China right to hold religion in check. But its tactics too harsh.

China right to hold religion in check. But its tactics too harsh. January 9, 2020

I must say, despite it’s heavy-handed approach to controlling religion in the public square, as an atheist I do sympathize with the Communist People’s Republic of China’s basic motivations.

religious freedom uyghurs china constitution persecution
A “Free the Uighurs” protest in front of the White House in 2009. (, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

China is an officially atheist state and views religion extremely warily, as the product of superstitious thinking that can threaten national security and harmony.

As do I.

Indeed, we’re seeing such religion-caused disharmony on America at the moment, as hard-core evangelical Christians embrace an extravagantly amoral president and combatively ignore inconvenient facts that prove it.

So, to a degree, I sympathize with China’s Communist Party leaders (if not their brutal methods), who are laboring mightily to avoid such disruption in their own massive society.

Most people don’t understand that China, as the United States, enshrines religious freedom in its Constitution. Most of us are also largely unaware that China is a country of surprising religious variety, including such ancient faiths as Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and a slew of so-named indigenous “folk religions.”

But China’s constitutional protections of freedom of religion carry some important caveats that differ in significant ways from America’s. Article 36, the religious-freedom passage in China’s Constitution, reads in full:

“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.”

Note that I boldfaced the last two sentences to spotlight these consequential differences between America’s and China’s attitude toward “religious freedom.” China’s overarching goal, it would seem, is allowing people to indulge in their private beliefs as long as they don’t corrupt public health, harmony and the education of children.

I completely endorse this attitude, even for America, but the U.S. Constitution does not include language, as does China’s, that explicitly prohibit religion from interfering with the normal secular activities of the state.

I believe our Constitution should include those specifications, because it is what the American Founders had in mind when they crafted the document: a religiously diverse and tolerant populace governed by secular laws and institutions wholly based on reason.

China, with some four times the population of the U.S. and enormous, far-flung and ethnically diverse territories, has long prioritized social harmony and law and order, and the threat of foreign encroachments in Chinese culture. The government has often temporarily showed restraint against political and religious upheavals, but in the end it has just as often displayed shocking brutality. Chinese leaders are especially sensitive to religious cults of personality around charismatic leaders, such as the Dalai Lama of Tibet Buddhism and the shadowy head of the since-vanquished cult Falun Gong. (See my post from this summer on the cult — “A Chinese cult things aliens have invaded and that Trump is divine” — to get a sense of why China’s leaders are so wary of religion and foreigners.)

The Chinese government religious persecution of the moment is against Uyghurs (pronounced WEE-ghurs), a Sunni Muslim-majority Turic people living in the far west of the country. Importantly, what Chinese authorities call the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” borders eight separate sovereign nations, including Turkistan. The Uyghurs themselves refer to their homeland as “East Turkistan,” to the chagrin and disquiet of Communist authorities in Beijing.

Incidentally, the Uyghurs themselves think of the word “autonomous” in the official name of their region is “a joke,” considering more than half a million (maybe a lot more) Uyghurs are now allegedly held in government “re-education” camps.

I might argue that that government’s persecution of the Uyghurs, and by extension other religiously homogenous groups is less about religion and national security. Read their Constitution regarding religious freedom. For decades, renegade Uyghurs have battled authorities, carried out terroristic attacks and caused a lot of social disruption and deaths.

However, to be fair to its opponents, the government has also launched campaigns under authoritarian President Xi Jinping has resolutely sought to “sinize” (make more Chinese) formal religious doctrines, bringing them more in line with Marxist-Leninist communist principles. Read David Gee’s recent post on this in The Friendly Atheist blog, titled “China Wants to Rewrite the Bible to Conform to Communist Standards.”

To China, I say, good luck with that. Religion has no history of going quietly into that good night.

On the other hand, I support the idea of keeping religion from disrupting the state’s necessary activities, while simultaneously condemning China’s human rights violations en route to that goal.

But in China’s experience are lessons for America as it continues trying to fully separate church and state, and to block further evangelical encroachments into government.

Thankfully, we don’t do internment camps in this country any more (after unconscionably interring Japanese Americans during World War II), but we should certainly be able to apply legal penalties against those who would defy the Constitution’s barriers against faith in the tax-funded public square.


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