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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. 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).

https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/religion-china

Why is China regulating religion? I don't see other countries do it, or at least not as much as China does. What is the main goal being pursued by the Chinese Communist Party by increasingly regulating religions practiced in China. Do they fear religious groups? If so why, and is the feeling warranted by history or politics somehow?

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    "I don't see other countries do it as much as China"? Seriously? There are countries with state religions mandating death penalties for heretics... China does horrible things to believers, including indoctrination and sterilization, but it's far from the only one. The rules as quoted are barely relevant except that they provide another avenue of control through "state-registration".
    – DonFusili
    Jul 23 at 7:08
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    China monitors, regulates or restricts pretty much everything, so why wouldn't they regulate religion? If anything, I'd wonder why they don't just outright ban it instead, given that many/most religions carry the belief that their god is the ultimate authority (which is not exactly what you want when you want citizens to do what the government says above all else). But there are probably historic or political reasons for not banning it.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 23 at 19:06
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    There is definite evidence that followers of Falun Gong are also held in concentration camps in China where they undergo forced organ harvesting for organ transplants, this is a new form of evil although I don't know if other countries also do it behind closed doors (that's sadly possible). I believe they originally cracked down on Falun Gong because there were actually many more members of FG than the Chinese Community Party itself, so it was a competitor and had to be stamped out.
    – Tom
    Jul 23 at 19:59
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    States have two types of relationship with religion. Either the religion provides a narrative in which magical deity(ies) support the state by offering political and economic support via divine affirmation of the ruler's place in the seat of political power, or the religion does not do so. In the latter case, religion becomes a competing source of economic and political power. A one-party state abhors competition.
    – J...
    Jul 25 at 18:50
  • Terror management theory implies that if people are denied the ability to hold religious beliefs (and especially the believe in an afterlife), they will instead hold more nationalistic beliefs.
    – Jonah
    Jul 25 at 23:31
68

I would take a somewhat less cynical view than @JamesK, who frames the matter as a Machiavellian motivated action in his answer, rather than as a legitimate ideological stance and policy with intellectual merit.

But, the bottom line is that the official doctrine of the Chinese Communist Party, which has been in place since its inception, which was central to the formation of the modern Chinese regime is that God and the supernatural do not exist. It is further committed, as a central aspect of its doctrine, to the position that religious activity has the potential to be actively harmful to society and to the the working people of the country, undermining their interests.

This doctrine has roots in Communist ideology pre-dating its arrival in China. It goes all of the way back to Karl Marx, who is the most important intellectual source of the ideas and ideologies known as Communism. See, for example, Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843), in which Marx wrote:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the soul of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of social conditions from which the spirit is excluded. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the requirement formulated by their real happiness. To demand that he renounce illusions about his situation is to demand that he renounce a situation that needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in germ the criticism of this valley of tears of which religion is the halo.

Notably, freedom of religion was not widespread in the years when Marx wrote this, with most countries in Europe at the time having established religions, heresy laws, etc.

The U.S. had adopted its First Amendment freedom of religion at the time, but it had not yet been widely litigated, and was rarely practiced in Europe. The most bold experiment with a freedom of religion in Europe, in the French Revolution of 1789, had been repudiated and reversed by 1801. Revolutions carrying on that enlightenment spirit in 1848 across Europe, were short lived or failed entirely. Most Europeans only secured sustained democratic governance and freedom of religion in the last 19th century, when Marx, who died in 1883, was an old man, if they secured it at all.

The Constitution of China, enacted under pressure from international human rights movements informed by the success of freedom of religion in the U.S. in the post-World War II era, a century after this doctrine was firmly entrenched in Communist ideology, officially tolerates religious belief.

But, consistent with Communist Party ideology, it construed the freedom of conscience expressed in its constitution narrowly and views collective expressions of religious belief and religious organizations with skepticism as a possible threat to society and a possible threat to the working class people of the country. Therefore, it heavily regulates this kind of activity.

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    +1 for your very moderate answer.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Jul 23 at 9:57
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    To quote Marx, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the soul of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of social conditions from which the spirit is excluded. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the requirement formulated by their real happiness. To demand that he renounce illusions about his situation is to demand that he renounce a situation that needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in germ the criticism of this valley of tears of which religion is the halo." Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right
    – Xi'an
    Jul 23 at 11:22
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    This is the best answer. It tells the truth without casting anyone as right or wrong or a hero or villain. Jul 23 at 14:40
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    @RobertColumbia And yet I can imagine no issue with casting any organization that either indoctrinates to their "religion" and/or sterilizes religious followers as a villain, in any setting. (not taking away from this being a good answer)
    – TCooper
    Jul 23 at 17:54
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    This is not a "moderate" answer. It is not valid to tout religious tolerance while simultaneously exterminating the influence of an innocuous religious movement. The only reasonable conclusion is that the Communist party doctrine has its basis in manipulation and deception. To state the facts as they are, that the "official" claims of the party and the actions of the party (which speak louder than words) are inconsistent, is not a position lacking moderacy. To contradict or ignore these facts would be irrational.
    – pygosceles
    Jul 24 at 19:25
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The Church is a source of authority other than the Communist Party of China. One of the basic principles of the PRC, even as it moves from war to peace and from Cultural Revolution to Xi Jinping Thought, is that the only source of authority can be the Communist Party. It is anathema that an organisation can claim authority entirely independent of the CCP.

Communism is antagonistic to Religion. Religions, in Marxist thought, are an ally of the the Capitalists. They offer hope of a heavenly afterlife, which dampens the revolutionary vigour of the working class.

I don't know if the CCP fear the religions, but certainly religious groups can wield considerable power: look at the Catholic Church in Europe. Or Islam in Asia. Or Buddhism in Thailand. Or Confucianism in Imperial China. Religions have always been a source of power, and rulers have either had to control and integrate them, as Henry VIII did in England or as the Thai Kings do.

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    @user253751: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people
    – Jens
    Jul 23 at 7:49
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    @jens: It is worth emphasising that the quote doesn't state that religion is 'bad' (read the full quote); also, opium was seen in a less negative light at that time - although the downsides were known, it was still considered a near-miraculous, new medicine. 'The people' - ie the mostly poor working class - could hardly afford this luxury painkiller, so religion was the substitute for opium.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Jul 23 at 9:49
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    This answer seems to be based mostly on opinion and speculation. In my experience, opinion based answer are promptly deleted, because they are not 'fact-based' - or perhaps that is only if you have the wrong opinion. Just my observation.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Jul 23 at 9:53
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    A minor correction, Confucianism is a teaching/education, not a religion.
    – r13
    Jul 23 at 14:58
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    Depends on your definition of Religion. It has supernatural elements (ancestor worship, for example)
    – James K
    Jul 23 at 15:02
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China is regulating religion because they see it as a direct threat to the communist state. History has shown that the collapse of the Soviet Union was closely connected to a strong religious opposition, while in East Germany (DDR) the police and army said after the collapse of the Wall that they had been prepared for every possible kind of resistance in case of an overthrow, but not for prayers and candles.

Many religious wars have shown that the faith of the people creates incredible motivation (I don't justify any kind of religious war). The CPC knows this psychological dimension and is very afraid of it, as it has the potential to bring down the whole system in China. But they learned from the mistakes of their communist predecessors and try to get it handled different.

North Korea is #1 and China is #17 in terms of persecution of Christians (see this link).

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This question has itself a questionable premise: that there is a universal something called "religion" distinct from "secular" life. Under this premise, there are some states which establish a "religion" (i.e. are theocracies), some which restrict "religious freedom" (i.e. suppress religion), and others which are liberal (i.e. have freedom of religion). The reality is that all political orders are constituted by a shared conception of sacred duties derived from the order of the universe. This is the essence of religion. To quote William James, religion is based on "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."

This misconception is easy to fall into if one's background is Western, where religion is associated with beliefs in the supernatural, a monotheistic Supreme Being, and an individual afterlife, and the sacred duties which follow from such realities. But Chinese culture is a counterexample to this delimitation of religion. The main historical "religions" of China (ancestor worship, Daoism, Buddhism) all violate such Western preconceptions, and they all offer little (compared to Abrahamic religions) in terms of sacred duties regulating life in society. Instead, the political theories of Confucianism, Legalism, and Mohism fit the description of religion better. These political theories have always been subject to government restriction in China, depending on the philosophy of the government in power. Yet Communist China (like most dynasties) -- with the exception of the Cultural Revolution -- has been unconcerned with the merely spiritual, private "religions" like Daoism.

Similarly, in the West, freedom of religion has only become possible by redefining Western Christianity to be merely private and spiritual, like Eastern "religions". When the Catholic Church resisted this governmental redefinition, it faced laicite (in France) and kulturkampf (in Germany). Similarly, even in America, John F. Kennedy had to reject the authority of the Pope while campaigning for president.

Thus, there is not so big a difference between Communist China and the West. Communist China is (or at least claims to be) based on an atheistic religion (Marxism) in which there are sacred duties (to the working class) based on an unseen order (the historical dialectic and the laws of history). Organizations which do not recognize this unseen order (especially Christianity, with its very different eschatology, and thus, perspective on the laws of history) undermine the basis of the current government. The modern West has a political order based on an agnostic religion (the idea of sacred autonomous human rights), leading to sacred duties (to respect individual autonomy, equality, and freedom), based on an unseen order (these human rights, plus the Whig idea of historical progress). Organizations which oppose this view (the Communist Party, the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, "fundamentalist" Islam, various "hate groups") generally face restrictions in the West.

It is true that the United States is generally a lot more free than Western Europe. But restriction against religious education (e.g. Islamist behavior in schools, conservative Christian homeschooling) in Western Europe is remarkably analogous to restrictions in China. Similarly, someone who engages in "hate speech" (which undermines the sacred Western order of human equality and human rights) in Europe will find oneself removed from corporate leadership and public life as quickly as Jack Ma did after he called for fully abandoning socialism by setting capital free (which undermines the sacred Chinese order of political supremacy over capital supremacy). Of course, someone in the West won't disappear temporarily like Jack Ma, or permanently like Falun Gong practitioners. But the essential difference between Communist China and Western Europe is over habeas corpus and rule of law, not freedom of religion.

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Here are two specific examples of China regulating religion, apparently as a threat to the China Communist Party's power and athiest Marxist ideology.

One major aspect is the long-running Xinjiang conflict, an ethnic conflict mainly between the People's Republic of China and predominantly Muslim and Turkic Uyghurs. To the CCP, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang pose a serious threat to stability, with the East Turkestan independence movement and notable terrorist attacks such as the 1997 Ürümqi bus bombings. Examples of crackdowns on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities include China's "Strike Hard" Campaign, which is officially framed as counter-insurgency against Islamist terrorism, as part of a global "war on terrorism". According to China's Search for Security by Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell:

The three evils are "transnational terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism," all three of which the CCP believes the Uighurs possess. The true reason for the repression of the Uighurs is quite convoluted but it seems to be based on the CCP's desire to maintain China's identity and integrity rather than its desire to denounce terrorism.

Another religious movement that China has repressed is Falun Gong. The crackdown started after a large protest by 10,000 practitioners in April 1999. From the Wikipedia article: party general secretary Jiang Zemin "was reportedly angered by the audacity of the demonstration—the largest since the Tiananmen Square protests ten years earlier." and according to a letter written by Jiang:

In the letter, Jiang expressed concerns over the size and popularity of Falun Gong, and in particular about the large number of senior Communist Party members found among Falun Gong practitioners. He believed it possible foreign forces were behind Falun Gong's protests (the practice's founder, Li Hongzhi, had emigrated to the United States), and expressed concern about their use of the internet to coordinate a large-scale demonstration. Jiang also intimated that Falun Gong's moral philosophy was at odds with the atheist values of Marxist–Leninism, and therefore constituted a form of ideological competition.

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  • This is the best answer I have seen. It relies on facts and relevant historic events and policy statements, rather than on speculation.
    – pygosceles
    Jul 24 at 19:46
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    I appreciate your kind words. I try to make my answers backed up with facts as much as possible instead of opinion and I encourage everyone on this site to do the same.
    – qwr
    Jul 24 at 21:23
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Any organised group outside of CCP overview that can congregate en masse is conceivably a threat to the CCP and is typically treated as such.

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    This follows in the same line of reasoning as any totalitarian regime: The broad exercise of rights, and the ability of citizens to provide a check against centralized power, is thought of as a threat. The only exception to this rule is in governments where individual rights are respected and promoted by those in government. In that case the exercise of rights is (rightly) seen as an asset, not a liability.
    – pygosceles
    Jul 24 at 19:59
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Some religions are not JUST religions. That is, they are not concerned with purely spiritual matters. So if some religion believes that it is divinely ordained act in the world, in order to impose its beliefs on unbelievers, then it can become a hate group, and/or a revolutionary group.

As a (I hope fairly noncontroversial) example, take the Japanese Aum Shinrykyo religion, at least some members of which saw its teachings as ordaining mass murders: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleph_(Japanese_cult) We can find quite a number of similar examples in recent history: religiously-motivated hate groups such the Westboro Baptist Church, religiously-motivated mass murders such as the People's Temple.

This being the case, shouldn't a government treat these religiously-motivated groups exactly the same as groups whose motivation isn't religious?

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    How is this related to the question?
    – Ray Wu
    Jul 23 at 20:40
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    @Ray Wu: Because it seems to be the obvious reason for China to regulate religions, of course.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 24 at 3:40
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    Yeah we don't want to impose our beliefs on unbelievers, we should do what the atheist of the 20th century did and just kill everyone who does not conform. Really it is religion that is the problem.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 24 at 5:52
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    @Eric Duminil: But many religions don't go around forcing their beliefs on others, at least in the present day. Even notable past offenders in this respect, like the Christians, mostly resort to voting Republican (in the US). Beyond that, in many cases the authority is spiritual. E.g. if your deity says you shouldn't eat bacon, or you should wear funny underwear, you can do that without coming into conflict with civil authorities.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 24 at 17:25
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    I find it highly unlikely that cults are the reason the CCP is regulating all religious groups
    – Ray Wu
    Jul 24 at 18:24
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The marxism (both USSR and China varieties) can be seen as a religion itself, especially in its role of a state religion.

It has its parallel hierarchy, its god, its undoubtbale scriptures, its prophets, its baptism and its saints. It even has its sects.

It is intolerant by design (like a lot of religions, at least in part of their evolution) and didn't existed for long enough to (be forced to) implement its mechanisms of tolerance.

That's why it reacts to the carriers of any other religion as if they are infidels. They are either to be baptized or to be obliterated.

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Chinese people are easy to be incited and motivated. We can see the heroic performance of People's Liberation Army the Korean War. But when it comes to blind faith on some religions, which may cause harm, the situation is different.

China is always a populous country. How to manage so many people steadily may be a problem for Chinese leaders. It is conceivable that not only religion is regulated, there are a lot thing seems normal may rise to the height of criminal cases for a stable social order. For example, if you want to parade and demonstrate on the streets of China, you shall first go to the police station to report the number of people and demonstration content.

Let's look back at some influential protest activity of Falun Gong without knowing its doctrine. The supporter of Falun Gong once set themselves on fire in front of Tiananmen Square. Other supporters of Falun Gong even bring his own ignorant children to self-immolation together. If you admire their courage to self-immolate to against the government, how can most people accept such a result when it comes to reality, who only feel panicky about this. It is unimaginable today with the development of the information age and the popularization of education.

The supporter of Falun Gong preach that they have suffered great persecution from China, but most Chinese people always have a bad impact on them. And most Chinese people are atheist.

Most of these are what I heard from one of my friends in China. What I truly agree is that it is really difficulty too manage so many people.

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    So you're saying that China regulates religion to stop Falun Gong members from immolating themselves? Even though the reason they're doing that in the first place is to protest the regulation of religion? That sounds rather circular.
    – F1Krazy
    Aug 2 at 17:34

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