The Influence of religion on Contemporary Chinese Politics

14th October 2011

Reduce the size and population of the state. Ensure that even though the people have the tools of war for a troop or a battalion they will not use them; and also that they will be reluctant to move to distant places because they look on death as no light matter

Lao Tzu,, 1963, p.87

History points to the central role of religion in social and political change. Every continent offers a multitude of faith-based and motivated individuals and groups who transcend traditional religious boundaries, in response to human need and social injustices they perceive in the world around themselves, and engaged in social reform and political activity. Conversely, it is also unfortunate that these religion or faith-based organisations frequently are also instrumental in preserving and at times promoting unjust hierarchies and oppressive regimes. It is possible to propose that China is no different, however no adequate comprehension of any phase of either political or common life can be attained without a full recognition of the essential influence of religion, which interweaves itself into the fabric of both. Hoiman (2008, p.357) writes that, “Chinese society and culture were rarely if at all dominated by any state religion… yet its religious orders have generally been dominated by the state, and the state has operated in accordance with religious precepts”. It is undeniable that regardless of official views and standing that religion of contemporary Chinese politics and its entire social fabric rests on a religious basis dating from a period far preceding all the ‘-isms’ with which the more modern developments have been labeled. For this reason alone the influential of religion on contemporary Chinese politics is unmistakable.

Numerous religious and philosophical ideologies were traditionally practiced throughout China. The most notable of these, Daoism and Confucianism, provided ethical guides to the proper behavior of individuals and officials. Both of these systems originated in China during the same period of axial-diversification (Hoiman, 2008, p.365), Chinas Golden Age of thought. Daoism sought to promote the inner peace of individuals and harmony with their surroundings (Hoiman, 2008, p.366), whereas Confucianism, based on the teachings and writings of the philosopher Confucius, is an ethical system intertwined with religious ideals, which seeks to teach the proper way for all people to behave in society (Hoiman, 2008, pp.364-365). Each relationship, ruler-subjects, husband-wife, father-son, elder brother-younger brother, friend-friend, involved a set of obligations which, if upheld, would result in a just and harmonious society (Gamer, 2008, p.68). This idea of the duty and social obligation to their fellow man is Central to most religions, however it must also be noted that Confucianism also “lacks a religious hierarchy to mandate its authority and is not inspired by a divine authority from above, but rather by the inner benevolence of human nature itself” (Hoiman, 2008, p.365). It was also felt that following his teachings would also promote a stable, lasting government (Gamer, 2008, p.68). By the time of the Tang this “state belief” had become part of the ground rules by which everyday life was to be conducted (Hoiman, 2008, p.374).

During the early 1900s, Iconoclasm, the deliberate destruction of religious icons and other symbols or monuments of religious or political purpose, became a characteristic of the New Culture movement. This movement appealed to Mao, who like many others expressed the view that traditional society had been a negative force in Chinese history and had “doomed the nation” (Wakeman, 1973, p.202). The regime’s hostility to Confucianism was exemplified in the Pi Lin, Pi Kong campaign of 1973-1974. According to Wright (1989) of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, “The campaign to criticise Lin Biao and Confucius was really a covert attack on Zhou Enlai and his policies, viewed as pro-modernisation and as less ‘radical’ than those promoted by Mao himself”.

Denounce Lin Biao and Confucius. Take root in the countryside and carry out revolution.
Pi lin pi kong, zha gen nongcun gan geming.
Carry out the struggle of denouncing Lin Biao and Confucius to the end!
Ba pi lin pi kong de douzheng jinxing daodi!
Pi Lin pi Kong : Denounce Lin Biao and Confucius

The 1911 Revolution served to sever the final link between state and heavenly mandates, however when this failed to produce a stronger unified China, able to negotiate internationally in its own interest, critics held other deep-rooted cultural elements as responsible. Culture critics began absorbing influences from a variety of other sources and later linked religion to autocracy and imperialism. “Intellectual debates posited that aesthetics, philosophy, or science would replace religion in modern civilization” (Tsonchev, 2011). Nationalism created Chinas first secular government stripping away the rituals linking sovereignty to heavenly mandate, developing quasi-democratic nationalism theoretically based on popular mobilization (Tsonchev, 2011). Ultimately, however, it continued to remain dependent on political control to create secularized civic ceremonies that replaced customary models of social arrangement, including religion. What nationalism failed to achieve was the unification of the country and to offer a cohesive system of belief that could accommodate the majority population (Tsonchev, 2011). The ideology presented by the Communist Party overcame the final obstacle in preserving the “secular-nationalism” while offering the religious promise of the communist utopian society, and who accounted for the majority of Chinas population. They developed their political strategy, with its foundation within the nationalist movement, by absorbing Confucian ideals, National ideals, and Marxist ideals, in this way they developed a modernized state on traditional totalitarian pillars.

The Government of the People’s Republic of China, established 1 October 1949, viewing religion as a symbol of feudalism, maintains an official policy of atheism and claimed to have maintained a division in matters pertaining to state and the church. This was later changed during “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966 to 1977), which led to a policy of religious elimination resulting in the destruction of many places of worship. Conditions during this period of time were difficult, and religious practitioners were frequently persecuted. After 1977 the situation gradually eased until a “policy framework established after 1978 provided[s] limited space for religious believers to practice their faith but also called for comprehensive control measures to prevent religion from emerging as an independent social force” (Kindopp, 2004, p.2) The central cause of conflict therefore is that “Religious faith commands an allegiance that transcends political authority, whereas the Communist Party’s enduring imperative is to eliminate social and ideological competition” (Kindopp, 2004, p.5).

Totalitarian regimes demand from their subjects total loyalty and unquestioning belief in Party ideology, laying claim to the full control over the material and spiritual life of the people. The Party or in some cases the Leader is their God whose presence and will are visible. Party leaders therefore are akin to the bishops and political activists, priests. “The Long March”, the iconic pictures of Mao descending from the mountain, and of walking among his disciples, the miraculous stories of early communist victories, the iconographic monuments to leaders and revolutionary martyrs, the memorials visualizing revolutionary mythology, the commemoration of glorious events, the existence of an ideological canon and orthodoxy, and the domination of public space symbols are all are signs of the religious nature of communist China, many of which ironically parallel events appearing in Christianity (Tsonchev, 2011).

For the Chinese Communist Party, Mao developed a series of regulations outlining the toleration of religious opinions, explaining that, “we cannot abolish religion by administrative order; nor can we force people not to believe in it. We can not compel people to give up idealism, any more than we can force them to believe in Marxism” (Communist China, vol.1, pp.278). This policy has since been considerable relaxed. Since 1976, Chinese citizens have enjoyed far greater personal freedom than at any time since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, a freedom that has continued and, since the 1980s,now permits a greater tolerance of religious expression. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief”. The policy states that, “No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion”, and continues with stating that: “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” (PRC, Article 36). The amount of open debate about political ideals and the quality of life has grown steadily along with the volume of information in circulation regarding the nation and its problems. In the more liberal atmosphere authorities proclaimed their respect for individual civil liberties, allowing the fate of religious belief and liberty of worship to become an important topic. Goodstadt (1979, p.120) argues that, a crucial test of personal freedom in any society is the degree to which an individual, without penalty to his own conscience, is permitted to follow his own beliefs even when these do not coincide the ideology of the ruling body.

The attacks on Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism prompted some intellectuals to act directly in their defense, while external contact with European philosophic models prompted other to defend Confucian thought through the founding of a school of “New” Confucianism (Rawski, 2011). Similarly, “Buddhist leaders strove to express the ways in which their religion expresses answers to the new dilemmas facing Chinese people in the twentieth century” (Rawski, 2011). Daoism, once identified as “feudal superstition” (Rawski, 2011) also found a means to survive the oppression experienced during the Cultural Revolution in China. Since mid-1980 a number of Buddhist temples were allowed to reopen and there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples. In recent years, The Chinese Communist Party has been engaged in creating new ideas to displace the void opened by fading of Maoist ideology. The result has been the championing of Confucianism as a national code of conduct, with special emphasis on tenets like ethical behavior, respect for the elderly, social harmony and obedience to authority (Jacobs, 2011). Additionally, the government has expressed support for Buddhism and Taoism, organizing the World Buddhist Forum in 2006 and the International Forum on the Daodejing in 2007. “The government sees these religions as an integral part of Chinese culture” (Khand, 2011, p.77). Worship services among Christians were also permitted once again, despite reports of continued persecution. An article in the telegraph newspaper (2005) makes claims that although exact numbers are impossible to know that there could be as many as 100 million members belonging to underground churches (Spencer, 2005), other sources however, indicate an estimate of 3-4% (about 46 million) of Chinas total population are Christians (CIA, 2011). Despite this tolerance, the Chinese government is cautious about all religious activity, especially if it happens to involve foreign people in any way.

The attitudes of Chinese people, towards tradition and their traditional civilization, can be viewed as a reflection the changing political agendas which occurred during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For example, in the early twentieth century, some intellectuals identified Confucianism ideals such as filial piety as a major barrier to the creation of individuals who could participate in building modernity (Lu Xun, 1918 in Rawski, 2011. Confucian values, they claim, “had imprisoned individuals, forcing them to sacrifice their own dreams to perpetuate the family” and that “It, along with Buddhism and Daoism, had to be destroyed so that a new society could arise in China” (Rawski, 2011). Now, as 2011 marks the 35 anniversary of Mao’s death, China has experienced a complete reversal of judgment and policy concerning the ideology and teachings of Confucius. The construction of a bronze statue of Confucius, in Tian’anmen square, for many promoted a new image and political reorientation providing Confucianism as a cultural or national symbol that could be projected abroad. For others though it was seen as a source of agitation and fury. It was removed anonymously 4 months later. Since 2004, the Chinese government has commissioned the opening of more than 300 Confucius Institutes around the world in more than 70 countries. Officially these are developed to promote the countries history, language and culture, unofficially according to Jacobs (2011) ”to promote the country’s soft power.” deLisle (2010, pp.495-496) explains the regime’s return Confucian patronage as China’s emulation of contemporary elements of U.S. and European soft power policies, in that “ to subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence” (Sun Tsu, 1998, p.25).

The contemporary growth in interest in Confucianism is not only focused towards an international audience, nor is it largely confined to the Peoples Republic of China. Many other important changes are beginning to occur as a result on the changing emphasis placed on the new role of Confucianism in China. These include an increase in Western interest in Confucianism as a significant component of East Asian capitalism, the Singapore governments decision, in January 1982, to replace the subject civics with religious knowledge/Confucian ethics during the third and fourth years of the secondary school curriculum (Tamney, 1988, p.110), and the warnings of a Confucian-style capitalism voiced by Harvard University Professor Du Weiming. Although limited, some groups of intellectuals promote that Confucianism was not just a product of China’s traditional civilization, but an ideology that should be transformed within the contemporary context and modernized to serve as the foundation of China’s modern culture. Professor Du notes though “the Chinese people should show caution in promoting Confucius and exercise self-restraint and self-understanding of China’s status in the world” and warned “against the very non-Confucian misuse of the Confucian tradition” (Peoples Daily, 2010).

Not only has the Confucian revival received attention international scholars, but it has also been embraced by increasing numbers of the Chinese population. Since the 1980s in the Peoples Republic of China, Confucianism, along with Daoism and Buddhism, has become part of National Studies at major Chinese universities, which has perhaps contributed greatly toward the fact that there have been more international conferences on Confucius and Confucianism held. Prior to 1986 there were none (Tianchen, 1999). In September 1984 the China Confucius Foundation was established in Qufu, and in May of the following year, the China Confucian Study Association was established in Beijing, the International Confucian Association in similarly was established ten years later in September 1994. Since the 1990s, Hundreds of books on Confucian thinkers have been published, and journals dedicated to Confucian subjects had begun to appear. Before 1986, no foreign scholars of Confucianism had their articles or papers published in Chinese newspapers or journals. However during the five years between 1986 and 1991, the journal Confucius Studies, which is sponsored by the China Confucius Foundation, had published 33 articles by foreign scholars and experts. (Tianchen, 1999) Finally it should be noted that traditional ideals are appearing more frequently in the speeches given by Chinese leaders, politicians and bureaucrats. Confucianism is cited by Chinese delegates visiting foreign countries as evidence of the countries great civil traditions and has become especially valuable in promoting peaceful relations with China’s East Asian neighbors. In propaganda and policy, the Chinese Communist Party has continued to use the traditional Confucian and cultural elements in its approach when appealing to its people. Both the Chinese Communist party and the Confucianism ideology demand devotion, and rest on a hierarchy that is the underlying organizational principles of Chinese society.

It is possible to argue that the difficulties experienced by Communist China have nothing to do with the problems of earlier Confucian state, however it can also be argued that Chinese Communism was the result of the earlier nationalist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Revolution, republicanism and the fall of the Qing Dynasty, brought with it an end to the connection between the Emperor and the heavens and a new expectation; that sovereignty was to originate not from the balance between the Heavens, the Earth, and its People but from a balance existing between mankind alone. Confucian philosophy, which was the ideology of imperial state, has been interwoven with that of communist dogma in a manner that was and is still used by the Chinese Communist Party today. Simply put this means that the Chinese communist state, despite its differences, has differed little from the traditional imperial state in its philosophy of governing. China therefore remains more Confucian than Marxist and as much religious as secular. Despite its adoption of a constitution and the worship of absolute power invested in the state, Chinese religion remains. In essence it is humanistic in its approach, holding strong ties to the world of its people. It has withstood forces, and at times countered changes, based in social and political reform while maintaining its emphesis on personal and social relations. Although some may argue that the ideals set out in Confucianism and Taoism can not be identified as a true religion, they continue to be a belief that is as strong and perhaps stronger than what others hold and adhere to in their own recognized religious beliefs.


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