Religion and human rights: China and the 2008 Olympics

The world’s eyes turned to China when it hosted the XXIX Olympic Games Aug. 8-24, 2008, in Beijing. For many, those eyes were on the ascendant Asian economic powerhouse. Tensions and issues involving China made headlines daily. The riots in the Buddhist region of Tibet, the dissenters on trial in China, the allegations of terrorism by China’s Muslim minority, the protests and the calls for Olympic boycotts – all these stories have faith dimensions.


As a communist country, China is officially atheist, but religious practice is permitted by Article 36 of the country’s constitution. China’s size and history make it a land of diverse religious beliefs and practice; experts, including those within China, say that religious activity is increasing. The religious picture in China is particularly complex. In addition to the usual challenges posed by scope and diversity of practices, religion in China today has at least two levels: one official, one underground. China officially acknowledges, and regulates, five major religions: Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism and Islam. Its regulations make it difficult for those outside these sanctioned belief systems to practice their religion; some within these five groups also experience a variety of barriers to religious freedom. The Chinese government argues that its regulations on religious activity promote social stability and discourage foreign interference in its affairs.

China’s own major religious/spiritual/philosophical traditions are Taoism and Confucianism; Buddhism, which came to China early in its development, is widespread. Islam likewise came long ago to China as that religion rapidly spread eastward in its early development. The growth of Christianity reflects China’s interaction with the West, and mission work continues there even as distinctly Chinese Christianity asserts itself. China is a religious quilt; some patches represent folk or regional religions, others represent such historic traditions as Judaism or the spread of more contemporary religions, such as Mormonism. Religious expression also takes the form of new religions that draw on China’s character and history; the Falun Gong movement is a high-profile example of a distinctively Chinese blend of mind-body-spirit practices. The movement was banned in China in 1999 as an “evil cult.”

Freedom of religious expression is part of the larger set of human rights issues that are a flashpoint in China. Many groups concerned with the state of human rights and the rule of law monitor religious freedom issues in China. Still other groups are more narrowly concerned with religious rights issues, including the ability to proselytize. But some major issues are at once religious and political. Tibet is a case in point, a perfect storm for China. Tibet’s spiritual and political head, the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, enjoys worldwide popularity, and supporters of Tibet have built a worldwide network. The issue of Tibet – called Tibet Autonomous Region by the Chinese, whose army entered the area in 1950 – reaches deep into the region’s history and involves religious, ethnic, economic, social and political differences.

Demonstrations aimed at spotlighting human rights issues dogged the Olympic torch run before the opening of the Games, with Tibet an especially high-profile cause for demonstrators. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on President Bush to boycott the Games’ opening ceremonies if conditions in Tibet do not improve. Many organizations supporting independence for Tibet pushed for dialogue between the Dalai Lama and China about Tibet’s status.

Support for China’s view that Tibet is an autonomous Chinese region was expressed by Chinese people living abroad and, significantly, Chinese students studying abroad, including in the United States. China’s youngest citizens have grown up with the view that Tibet is, and historically has been, a part of China. Some universities were the site of both pro-Tibet actions and counterdemonstrations. Chinese students also used the Internet to promote this view. Western support for Tibet in turn prompted some anti-Western demonstrations within China, since the West’s stance on Tibet readily stirred Chinese grievances about Western imperialism.

Although less well-known than Tibet, another region in western China where similar tensions are at work also made occasional headlines. Xinjiang in Central Asia is home to a Muslim population of Turkic descent, the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs). Historically the eastern part of the region of Turkestan, this area is today called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Chinese authorities have responded to unrest there and have implicated terrorism as its cause.

Religion in China


The government of China recognizes five major religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity. Religious groups that have clergy and a worship site are required to register with the government (most do not have English-language websites). Some religious groups have chosen not to register, giving rise to a variety of alternative forms of religious organizations, clergy and places of worship, particularly among Christians. Unregistered churches are sometimes called “underground” churches, even though they may meet in a public place. “House churches” are embryonic religious groups, often without an ordained leader. Experts also estimate that hundreds of millions of Chinese engage in spiritual practices through local temples or altars, worship of ancestors and other practices that are neither legal nor explicitly banned by the government.

These informal practices may appear cultural or behavioral rather than religious/spiritual. The ancient Chinese tradition of Confucianism is a system of values and ethics deeply embedded in culture that influences institutions and decision-making today, even though it is not an institutional religion. Popular practices can also walk a fine line between being religious or having another purpose and meaning. The Falun Gong movement is a case in point; it is a system of exercises that draws on some traditional ideas and attitudes about health as well as spiritual elements.

The Chinese government and religion

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About: Buddhism came to China in the early centuries of the Common Era and developed some distinctive variations there, Pure Land and Chan (in Japan, Zen). The Pure Land school emphasizes devotion; Chan emphasizes meditation. Chinese Buddhism includes a great tradition of influential teachers. Over millennia, Buddhism has spread through its adaptability to the countries which it has penetrated. In China, Buddhism has evolved into coexistence and compatibility with the native traditions of Confucianism and Taoism.

Government-sanctioned group: Buddhist Association of China

What’s new: Buddhism is China’s biggest religion, with more than 13,000 temples, 200,000 monks and nuns and tens of millions of believers, according to government estimates. Signs of interest in Buddhism can be found on the streets today in the form of prayer bead bracelets worn by individuals. The money that can be generated by “temple tourism” makes it important for political authorities to maintain harmonious enough relations with the Buddhist community.



Government-sanctioned group: Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association

About: Tension has existed for decades between those who join the association and those who refuse to accept governmental regulation of religion and/or understand church authority as vested in the Vatican. These issues of authority and allegiance have produced an underground as well as “official” church.

What’s new: In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a letter decrying this division while rejecting government regulation, seen as a step toward healing a long-standing split and improving relations with the government, which does not recognize the Vatican. Part of the split manifests itself in disagreement over who appoints the Chinese Catholic hierarchy, a disagreement that has led both sides to refuse to recognize some high-ranking clergy. But the ordination in December 2007 of Bishop Joseph Gan Junqiu had Vatican approval, a sign of movement in Chinese-Vatican relations.



About: Confucianism is not popularly perceived as a religion, though scholars may treat it as such. It is an ethic and way of life that has deeply permeated China’s culture since its beginnings in the 6th to 5th century BCE with the sage Confucius. At its core is the Confucian idea of virtue, which found expression in government and other social institutions as well as in individual character. After vilifying this ancient tradition during the time of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese officials today are using to their advantage the Confucian cultural values that promote social harmony.

What’s new: A Confucian revival is exemplified by China’s plan for a “Confucius City,” a complex that would not only celebrate Confucius and other ancients but also Chinese technology from past to present.


  • Confucius Institutes are springing up all over the world to promote the study of Chinese language and culture.
  • Read a Chinese appreciation of the formative influence of Confucius at

Falun Gong

About: The Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) movement was banned in China in 1999 as an “evil cult.” Falun Gong is a mind-body-spirit practice that builds on traditional Chinese thought and practices. Founder Li Hongzhi began teaching it in 1992. The Chinese government estimated the number of practitioners at 70 million when it cracked down on the sect in 1999.



Government-sanctioned group: The Islamic Association of China.

According to Chinese government statistics, China has more than 20 million Muslims, more than 40,000 Islamic places of worship and more than 45,000 imams.

About: China’s major ethnic Muslim groups are the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) and the Hui. The Hui are related to the ethnic majority Han Chinese. The Uighurs are a Central Asian Turkic group living in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.


Protestant Christianity

Government-sanctioned groups: The Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council

About: The TSPM is a lay movement; the CCC is the umbrella group of church leadership. (The term “three-self” refers to self-support, self-government and self-propagation, principles intended to emphasize the independence of Chinese Protestants from foreign influence.) Chinese Protestants are not denominational. These two groups, headquartered in Shanghai, also have a relationship with the Amity Foundation, which works with Protestant churches in China.

What’s new: Christianity, China’s second largest permitted religion, is growing in China in a variety of ways. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., projects that China will have 196 million Christians and be the world’s third largest Christian nation by 2050. China’s independent “house church” movement is driving that growth.


Taoism (Daoism)

Government-sanctioned group: China Taoist Association

About: Taoism began in China in the third century BCE and is based on the teachings of Lao Tzu, author of the Tao-Te Ching (also Daodejing; means “Classic of the Way of Power”).

What’s new: The Research Association of Laozi Taoist Culture was launched in China in March 2008. The group is the first in recent history dedicated to the study of this traditional Chinese religion. In 2007, China hosted an international forum on the Tao-Te Ching Taoism’s sacred text. Chinese officials said at the forum that Taoism was an important part of China’s history and a way to build a harmonious society today.



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