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The Current Church-State Relationship in China

On November 23, 2009, Study Times published an article by Wang Zuoan, the Director-General of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), on the current church-state relationship in China [1]. He considers that under the leadership of the atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the current situation of religion is a true reflection of the essence of China’s church-state relationship, i.e., “mutual respect for beliefs; united collaboration on politics.” This relationship is borrowed from the characteristics of the historic church-state relationships in China and other countries, and is in line with China’s socialism with Chinese characteristics. However, what the article claims is “mutual respect for beliefs” is not what manifests in actual practice; what is more accurate is that the government’s role is “actively guiding religions to conform to the socialist society,” while making sure that “religious organizations cannot disobey the government administration,” an atheist regime, and the government has “conducted reforms if the religious systems could not meet the demands of the new profound social transformation.” These religions are now “conforming to the New China, serving the new society.” Further, “Religious organizations cannot disobey the government administration using the excuse of separation of church and state.” What follows is an abstract of Wang’s article.

“China is a country with multiple regions. It is necessary to handle the inter-religion relationship well. Although most people in our country don’t have any religious beliefs, there are still many people who practice religion. We need to handle the relationship between believers and non-believers well. Our country is undergoing a profound social reform. As religion has shown the trend of growth, and its influence is expanding through society, it is necessary to handle the relationship between these religions and every aspect of society well. China is a socialist country. The Chinese Community Party, as an atheist ruling party under the guidance of Marxism, should particularly handle the church-state relationship well.”

“Regarding the current church-state relationship in China, some Western researchers hold that our religions are ‘state-run religions’ or ‘state-controlled religions.’ They use this as an important foundation for attacking the Chinese government for ‘suppressing religious freedom.’ This bias originated from their ideology, especially the Western-centric culture view. Because the world has been dominated by Western religious doctrine for a long time, this prejudice has spread widely, seriously misleading the international community. Despite the fact that research on religious issues has been given more and more attention during recent decades, the study on the current church-state relationship has been left far behind, producing very little in-depth and convincing research.”

“Because of the differences in history, tradition, culture origin, developmental stage and social system, the church-state relationship in countries all over the world varies from one to another. In general, they can be categorized into three models: the unity of church and state, the church subordinate to the state, and separation of church and state. In practice, each has multiple subcategories. The unity of church and state was very popular in Western European countries during the medieval period. The church subordinate to the state was actually the type of church-state relationship in ancient China. Although the actual church-state relationship differs widely in countries around the world, the separation of church and state is the option which most countries have adopted. … Only when church and state are separated can you prevent religions or sects from gaining specific rights or positions by controlling or leveraging political power, which then results in unfairness and intolerance between different religions, and leads to the obstruction of widespread religious freedom.”

“The doctrine of separation of church and state is generally thought to have first been endorsed by the American Constitution. … But most Americans still debate whether the separation between church and state should be achieved by ‘a wall’ or ‘a net.’ The situation in Europe is even more complicated. Throughout European history, some countries had a very fierce struggle between the monarchy and the church. Each side wanted to gain absolute control over the other to secure both secular and spiritual power over the people. This resulted in endless battles between the monarchy and the church, bringing disaster and suffering to the nation, society, and the people. … It is thus evident that an absolute separation of church and state does not exist. Due to different traditions, the situation and extent of the separation of church and state are not completely identical in Europe and the U.S. A common model doesn’t exist.”

“Throughout China’s history there has been no instance of a nationwide practice of the unity of church and state, which was once adopted in Tibet. The Dalai Lama held both administrative and religious power until it was abolished 50 years ago. Overall, the historic church-state relationship was practiced in the format of a monarch controlling the church, in other words, the church complying with the monarchy. It belonged to the model of the church subordinate to the state.”

“During several thousand years of feudal dynasties in China, it was the unshakable iron rule that the imperial power was above everything. The feudal rulers dealt with religious issues mainly by tightening control of religion and making good use of it. The major ideology that the feudal ruling class used to control society was Confucianism, supplemented by Buddhism and Taoism. Despite that, they mainly relied on Confucianism, a doctrine about secular and political ethics. The sacred and transcendental roles of the religions of Buddhism and Taoism that Confucianism lacked were an important addition. Their sanctity could further strengthen the rulers’ legitimacy. Therefore, from the feudal rulers’ perspective, religions were used as an aid to implement political indoctrination, i.e. ‘The saint imparts the teachings that were handed down by the Gods and Taos, and everyone follows.’ At the same time, the feudal rulers strictly controlled religious activities and organizations. The government set up specific agencies to rigorously monitor religions, such as approving the establishment of the Buddhist temple and Taoist monastery, issuing religious documentation, forbidding large-scale religious gatherings, and prohibiting the religious staff from traveling far distances without permission, etc. They were very vigilant on the growth of religious forces. Once the religious forces over-expanded, and even become a threat to the foundation of the ruling power, the feudal rulers would take stringent repressive measures.” … “Overall, the way the feudal governments treated religions in ancient China was primarily politically motivated. The purpose was to maintain and consolidate the rule of the supreme imperial power. As long as religion was not a threat to the stability of their power, the feudal rulers tended to be relatively tolerant toward religion, taking advantage of and using it to achieve their own goals.”

“After the New China was founded, two situations developed: the government announced that citizens now enjoyed religious freedom; yet at the same time, it supported all religions; it conducted reforms if the religious systems could not meet the demands of the new profound social transformation. Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam have implemented democratic reform, abolished the feudal hierarchy, oppression and exploitation, and were released from the control and utilization of the reactionary ruling classes. Catholic and Protestant churches embarked on the road toward independence and self-governance through an anti-imperialist patriotic movement, and also were released from control and utilization by imperialism and foreign forces. After accomplishing these two ‘liberations,’ the political stance of every religion in China underwent major changes. They moved an important step forward toward conforming to the New China, serving the new society, and laying an important foundation for establishing a new church-state relationship.”

“After the ‘reform and opening up,’ our party resumed its religious freedom policy. Based on the changes in domestic and international situations, the party has studied the new issues that have emerged in the religious field, and explored the laws of religion’s development during the initial stage of socialism. It proposed a series of new conclusions on the theories and policies on religious work, such as managing religious affairs according to the law, actively guiding religions to conform to the socialist society, harmonizing the relationship between religions, and promoting the positive roles of religious personnel and people of faith in economic and social development. These new conclusions gave directions for solving the difficult political problems of ‘socialism and religion,’ and also actually answered the major questions related to the church-state relationship. On the other hand, every religion in China is also actively working in response to the requirements of epochal development and social progress. Every religion has tried to lay out a correct path for healthy development under socialist conditions, play an active role in social life, and accumulate some important experiences.”

“In summary, the new church-state relationship in China mainly includes the following four aspects: first, the government respects the citizens’ freedom of religious belief, and protects normal religious activities. Religion carries out the activities within the scope permitted by the laws and policies, and should not interfere with the implementation of the government functions such as administration, jurisdiction, and education, etc. Secondly, the government treats every religion equally. The government regime cannot use its power to suppress any religion, nor can it support any religion. No religion enjoys special legal status above any other religion. Thirdly, in order to protect the public interest and the fundamental interests of all ethnic groups in our country, including those of religious believers, the government follows the law to manage the religious affairs pertaining to national and social public interest, but doesn’t interfere with the internal affairs of religious organizations. Religious organizations cannot disobey the government administration using the excuse of separation of church and state. Finally, even though the policy of separation of church and state is implemented, the citizens who have religious beliefs, just as non-believers, enjoy political, economic, social and cultural rights. Unequal rights should not exist due to different religious beliefs. The representatives from religious organizations can participate in political life through legal channels, such as the People’s Congress and Political Consultative Conferences at all levels, and so on, to express their social advocacies. They can also give comments and suggestions and carry out democratic supervision on the legal administration of governmental, social, economic, cultural, and especially religious affairs.”

“As can be seen from the above four aspects, the current church-state relationship in China not only borrows from the models of both ancient China and present Western countries, but is also different from them. It is a new format that matches socialism with Chinese characteristics, and also has its own distinctive features. This new format is based on the principle of separation of church and state, and the value of political and religious harmony. In other words, (China) adheres to the principle of separation of church and state, making a clear boundary between church and state in order to prevent religion from assuming the role of the government, and vice versa. Therefore, freedom of religious belief is guaranteed by the social system. However, the separation of church and state is not the ultimate goal to handle the church-state relationship, but to pursue the harmonized relationship between church and state based on the separation of church and state, leading to positive interaction. When we deal with the relationship with religions, we adhere to the principle of ‘mutual respect for beliefs; and united collaboration on politics,’ which truly reflects the essence of our current church-state relationship.”

[1] Study Times, November 23, 2009