Revisiting China's "Great Wall" of separation: religious liberty in China today.

Author:Marsh, Christopher

In the autumn 1986 issue of the Journal of Church and State, Dr. James E. Wood, Jr., founding editor of the Journal, pronounced that the "winter is past," referring to the end of China's most aggressive period of repression of religion. Dr. Wood's positive assessment was based on the observation that, "during the past decade, particularly since 1980, great strides toward religious freedom have been made in China" While arguing that "liberal attitudes toward religion on the part of the" political leadership are widely evident throughout the country," he also soberly recognized that religion in China remained clearly under government control.

Making such a declaration so early in the process of China's liberalization left him open to criticism, especially from those who felt that the wisest course of action in dealing with authoritarian regimes was to limit interaction with them and maintain a tough stance against Communism. Now, more than twenty years later, we can safely say that Dr. Wood was correct in his assessment. Indeed, the period which he identified in his article--1976-1980--marked a clear turning point in China's religion policy. Since that time, China has gradually but steadily expanded religious liberty to the extent that today, many believers in that country enjoy the basic rights of religious freedom. Although there certainly remain areas of religious expression that are highly regulated and even proscribed by the state--including unregistered "house" churches and politicized religious groups such as Falun Gong--for the most part, the average Chinese citizen enjoys "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion ... [including the] freedom to change his religion or belief, and-freedom ... to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance" (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

One of the first signs that a shift was imminent in China's religion policy was the reopening of the Religious Affairs Bureau in 1979, which had been shut down during the Cultural Revolution. This move was taken so seriously by those who watched the religious situation in China at the time, in fact, that an entire issue of China and the Church Today was devoted to it, which even included a map of the RAB's facilities. Today, the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA's as the RAB was renamed a few years ago) is still the primary organization charged with regulating religious affairs in China, but its policies and tone nave changed even more over the past twenty years.

Recently, Peter L. Berger and I had the opportunity to sit down with Ye Xiaowen, the director of SARA for the past fifteen years. Of course, it was Prof. Berger's reputation as a sociologist of religion that allowed us the rare opportunity to discuss religious life in China with the country's leading-policymaker in religious affairs. Besides the formalities and warm reception which we received, the open intellectual exchange which followed was interesting for a number of reasons. It was clear that Minister Ye was doing more than simply engaging in diplomacy by meeting with us; indeed, neither Prof. Berger nor I have any connection to our government, and the pretext of our meeting was to discuss our research on religion and church-state relations, not government policy. Nor was the meeting intended as an apologia for current Chinese religion policy, which Minister Ye did not address. Rather, the hour-long discussion centered on two questions.

The first question raised by Minister Ye was one to Prof. Berger regarding his early work on secularization. Did he still think the world was moving inexorably toward secularization, and why or why not? Minister Ye mentioned how he had read Berger's The "Sacred Canopy as a graduate student in sociology, but he was apparently unaware of his later writing, including The Deseculazization of the World, in which he argues that "the world-is as vigorously religious...

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