Religion, particularly the issue of religious freedom, is a very sensitive subject in China. This relatively brief section will attempt to portray an honest and realistic overview of religion in China today—strictly from the perspective of foreigners living in China—without offending the sensibilities of anyone, Chinese or Western.
China, with a four-thousand-year old history of civilization, has a deep and ancient tradition of religion. Daoism and Confucianism date back to around 500 BC, while both Christianity and Islam entered China sometime during the 7th century. The Catholic Church found its way into China shortly after Portugal established diplomatic relations with China in the 15th century and Protestant missionaries followed some 400 to 500 years later.
Following the victory of the Communist Party under Chairman Mao Tse Tung, China entered a period of religious repression. Several “patriotic associations” were formed to monitor religious activity and all ties to Western religious organizations, including the Vatican, were severed. However, motivated in great part by an interest in establishing relations with the West towards realizing Zhou Enlai’s Four Modernizations (technological advancement; see section on the Four Modernizations), the government began a policy of reestablishing the presence of churches, temples and mosques. A type of “religious revival” took hold in China and has continued to flourish to this present day. At least one educated estimate places the number of Chinese who report religious affiliation as far greater than those who are members of the Communist Party (ICRF, 2008), and therein lies the critical key to understanding the current state of affairs in regard to religious freedom in China. An even cursory examination of Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution clearly clarifies both the Party’s sentiment as well as its principal concerns in regard to religion:
As one can readily see, there are two contradictory or opposing forces at work here (as is often the case in China). On one hand, the Chinese government, as a philosophical matter, fully endorses religious freedom and clearly supports its citizenry’s right to believe (or not believe) in whatever they care to. On the other hand, if you read between the lines, the easily discernible fear is that the government will not only lose control of its people to a religious group or “higher power,” but—far worse—a higher power that is institutionalized and controlled by Western authorities, religious and otherwise. Obviously, any institution that is as heavily and carefully monitored as religion is in China cannot, at the same time, be rationally presented to the world as enjoying freedom—especially in regard to Chinese nationals.
The government officially recognizes five main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism and in some areas, the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church has a presence as well. Recognized religious groups must be registered members of the Patriotic Religious Association (PRA) and are regulated by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). According to a poll conducted by researchers in Shanghai, 31.4 percent of all Chinese, aged 16 and over, identify themselves as "religious" in which 40 million classify themselves as Christian and 200 million describe themselves as either Buddhist, Taoist or worshipers of "legendary figures" (U.S. Dept. of State, 2007).
The government’s religious registration requirement has resulted in something of a conflictual duality, i.e., official vs. unofficial membership within each of the religious groups. For example, there are really two Catholic churches in China: the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association with about four million registered members under the leadership of Bishop Fu Tieshan, a member of the National People’s Congress, and the underground Catholic Church which recognizes the primacy of the Pope (ICRF, 2008).
All large and most mid-sized cities in China will have at least one recognized Christian church for foreigners to attend and they typically conduct several masses or services on Sunday. You may bring your family Bible with you from home for personal use and if you can't find a church in your particular area or if you are a member of a church or religion without a presence in China, "prayer meetings" among foreigners of the same faith are entirely acceptable and do not need to be registered. Bilingual Bibles and those translated solely into Chinese are available for purchase at most large bookstores.
The reality is that foreigners who choose to congregate in small home churches for private prayer meetings, i.e., in the privacy of their apartments—and who are careful not to recruit Chinese nationals into their meetings—are operating within the confines of the law and will not be bothered. Small peaceful gatherings of foreigners for any purpose do not pose any significant threat to the community's "social harmony." However, home churches that grow beyond the capacity of a single apartment will, most definitely, attract negative attention (see China Detains Church Members Over Public Praying) as will unregistered missionaries who are here to proselytize Chinese nationals. Foreigners who are under surveillance for questionable religious activities may experience anything from relatively minor inconveniences (e.g., repeatedly being denied permanent residency even though eligibility has been established by marriage) to severe difficulties (e.g., temporary detainment, prolonged imprisonment and deportation) depending entirely on the sensibilities of their municipal and provincial police security bureaus.