Chapter 2, Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution reads: “No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”
Despite seemingly expansive, lofty rhetoric forbidding the state from discriminating against citizens who believe in any religion, Article 36 explicitly limits such protections to “normal religious activities,” a vague term that has been interpreted to justify the persecution of religious practitioners who belong to denominations not approved by the Communist Party. Although the Chinese Supreme People’s Court has rendered Chapter 2 of the Constitution effectively meaningless, the second part of Article 36 accurately reflects the government’s position on religious freedom. Chinese law approves of only five “normal” religious faiths. Moreover, religious activities may not “disrupt public order” or contradict government propaganda. Chinese authorities also prohibit foreign religious bodies from exercising any form of control over doctrine or the appointment of religious leaders.
According to the 2005 Regulation on Religious Affairs, the five “normal,” permitted religions are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. The Communist Party heavily regulates religious institutions through the State Administration for Religious Affairs and lower-level religious affairs bureaus, allowing citizens to practice only officially sanctioned versions of permitted religions. The Communist Party, an officially atheist organization, exercises control over the appointment of religious leaders and the parameters of acceptable beliefs and practices.
Religious groups outside of the five officially approved religions have difficulty obtaining legal status and their places of worship are vulnerable to raids or forced demolition. Moreover, public security forces are known to harass, detain, and torture individual members of outlawed religious faiths. Common methods of administrative detention include sending practitioners to laojiao (reeducation through labor) labor camps, law education centers, black jails, and psychiatric hospitals. Public security forces may confine individuals in these administrative detention centers for years without judicial oversight or indeed any form of due process protections. Chinese authorities have also used the formal criminal justice system to persecute adherents of certain religious sects by charging them with crimes under the Criminal Law. Common offenses include engaging in “illegal religious activities,” “disrupting social stability,” and “illegal operation of a business.” Courts have also convicted religious believers on charges of “economic crimes” and “endangering state security” on account of their religious activities.
Members of Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims arguably face the most intense persecution. Falun Gong, a religious movement based on qigong principles and cultivation of Buddhist virtues, initially enjoyed the support of Chinese authorities. In the mid to late 1990’s, however, the Chinese government increasingly viewed the movement as a threat on account of its size, independence from the Party, and content of its teachings. Falun Gong leaders and adherents subsequently protested the increasingly harsh treatment they endured. In response, the Party launched an intense, widespread, and violent crackdown on the group, which has been spearheaded by 6-10 Office, a department established with the sole purpose of eradicating Falun Gong. Although the number of active Falun Gong practitioners has dwindled considerably from the tens of millions of members during the 1990’s, countless practitioners are still subjected to intense persecution.
Tibetan Buddhists have endured severe persecution since the Chinese Communist Party first invaded and occupied Tibet in the 1950s. For a brief overview of the persecution of Tibetans under communist rule, see this summary provided by the International Campaign for Tibet. In recent years, the Communist Party has violently suppressed unsanctioned expression of Tibetan cultural traditions, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. Chinese public security confiscate portraits of Tibetan deities and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader in exile, and beat Tibetans who refuse to hand over prohibited religious artifacts. Tibetans are also subjected to intense surveillance. In response to the systematic attempt to destroy traditional Tibetan culture, a growing number of Tibetan activists have engaged in self-immolation, the act of lighting one’s self on fire. Despite pleas from the Dalai Lama for the cessation of self-immolations, as of December 4, 2013, 123 Tibetans have lit themselves on fire over the past two years.
Chinese authorities also heavily regulate the practice of Islam, particularly in the western province of Xinjiang. Chinese authorities frequently level charges of “endangering state security” (ESS) against Muslims living in Xinjiang who protest government policies. In 2011, 86% of all arrests for ESS nationwide occurred in Xinjiang. In 2012, 75% of all ESS arrests occurred in the province.
Chinese Christians are only permitted to join the official Protestant Church or official Catholic Church, which is not recognized by the Vatican. The Party controls the doctrine, activities, and leadership of these approved sects. Chinese Christians who refuse to join either of these official denominations are forced to practice at an “underground church.” Underground churches are vulnerable to raids and demolition by authorities. Worshippers at unsanctioned churches are also subject to harassment and arbitrary detention.