism is the country's fastest-growing religious group. There are three state-regulated Christian organizations and many underground house churches of widely varying size. 2010 there were sixty-seven million Christians in China, roughly 5 percent of the total population, and, of these, fifty-eight million were Protestant, including both state-sanctioned and independent churches. Others estimate this number to now be closer to one hundred million, with unregistered churchgoers outnumbering members of official churches nearly two to one. Meanwhile, the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' estimate is far smaller, tallying twenty-nine million Christian believers. In recent years, China has witnessed a spike in state repression against both house churches and state-sanctioned Christian organizations, including campaigns to remove hundreds of rooftop crosses from churches, forced demolitions of churches, and harassment and imprisonment of Christian pastors and priests.
ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian nongovernmental organization, said that religious persecution, primarily against Christians, was on the rise. The report cited over one million cases of religious persecution in 2018. More than five thousand people were detained, including more than one thousand church leaders. One of China's most prominent Christian voices and the founder of a large underground church, Pastor Wang Yi, was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2019 after a court charged him with subversion of state power and illegal business operations. The Vatican has not had diplomatic ties with China, home to some ten to twelve million Catholics, since 1951. Its recognition of Taiwan and a dispute over the bishop appointment process has been major sticking points. However, in a sign of possible warming relations in 2018, the two sides reached a provisional agreement in which Pope Francis recognized several Chinese state-appointed bishops who had been excommunicated.
Muslims make up about 1.8 percent of China's population, accounting for around twenty-two million people. China has ten predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Hui, an ethnic group related to the majority Han population and closely related to the majority Han population and largely based in western China's Ningxia Autonomous Region and the Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan provinces. The Uyghurs, a Turkic people who live primarily in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in northwest China, are also predominantly Muslim. There are about eleven million Uyghurs in this region, making up approximately half of its population. Officials in Xinjiang tightly control religious activity, while Muslims in the rest of the country have typically enjoyed greater religious freedom. In recent years, however, Hui Muslims in northwestern China have experienced an uptick in repression, including the imprisonment of religious leaders and forced closure of mosques. For decades, Chinese authorities have cracked down on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, claiming the community holds extremist and separatist ideas. They point to occasional outbursts of violence against government workers and civilians in the region and have blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group founded by militant Uyghurs, for several terrorist attacks throughout China. Experts say most Uyghurs do not support the violence, but many are frustrated by frequent discrimination and the influx of Han Chinese to the region, as they disproportionately benefit from economic opportunities.