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  • Chinese Religions on the Edge:Shifting Religion-State Dynamics*
  • Nanlai Cao (bio)

Not unlike in the modern Western world of Europe and the United States, the rise of the modern Chinese nation-state has led to the construction of "religion" as an autonomous institutional category distinct from secular state order. Since the end of the 19th century and the early 20th, the modern Chinese state's insistence on secularization and on defining and framing acceptable religion has often made religion an anomalous "question" in social and political life.1 Perhaps more than in any other countries, state-driven secularization and modernization in China resulted in violent and tragic consequences inflicted by state authorities and modernity on traditional religious culture and practices.2 While the unexpected resurgence of religious life in the post-Mao era defies the historical narrative of secularization in the West, Chinese government policy toward religion has, for the most part, sought to relentlessly enact the classic version of secularization thesis into reality to make religion irrelevant to public life. On the one hand, state-approved religious forms and contexts always play a dominant role in structuring religion's central, normative properties. On the other hand, there are also [End Page 1] constant articulations of new framings by a great variety of religious individuals and groups on the edge of state-engineered secularization. This dynamic and often intensely contentious interplay between religion and the Chinese state has made China's religious freedom a pressing and hotly contested issue of the globalized world today.

While generally perceived to be restrictive if not antireligious in nature, China's religious policy appears deeply contradictory and inconsistent, having contributed to a spectrum of religion-state relations across Chinese society that can be described as symbiotic, as adversarial, or in terms of a zone of indifference.3 The dilemma of state control on religion is exemplified in the central policy discourse. On 3 April 2018, the Information Office of the State Council (China's Cabinet) issued a white paper titled "China's Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief" (中國保障宗教信仰自由的政策與實踐 Zhongguo baozhang zongjiao xinyang ziyou de zhengce yu shijian). On the one hand, it reiterates the freedom of religious belief as a constitutional right for Chinese citizens and highlights the positive role of religion in the socialist modernization and in the realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation. On the other hand, it calls for actively guiding religions in adapting to the socialist society and to the times and for upholding the principle that all religions in China must be Chinese in orientation. In recent years, especially since the CPC Central Committee's Conference on United Front Work (2015) and the National Religious Work Conference (2016), the Chinese party-state has increasingly integrated its religious work into the national system of state governance and party building. The recent restructuring and incorporation of the State Administration of Religious Affairs or SARA (國家宗教事務局 guojia zongjiao shiwu ju) into the CPC Department of United Front Work (中共中央統戰部 zhonggong zhongyang tongzhanbu) both attests to and is backed up by the fundamental political principle of "the party manages religion" (黨管宗教 dang guan zongjiao). Wang Zuo'an (王作安), the new vice minister of the United Front Work and head of SARA, recently stressed the party's centralized and unified leadership over religious work (党對宗教工作的集中統一領導 dang dui zongjiaogongzuo de jizhong tongyi lingdao).4 On the national level, the party-state has been strictly implementing the disciplinary rule of "party members should not have religious belief" (黨員不能信教 dangyuan buneng xinjiao), reinforcing the importance of atheism for Party purity. All of this leads to further politicization of religion characterized by the state's pragmatic use of the resources of religion in promoting national [End Page 2] unity, social stability and regime resilience. This type of official policy statement has proven instrumental in refuting international criticism of China's lack of progress in protecting religious freedom.

However, at the time of writing, a state-led, top-down rectification campaign is under way to not only sinicize religion but also diminish the public presence of religion, especially foreign-originated ones such as Christianity and Islam, in many different sectors of society and regions of the country. A large...


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