Can Freedom of Religion exist in a Communist Country?

While China is officially an atheist state, there is protected freedom of religion in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Recently, there has been increased government pressure to “Sinicize religion,” or to completely aline religions with Chinese government and culture[1]. This leaves questions as to what freedom of religion in China actually means and if religious tolerance can exist in an atheist state.


Freedom of religion is stated in article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China:

Article 36. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. 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.[2]


The first half of article 36 appears to provide the religious freedom that is familiar to those is Western democracies. However, things become less straightforward with, “the state protects normal religious activities.” The State Administration for Religious Affairs is responsible for dictating what defines “normal religious activities.” Under their policies, there are five protected religious organizations: the Chinese Taoist Association, the Buddhist Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and the Islamic Association of China[3]. These religions are protected by the government and are allowed to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy. But the Chinese government ultimately dictates what practices are permitted. And while it remains technically illegal to practice any other faith, other religions exist, but are forbidden to openly conduct religious services. Some folk religions are generally tolerated, while other unapproved religions face harassment.


China has been designated as a “County of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Since 1999, it has been officially documented that the Chinese government has engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violation of religious freedom[4]. And more recently, China has come under scrutiny for unjust practices. The US has been critical of the accused imprisonment of 1 million Uighurs, Muslims, and other Muslim ethnic groups in political education camps[5]. At the same time, there have been reports of Catholic bishops and priests arrested and their churches torn down. There has been continued persecution of Tibetans and Falun Gong observers[6].


Reports state that there is a current upswing in religious expression with younger generations in China. Concurrently, there is a trend towards social justice among the younger Chinese population[7]. What remains a question if whether these religious groups will mold themselves to the government standard in order to remain safe or whether they will fight against authority? Human rights groups and foreign governments remain critical of religious persecution in China, however the Chinese government remains steadfast to maintain control. While the Chinese government remains critical of foreign questions concerning religious policies, it will be interesting to see if any domestic religious group can dictate a political challenge.