Antireligious campaigns in China

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The Cemetery of Confucius was attacked by Red Guards in November 1966.[1][2]
Falun Gong books are destroyed following announcement of the ban in 1999.

Antireligious campaigns in China refer to the Chinese Communist Party's official promotion of state atheism, coupled with its persecution of people with spiritual or religious beliefs, in the People's Republic of China.[3][4][5] Antireligious campaigns began in 1949, after the Chinese Communist Revolution, and continue today in Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and other religious communities.[6] State campaigns against religion have escalated since Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.[7] For Christians, government decrees have mandated the destruction of houses of worship, such as Christian churches.[8] In Tibet, similar decrees have mandated the destruction of Tibetan Buddhist monastic centers, of sacred Buddhist sites, of monastic residences, the denial of the Tibetan people's right to freely access their cultural heritage, and resulted in the ongoing persecution of high Buddhist lamas and of Buddhist nuns and monks. Reports of forced reeducation camps, arrests, beatings, rape, and destruction of religious sites in Tibet are likewise being made with regard to the Uyghur people, who are also allegedly being subjected to an ongoing cultural genocide.

Cultural Revolution[edit]

As a result of anti-religious campaigns carried out between 1950 and 1979, churches, mosques, and temples were closed and reeducation was forced upon clergy.[9] In Tibet, monasteries were demolished and monastics were arrested or killed.

The Cultural Revolution also criminalized the possession of religious texts.[10] Monks were beaten or killed, and many Tibetans escaped with sacred texts and compiled teachings in exile communities in India.[11]

1989-2002: Jiang Zemin administration[edit]

The Chinese government and the Communist Party, led by Jiang Zemin from 1989 to 2002, commenced the persecution of Falun Gong; it called for the "education of Marxist materialism and atheism" to counter Falun Gong.[12]

Tibetan Buddhists[edit]

In 1991 while crafting policy towards Tibetan Buddhists, Jiang's preliminary decree stated reincarnated lamas must be approved by China's central government.[13] The decree was later revised and termed State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5 in 2007 during the administration of Hu Jintao.

In 1992, Jiang's government formally accepted the 14th Dalai Lama's official recognition and the enthronement of Orgyen Trinley Dorje as the reincarnated 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu school. The recognition process was led by the 3rd Jamgon Kongtrul who died in a mysterious car crash earlier in 1992. The Karmapa, along with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, are highly respected by Tibetans and considered to be living Buddhas. By 1999, the Karmapa escaped to India, afterwards pointing to interference by the Chinese government in his spiritual leadership and studies as his motive.[14][15]

Also in 1992, 13 monks from Drepung Monastery were arrested on 12 May for protesting peacefully. Samdup was jailed for 7 years, and in 2020 became the fourth former political prisoner to die from medical complications within the previous six months.[16]

In 1994, a Chinese policy called "grasping with both hands" was implemented in Tibet, targeting Tibetan Buddhism and culture. It was credited with leading to the 2008 Tibetan unrest.[17]

On 17 May 1995, Jiang's government officially reversed its acceptance policy of recognized reincarnated lamas and of Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leaders, and abducted Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, three days after his official recognition by the Dalai Lama. Chadrel Rinpoche and another Khenpo involved in the recognition process were also arrested. Months later in December, Jiang's government installed its proxy Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu. The recognized 11th Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima continues to be forcibly detained in an unknown location.[18][19]

In 1996, Jiang's administration officially banned all photographs of Tibet's spiritual leader the 14th Dalai Lama.[20]

In 2001, the Chinese government began persecuting and evicting nuns and monks at Larung Gar Buddhist Academy and at Yarchen Gar in Tibet.[21]

2002-2012: Hu Jintao administration[edit]

Under the Chinese government and the Communist Party, led by Hu Jintao from 2002 to 2012, land redevelopment was used as a form of religious persecution, while the demolition of spiritually sacred buildings and sites was undertaken.[22]

Tibetan Buddhists[edit]

The persecution of Tibetan Buddhists escalated under Hu Jintao, leading to the 2008 Tibetan unrest. The uprising is described as the biggest challenge to China's invasion since 1959.[23]

Previously in 2006, Tibetans were arrested after responding to calls from the Dalai Lama to burn animal skin clothing. Bon fires spread throughout Tibet as a form of defiance.[24]

In 2008, as unrest over Chinese persecution grew, waves of protests began, including street demonstrations which were met with excessive force.[25] A mass arrest of 280 monks at the Labrang Monastery was reported during this time, as was torture during confinement. A farming boycott began in 2009 in protest for those people detained or "disappeared" into Chinese custody. Civil disobedience became widespread, as all the monks in a Jomda, Chamdo province monastery deserted in June 2009 instead of participating in "patriotic education".[26]

Acts of self-immolation began in 2009 at Kirti Monastery.[27] In 2010, two people were killed while trying to stop a mass arrest of approximately 300 monks at the same monastery.[28][29]

In 2011, China's foreign ministry announced only Beijing could appoint the 15th Dalai Lama.[30] A monk at Nyitso monastery, Tsewang Norbu, self immolated after chanting "Long live the Dalai Lama" and "Tibetan people want freedom". The non-profit organization Free Tibet said telephone and internet services were subsequently cut to keep the news from spreading, and the monastery's utilities had been repeatedly cut. Activist Tsering Woeser said Chinese security forces surrounded the monastery the same night of Tsewang Norbu's death.[29]

2012-Present: Xi Jinping administration[edit]

The Chinese government and Communist party led by Xi Jinping from 2012–present has intensified the most recent antireligious campaigns. Xi reemphasized that members of the Chinese Communist Party must be "unyielding Marxist atheists" and specifically "instituted a broad campaign to suppress all forms of dissent."[31][32]

In September 2019, the UN Human Rights Council was informed that the Government of China "is harvesting and selling organs from persecuted religious and ethnic minorities on an industrial scale".[33] The tribunal concluded that some Uyghurs, Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists and Christians are being “killed to order... cut open while still alive for their kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, cornea and skin to be removed and turned into commodities for sale”.[33]

According to The Christian Post, fingerprinting and facial recognition technology is being installed in churches, temples, and other religious meeting places throughout rural areas of China, with a completion date of 2020.[34]

Tibetan Buddhists[edit]

Under Xi Jinping, the widespread targeting of Tibetans and of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, together with the persecution of ordained Khenpos, nuns and monks escalated.[35] The settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet also continues, creating a majority population of Han Chinese settlers that benefit from forced land redistribution in Tibet.[36]

Massive redevelopment projects including railways, mines, roadways, dams and shopping centers forcibly displace Tibetans and erode the environment.[37] From 2015 to present, farmlands and ancestral nomadic grazing lands are also being confiscated from Tibetans.[38]

Reports state that administrators of monasteries have been replaced by police or by people considered government infiltrators, while military surveillance units have been installed at Kirti Monastery, Yarchen Gar, Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery, and at other monasteries, along with CCTV cameras.[39][40] Drongna Monastery was forcibly closed in 2013, and its chant master Thardhod Gyaltsen received an 18-year prison sentence in 2014 for possession of a picture and recording of the 14th Dalai Lama.[41][42] Since Xi gained office in 2012, "China has forced many Tibetan monks and nuns studying in Tibetans areas of Amdo and Kham to return to their respective hometowns in TAR as part of the intensified policy to control and manage Tibetan monastic population."[43]

By 2013, Xi continued using tourism and redevelopment plans as methods to separate Tibetans from their Buddhist culture, to forcibly dislocate Tibetans, and to destroy heritage sites intrinsically important to Buddhists.[44] Plans in 2012 included demolishing the spiritually sacred Barkhor central district of Lhasa's historic circumambulation path around the Norbulingka and the Jokhang, to build a shopping center, which appears to be also causing structural damage to these adjacent UNESCO world heritage sites. The shopping center is designed for Chinese tourists, of which over 10 million toured Tibet in 2011.

By 2020, after Chinese state-sponsored tourist agencies funneled people from inner China to Lhasa, reports state the tourists disrupt ceremonies, are disrespectful to Tibetan customs, and throw trash around sacred sites. Police support the tourists confronted by complaints.[45] While continuing to experience state-sponsored discrimination, Tibetans are barred by Chinese authorities from entering sacred sites into which Chinese tourists are allowed. Unnamed Tibetan sources add that their "culture is becoming a showpiece for Chinese tourists". The historic residential community at the base of the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace was previously demolished after residents were forcibly displaced, and a large square glorifying China's invasion was built.

Reports also indicate tourism is used to disrupt monastic life within Buddhist monasteries.[28] Monastic residences of nuns and monks were demolished before mass evictions began in 2016 at Larung Gar, in 2019 at Yarchen Gar, in 2013 at Jhada Gon Palden Khachoe Nunnery, and elsewhere. Reports indicate that nuns and nunneries are targeted for demolition more often than those of monks. Tourist accommodations and roads replaced the residences, or are planned for the sites where residences were demolished. Other monasteries are partially renovated for tourist accommodations whose proximity disrupts daily life.[28]

After the mass evictions, nuns and monks were bused away, and reportedly detained in reeducation centers.[36] Among others, an identified reeducation center is named Ningtri.[46] Reports include beatings and the torture of monastics and of laypeople at reeducation centers, and in jails after arrests.[47]

In 2016, the CCP commenced a campaign to sinicize religion, which intensified after 2018.[48][49] The Sinicization of Tibet has been widely condemned as cultural cleansing.[50]

The ethnic cleansing policies in Tibet were managed by hardliner Chen Quanguo, before his 2016 transfer to govern Xinjiang.[51] As the leaked Xinjiang papers state, "[n]ew security controls and a drastic expansion of the indoctrination camps followed" behind Chen Quanguo.[22] In Tibet, nuns have been photographed while forced to wear military clothing and sing, forced to disavow Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, and reports state that beatings for disobedience are also common occurrences.[43] Reports document incidents of sexual abuse, rape, and gender-based violence at the Chinese detention centers.[52]

In April 2019, the Chinese police-enforced ban against photographs of the Dalai Lama spread to remote areas of Tibet.[53]


The persecution of members of other spiritual organizations is also continuing under Xi Jinping. Journalist Ian Johnson noted that officials have targeted Christianity, and Islam, with particular intensity because of their perceived foreign ties.[54] In the Chinese province of Zhejiang alone, over 1200 Christian crosses have been removed from their steeples since 2013.[55][56]

In August 2017, a number of Catholic Christian priests, as well as laypeople, were injured while they were trying to prevent a government-owned bulldozer from demolishing their historic church in the Shanxi province.[57][58] In February 2018, government authorities in Kashgar, "launched an anti-religion propaganda drive through local police stations", which included policemen erecting a banner proclaiming “We Must Solemnly Reject Religion, Must Not Believe in Religion”.[59]

In December 2018, Chinese officials raided Christian house churches just prior to Christmas and coerced their owners to close them down; Christmas trees and Santa Clauses were also forcibly removed.[60][61] In 2018, the United Front Work Department initiated a crackdown on large outdoor religious statues.[62][63]

The government of China continued to persecute Christians during the 2019 COVID-19 pandemic, demolishing the Xiangbaishu Church in Yixing and removing a Christian Cross from the steeple of a church in Guiyang County.[64][65] In the Shandong Province, "officials issued guidance forbidding online preaching, a vital way for churches to reach congregants amid both persecution and the spread of the virus".[64][65]

In 2020, the Chinese government put additional regulations in place to restrict religious education and proselytizing.[66]


By November 2018, the Chinese government had detained over one million Uyghurs in what it refers to as "training centers" as part of a thought reform campaign, "where Uyghur Muslims are remade into atheist Chinese subjects".[67][68][69] For children forcibly taken away from their parents, the Chinese government has established "kindergartens" with the aim of combating 'three evil forces' ("separatism, extremism and terrorism"), and "converting future generations of Uyghur Muslim children into loyal subjects who embrace atheism".[70][71][69][72] Under Xi Jinping, destruction of mosques and Muslim religious sites is widespread.[73] Government campaigns against Islam have extended to the Hui people and Utsul community in Hainan.[74][75][76]

Chinese officials did not acknowledge the existence of any sort of detention camps, but in November 2019 the detention centers were confirmed by the leaked Xinjiang papers, and are contributing to the genocide of Uyghurs. The Chinese government claims that Uyghurs are being sent to vocational training centers in order to prevent the spread of extremism and to increase their employability.[77] In 1991, the U.S. government estimated that about one million people were being held in the re-education camps, mainly Uyghurs.[78]

See also[edit]


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