China has had a long and troubled relationship with religious belief. When Mao Zedong created the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the country’s resentment of longstanding foreign interference combined with dogmatic Marxist atheism resulted in government suppression of organized religion. Missionaries were driven out, and monks were jailed. Traditional Chinese Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship were prohibited from open practice, and “foreign” Christianity and Islam suppressed. Since the workers were in charge of the country – as the official line went – “the opiate of the people,” was no longer needed.
Massive propaganda campaigns denigrated religions, religious festivals, even folk storytelling. Only a few government-controlled “patriotic churches” were allowed to exist. Fearing the influence of Tibet’s Lama Buddhism, the Chinese army invaded the country in 1950, forcing the Dalai Lama into exile. Then the Cultural Revolution sought to replace every aspect of traditional Chinese life with Communist ideology.
In 1981, things began to change. Mao was dead, his Cultural Revolution and “Great Leap Forward” widely viewed as failures. The climate improved somewhat for religion, perhaps because leaders thought relaxed control preferable to underground and unknown religious influence.
But recently, the uneasy truce between Communist government and religious practice began to break down. Forty Chinese Catholic Bishops, for example, operated under the radar, backed by Rome but not by the Chinese government which refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope. In response, the Chinese government appointed seven of its own Bishops, some of which the Vatican promptly excommunicated.
Then last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping cracked down on religions, increasing the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uighurs, Falun Gong practitioners and any other spiritual belief or religious minority not under state control. At the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi said that religions must “uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”
This year began with the government dynamiting a Christian megachurch and in February enacting new policies which “regulate the management of religious affairs.” Under those regulations: “All religious sites must be registered; no religious activities can be held beyond registered venues; non-registered clergy are forbidden to host religious liturgies; and party members and minors are prohibited from entering a church,” according to The Catholic Herald.
Then this September the Chinese government passed new rules updating the February regulations to further restrict religious communication. According to the Global Times, the new regulations will require religions to obtain licenses from provincial government religious affairs departments and will ban online preaching or livestreaming of religious services. Religions cannot promote businesses online, distribute religious supplies or publications, establish religious organizations or venues, develop believers, pray, burn incense, or show worship or baptism in the form of text, photo, audio or video. The new rules, according to the Chinese government, will “ensure citizens’ freedom of religious belief and maintain religious and social harmony.”
The Vatican eventually relented on government appointment of Bishops. Pope Francis agreed to recognize the legitimacy of the seven Bishops appointed by the government-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and the Church ordained one of the Bishops it had formerly excommunicated. In exchange the Vatican will have a say in how Bishops are named. But the diplomatic deal worries Taiwan, which is claimed by mainland China and which enjoys religious freedom. The Vatican is one of only a handful of governments that recognize Taiwan, and a deal between the Holy See and the Chinese Communist Government could end that.