Richard Madsen: Religion is growing in China and therefore must be controlled (Part One)

The famous sociologist from S. Diego University (California) explains the Chinese Communist Party policy toward religion. In 30 years nothing has changed. The new directives of Xi Jinping mirror those of Deng, but with new nationalist accents. Christianity and Islam are seen as "foreign" and suspicious religions.


San Diego (AsiaNews) – Religious practice in China has been steadily growing. The drive to discover faith is motored by anxious realities of everyday life for the Chinese population, and even Party leaders. The Party's religious policy has been the same more or less for at least 30 years. This is according to Professor Richard Madsen, a sociologist of religions at the University of San Diego (California), engaged in a collaboration with Fudan University in Shanghai and with the "China in the 21st Century" Center in San Diego.

Last July, Prof. Madsen participated in a conference held in the United States in San Diego on the religious situation in China and the prospects of freedom and commitment of religions in the country. Later he had a conversation with the vice-director of the Center, Prof. Samuel Tsoi, which the university published as podcasts (

AsiaNews has decided to serialize the long conversation between Prof. Madsen and Samuel Tsoi.

In their dialogue, they refer to the events of the last year which show an increase of control over religions, particularly Christianity . Already in 2015 Xi Jinping, met with  the United Front giving clear instructions: religions in China have to be "Chinese" and free from any "foreign influence". They must integrate into the "socialist society" and under the leadership of the Communist Party they should "serve the development of the nation". In 2016, he reiterated the importance of control over religious affairs, linked "to the security of the state and the unification of the nation." Finally, last September, new regulations on religious activities were  published. According to Prof. Madsen, control over religion is similar to that which China exercises on many aspects of society and it is difficult to predict it being erased.

Below we publish the first part of the conversation. Editing of the original podcast by AsiaNews.

Prof. Madsen is currently working on his latest book on happiness in China which he describes as the exploration and the search for a good life in China in a time of anxiety. Perhaps the great increase in religion in the country can be explained precisely by this question on contemporary China’s search for a better life in times of anxiety. This new project to "Sinicize” religion, does it mean more or less freedom? How can believers live their faith in the context of state control?

Prof. Madsen, thank you very much for being with us today to answer these questions. You have dedicated most of  your career to studying religion in China. Does this new policy mark a change in the attitude of the Chinese government towards religion? How do you interpret the Xi Jinping Directive in practicing religions within the framework of Chinese  socialism?

Well, it is a great pleasure to be here. I think that the new directives are not radically different from the polices of control [toward religion] that have been in existence for the last 30 years at least. After 1949, the beginning of the communist regime in China, steps were taken to suppress any form of religious activity. This suppression took on different forms, with distrust for religion, but in essence the aim was to eliminate religion from Chinese society. This later reached its peak with the so-called Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, when the Red Guards destroyed the famous churches, temples and religious symbols etc. ... They harshly persecuted believers who openly practiced their faith. When the so-called "reform era" began in 1979, there was a relaxing of these policies and a "recognition" that the attempt to wipe out religion, what they call "ultraleftist", was counter-productive and was actually pushing people to practice their religions even more, sparking a negative reaction. Thus, the latest policy is to recognize that religions still exist but should be kept strictly under control with the belief that sooner or later faiths will become extinct as the modernization in China moves forward.

At the same time they should be kept in check forcing them to operate within narrow margins. This was the policy that led to document no. 9 of the CCP Central Committee (Chinese Communist Party) in 1982, and that outlined this general framework. Now, what happened is that there were many more religions than those which they thought to check. In short, over the past 20 years millions of temples have been reconstructed; Religious communities such as Christian, Buddhist and even the cult of the dollar have grown enormously. Accordingly, politics is full of religious policies.  Their original policy was that religion would die out sooner or later, as in the Marxist-Leninist mentality, but it has not worked. So, there are several religions that they have to try to control. And that's why they changed their policies. At the same time, over the last 5-10 years something new has changed in the Chinese government ideology, the new emphasis on "nationalism". Before Mao's government was legitimized on the basis of Marxism and Leninism. Now the Marxist-Leninist language still exists, is still practiced and officially in use, but this recognition is not enough. The Party now has new functions: it is a revolutionary party, but President Xi Jinping calls it a "ruling party", and so it needs a base to legitimize it. Thus, the new base of support is nationalism, the great glorious history of Chinese civilization and its people, which also includes part of its religious heritage. Because of this, some aspects of heritage - Confucian teachings, aspects of popular religion - are now redefined as "intangible cultural heritage." Before these were called "feudal superstitions." Now, being cultural heritage, they are part of the wisdom of the Chinese people. There is therefore a new tolerance for these aspects and in fact there is also a new appeal to Confucianism as a major base and a moral foundation for China.

At the same time, other types of religions are not seen as part of the glorious historical heritage or Chinese culture such as Christianity and Islam. So they are viewed with suspicion and closely monitored. At present there is this kind of mixed policy. The latest idea that came out of the conference a few months ago was to discuss how to handle all of this and understand the overall direction of the government, which is in line with the direction taken by other aspects of Chinese society: tighten controls, submit to central control, monitoring, suppressing all forms considered a possible threat to the Chinese state. And this results in a growing control of the religious sphere.