Last Updated 30 November 2020

China, the world’s most populous country with about 1.3 billion inhabitants, has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It has remained under Communist one-party rule since 1949, but has embraced capitalism in recent decades. Although now less extreme than in the Maoist years, the ruling party maintains a tight grip on the population and regularly suppresses free speech and dissent. Surveys have found it to be the most atheist country in the world. This is evident from its repression of the movement for democracy in Hong Kong, and its systematic attempt to wipe out the Uyghur population through mass detention in ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang province. Both actions are justified by the Chinese State under the pretence of fighting ‘terrorism’ and ‘subversion’.

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution1 states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief”, but this is not protected in practice. Those who do profess religion can only worship one of the five state-sanctioned religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Only these five religions are allowed to legally hold worship services, and any religious worship is limited to “normal religious activities” – of which ‘normal’ is never defined.

Narrowing and restricting specifically religious freedoms

China’s leadership has always sought to regulate and restrict freedom of religion or belief, seeing any form of belief other than belief in the ideology of the communist party as being a threat to the security of the Chinese state. Under President Xi Jinping, there has been a new focus on religion at the highest levels of government and renewed emphasis put on the requirement that all religious communities in China ‘sinicise’ by becoming ‘Chinese in orientation’ and adapting to ‘socialist society’. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to which almost all holders of public office belong, requires its members to be atheists. People can and have been expelled from the party for practising any form of religion.

In some parts of the country, local authorities have pressured non-affiliated religious groups to register with one of the five state-sanctioned religions, and arbitrarily detained members until they registered. People are allowed to worship at home, although there are still reports of authorities harassing and detaining groups worshipping in

There is significant religious discrimination, notably of the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. In 2014, President Xi Jinping gave a number of private speeches to CCP officials on the dangers of the Uyghurs, calling on the CCP to unleash the tools of “dictatorship” to eliminate “radical Islam” in Xinjiang. This year also marked the launch of the government’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism”, as a result of which over one million Uyghurs currently sit in “indoctrination camps,” which essentially serve as concentration camps designed for brainwashing, forced labor, and ridding the Uyghurs of their cultural heritage and religious beliefs. Reasons for detention can be faith-based, such as reciting Arabic prayers or simply based on physical appearance or clothing. A report published in June 2020 found that Chinese officials have been secretly carrying out mass forced sterilisations of Uyghur women, providing more evidence towards the argument that China’s actions meet the criteria for genocide contained in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.3

Other religious and belief minorities continue to face persecution by the Chinese government. China has long sought to interfere in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism by subjecting it to “Sinicisation” policies. Over 1.2 million Buddhists have been killed since 1949, nearly 6,000 monasteries and shrines have been destroyed, and it has evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. The belief in reincarnation and the role of lamas – spiritual teachers – are fundamental aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. China has long sought to interfere with the ability of Tibetan Buddhists to appoint their own lamas, viewing such individuals as a separatist threat. The Dalai Lama has now been in exile for 61 years, and in 1995 Chinese authorities abducted a 6-year old Panchen Lama, who has not been seen since. The Chinese government installed its own candidate in his place. In recent years, the Chinese government has repeatedly stated that when the current Dalai Lama passes away, it will appoint its own Dalai Lama to replace him. In most areas of Tibet it is illegal to sell or possess images of the Dalai Lama.

China’s Christians have also come under increasing repression and surveillance under President Xi. In early 2014 the government launched a programme of removing unauthorised Christian churches in the Zhejiang province – resulting in more than 230 being demolished and even more having their Crosses removed. It has banned the sale of bibles online and has declared its intention to issue a ‘reinterpretation’ of the text so that it conforms to Chinese-style Christianity.4

Education and children’s rights

There are no faith-based primary or secondary schools, or any form of religious education for primary or secondary school children. The teaching of atheism in schools is mandatory, and a Communist party directive gives guidance to universities on how to prevent the ‘foreign conversion’ of students.

The Community Youth League, the Chinese Communist Party’s youth wing, promotes atheist content to its members and online in accordance with the doctrine of the

“Sinicisation” and the limiting of specifically religious education

China does not allow religious communities to run schools for children, and religious education is not provided for in state schools.

Religious activity is highly discouraged on university campuses. In 2018, a University in Northwest China’s Gansu Province stressed a ban on religious activities on campus during the month of Ramadan. The head of the university highlighted the principle of separation between education and

Religious groups may apply to set up faith-based universities and colleges for over-18-year-olds, but only if they are one of the five state-sanctioned religions. According to figures from the State Administration of Religious Affairs there were 92 such schools in operation in China, as of

The state limits the number of such religious institutions, as well as their size and what content is allowed to be taught. Establishing new colleges is cumbersome and long drawn out, even when successful, their curricula must include “politics” and “patriotic” education, as defined by the state.

Under regulation, parents are permitted to instruct children in the beliefs of officially recognised religions and children may participate in religious activities. In Xinjiang, however, where there is a large base of Muslims, officials require minors to complete nine years of compulsory education before they can receive religious education outside of school, a measure which appears to be part of efforts to achieve the “Sinicisation” of Muslims in the province.

Students at religious institutions have limited access to printed materials for their studies. In the Buddhist Academy of China, neither of the two textbooks required for the course on the History of Buddhism in China address the development of Buddhism since 1949.

Family, community and society

“Foreign NGO Law”

On 1 January 2017, a new law on the “Management of Domestic Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations” entered into force. In order to keep working in China, Foreign NGOs must submit themselves to greater government control including finding government sponsors, registering with the police, and submitting annual reports on their financing. In addition, the law prohibits unregistered foreign groups from funding local counterparts. Any violation of these requirements could potentially result in asset confiscations or deportation.

According to Chinese officials, roughly 7000 NGOs are present in the country. NGOs working in fields such as human rights and the rule of law are likely targets of the new law and there are concerns that some may be forced to abandon China altogether.

The American Bar Association (ABA), which provides legal training and promotes the rule of law, has closed its office in Beijing. In July 2016, ABA had declared the Chinese lawyer Wang Yu the winner of its International Human Rights Award. The lawyer was arrested with over 100 human rights lawyers nationwide and faced 12 months of detention. In a videotaped message from detention which echoed the government line against foreign NGOs, and which human rights campaigners believe was a forced confession, Wang Yu denounced the award as “Another way for (foreign forces) to use me to attack and smear the Chinese government”;

Gender equality

Although the Chinese Communist Party has consistently declared its commitment to equality between women and men (as Mao’s quote: “Women hold up half of the sky” suggests) in practice the country has prioritized men’s interests over women’s.

The state often encourages women to prioritize the domestic realm over career. In 2015, the state-led Women’s Federation launched a campaign aimed at successful professional women, to warn them that they would soon become “leftovers” if they did not marry and procreate before their

Although a law to prevent sexual harassment came into force in 2006, it remains rampant in China. A survey conducted by a Chinese NGO reported that 70 percent of the women surveyed faced some form of harassment, with 15 percent stating that they previously had left a job because of

On 8 March 2015, five Chinese feminists were detained for campaigning against sexual harassment on International Women’s Day. They were accused of “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance”. The women were released on bail on 14 April 2015, but remained under surveillance.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Surveillance and Media Freedoms

China continues to subdue any individuals or organizations which advocate democratic reform. All media outlets remain owned by the state, resulting in substantially biased media coverage, and internet content is heavily censored.

In addition, China operates a highly sophisticated system of mass surveillance through different methods, including facial recognition technology. Many Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been arrested, tried and convicted by computer algorithm based on data harvested by the facial recognition cameras.11

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