In line with Mao Zedong’s Great Cultural Revolution, religion was banned and atheism was declared to be the official religion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The socialist transformation of China required the elimination of the so-called Four Olds – Old Habits, Old Ideas, Old Culture, and Old Customs (Overmyer, 2000). At the height of this campaign, religious activities were banned and structures of worship such as churches, mosques, temples, and monasteries were destroyed and looted.
After Mao’s death in 1976, China revised its position on religion in consonance with the “Reform and Opening” policy implemented by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, which led toward a period of vitality and cultural openness. The official position of the Chinese nation was embodied in Document 19, a directive which led to the reestablishment of religions and religious affairs in China. While Document 19 guaranteed freedom of religion as means of uniting its people, it still empowered the state to control and regulate worship to ensure its stability and survival.
Renewed definition of religion Document 19 critically analyzed the impact of its restrictive religious policy and recognized that religion was a crucial historical phenomenon in “the development of human society” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 10). The directive produced a comprehensive analysis of the role of religion in China, outlining the errors of the CCP in dealing with the religious question, most notably the “leftist” excesses during the Great Cultural Revolution which made China subject to severe international criticism.
China’s religious policy after liberation “forcibly forbade normal religious activities by the mass of religious believers,” “misinterpreted the customs of religions,” and “used violent measures against religions forcing religious movements underground” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 13). Eventually, according to the directive, the coercive policy toward the religious question went contrary to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought and ended with the destruction not only places of worship but historical sites such as Daoist and Buddhist temples.
Document 19 also aimed to rectify the theoretical errors that came with the previous religious policy. It concluded that eliminating freedom of worship violated one of the Party’s principle tasks: uniting the people. According to the directive, there were around 59,000 “religious professionals” in China; 27,000 Buddhist monks and nuns; 2,600 Daoist priests and nuns; 20,000 Muslim imams; 3,400 were Catholic priests; and 5,900 were from Protestant clergy” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 15).
The Document stressed that the previous view of estranging believers was unrealistic because considering that the lives of the Chinese people after liberation and during the Socialist reconstruction only improved gradually, it was a mistake to fast-track the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, considering that class struggle still exists in China despite liberation, “the long-term influence of religion among a part of the people in a Socialist society cannot be avoided” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 15).
Instead of forcing the people to abandon their religious beliefs, the State must recognize that religions, like the state, will wither away once the objective requirements for a Socialist and Communist state will have been met. Because the previous policy divided believers and non-believers, it also denied equality of basic political and economic rights of the masses, hence, forgetting “that the Party’s basic task is to unite all the people… in order that all may strive to construct a modern, powerful Socialist state” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 12).
It predicted that the more estranged the Party becomes from the mass of believers, the more this will incite hatred and fanaticism that will possibly crush the Socialist goals of the Chinese revolution. Moreover, Document 19 clarified the revised perspective of the State on freedom of religion by saying that religion should not be considered an obstruction to the Socialist enterprise. Instead, guaranteeing freedom of religion to citizens “is a means of strengthening the Party’s efforts to disseminate scientific education as well as to strengthen its propaganda against superstition” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 16).
The Document recognized that Socialism’s goal of replacing ignorance and subjectivity with scientific thinking would be carried out if its citizens could be given the freedom of worship. By granting religious freedom, Document 19 stressed that the new religious policy of post-Maoist China was that religion was now “a private matter, one of individual free choice for citizens” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 16). Normalization of religious practice Document 19 recommended that leaders of “patriotic religious organizations” be reinstated, their seized property returned, and religious structures and establishments be reopened.
Despite emphasizing the concepts of religion being a private right, Document 19 also stressed the need for regulation and normalization of religious practice to ensure the stability of the nation and the preservation of the gains of the revolution against religious specialists in direct collusion from imperialistic aggressors. With Lenin as its guide, Document 19 stressed the caution that must be attached when planning to open religious practice in China, “Be especially alert,” “Be very strict,” “Think things through thoroughly” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 12).
Document 19 expressed its support for religions that are considered “patriotic and law-abiding” and demands the suppression of minority religions that are in direct contact with foreign imperialist counter-revolutionaries. Worship in official religious establishments such as temples and churches are preferred over worship taking place in residences. Although the latter was permitted, Document 19 says it was worrisome: “As for Protestants gathering in homes for worship services [sic], in principle this should not be allowed, yet this prohibition should not be too rigidly enforced” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 18).
Document 19 also established a strategy that aims to promote religion that is patriotic and loyal to the cause of the Chinese nation. It identified the eight “patriotic religious organizations tasked with implementing the new religious policies of the CCP as: “Chinese Buddhist Association, Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Chinese Daoist Association, Chinese Islamic Association, Chinese Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Chinese Catholic Religious Affairs Committee, China Christian Council, The Chinese Buddhist and the Daoist Associations” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 18).
The Document recognized that if Socialism must coexist with religion, there is a need to reorient religion so that it is compatible with the goals of the Socialist enterprise. The group of eight religious organizations were tasked establish seminaries that will provide training to create a “new generation of clergy,” a generation who will politically, “fervently love their homeland and support the Party’s leadership and the Socialist system and who possessed sufficient religious knowledge” (MacInnis, 1989, p. 20). Document 19 granted freedom of worship to citizens but excluded Party members from the practice of religion.
Because Communism was considered incompatible of theism, Party members who chose to exercise their freedom of worship would be banned from the Party. The directive also marked out religious practices that were considered illegal such as witchcraft, wizardry, secret societies, magicians, fortune-tellers, and membership in any of these organizations is punishable by law (MacInnis, 1989). Conclusion Document 19 provided for a new atmosphere in China by introducing reformist policies that initiated a revival, albeit regulated, of religious practice.
Temples and churches were returned as well as imprisoned religious leaders were released. Freedom of worship became a private right but under normalization guidelines from the State. Religious organizations considered counter-revolutionary were still banned in order to secure the stability of the nation and its Socialist enterprise. Reference MacInnis, D. E. (1989). Religion in China Today. New York: Orbis Books. Overmyer, D. L. (2003). Religion in China today. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Univ Press.