The state of religion in the PRC is, as is much else, complex. In 2015, following provincial Zhejiang governor Xia Baolong’s orders, crosses were removed from over 1500 churches and some church buildings themselves were razed. Yet the year before, China’s Amity Foundation, the world’s leading producer, printed 13.22 million Bibles in over 100 languages including Braille and a digital version for smartphones. Forty per cent of its output are exported to over 70 different countries, leaving an ample number for those in China. Another complexity, China’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, but it imposes numerous restrictions on religious practice.

The PRC’s governance of religion has gone through numerous changes. When it came to power in 1949, although it was officially an atheist state, it maintained the former KMT government’s policy of recognising five religions, Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, and declaring all other beliefs and practices to be superstition. However, while the KMT government treated religion benignly—both Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen were Christians—under its Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), the PRC established five separate “patriotic” bodies to oversee each of these five recognized religions. Many Catholics and Protestants refused to accept the authority of the atheist state in religious matters, however, and worshipped in “underground” churches. The RAB was discontinued during the Cultural Revolution when all religious activity was proscribed, but it was revived as the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) as part of  Reform and Opening Up, thus re-legitimising worship of recognized religions in approved venues by approved clergy.

In 1993, Jiang Zemin, recognising that religion would not fade away as predicted and seeing value in its moral teachings and its potential for philanthropy, invited the leaders of the five religious organisations to take active steps to guide religions in a direction compatible with socialist society, combat heterodoxy and increase the adaptation of religion to socialism. Government practice also generally tolerated underground churches, but that began to change during the latter part of the Hu Jintao presidency when the authorities harried several large underground churches or closed them altogether. This harassment has increased under Xi Jinping, partly because of his determination to tolerate no potential challenge to comprehensive Party control, and partly because of his goal of Sinifying the Chinese and immunizing them against foreign thought and ideas.

At present, the government tolerates and even assists Buddhism and Daoism, helping to rebuild temples and train clergy. It regards both as carriers of Chinese tradition, which fits well into government efforts to encourage ethnic and political nationalism. For similar reasons, it also welcomes interest in Confucianism which, though not usually regarded as a religion, is the fount of traditional morality, including tenets such as hierarchy, loyalty and obedience that benefit authoritarian rule. It tolerates Tibetan Buddhism, to which some Han are turning in the belief that it is purer and less consumerist than Chinese Buddhism, but it takes measures to limit it in Tibet itself, where it is part and parcel of Tibetan ethnic identity and where the government fears separatist thinking.

Islam is under attack for similar reasons. Most of its adherents are ethnic minorities whose cultures are closer to Turkey than to China. They live in border regions to China’s northwest that are important both for their resources and their strategic value. Ethnic tensions between Islamic communities, especially the Uyghur, and the majority Han have risen significantly over the past decade resulting in violent clashes and terrorist attacks. Because of the inseparability of being Muslim and membership in one of these groups, the government is presently attempting to suppress both their religion and their ethnic identity. About 10% of the Uyghur population, over 1 million people, have been sent to internment camps where they are taught Mandarin and occupational skills while being indoctrinated. They are also separated from their children, who are sent to schools with a strongly assimilationist curriculum. They are prevented or discouraged from fasting for Ramadan, wearing veils, growing long beards, or giving their children Muslim names. They are put in situations where they are under heavy pressure to consume pork, and shopkeepers are forced to sell liquor and tobacco.

Catholicism and Protestantism are under suspicion as being foreign and for having ties with outside bodies. Catholicism is directly linked to the Vatican, and there has been a long-running feud between it and Beijing regarding the appointment of bishops. However, they signed an agreement last year, the Pope agreeing to recognise seven bishops appointed by Beijing without Vatican approval (at least two of whom are under investigation for contravening the celibacy requirement). In return, Beijing recognized some Vatican-appointed bishops who had been working largely with the underground Catholic church.

Aside from the cross removals mentioned above, a number of large underground Protestant churches have been closed down and some prominent ministers and key members harassed or imprisoned. Churches that are growing rapidly, have foreign funding through their philanthropic arms, or that have many well educated members are especially vulnerable. A revised set of regulations on religion passed in 2016 were designed to limit the growth of Protestantism by making proselytization more difficult and to force underground churches to register with SARA.

Most suppressed are what the government calls “evil cults” (xiejiao) such as Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong or Protestant-inspired Eastern Lightning (dongfang shandian). Both have the characteristics of millennial cults, which have historically wreaked havoc in China, e.g. the various White Lotus uprisings and the Taiping Rebellion. So nervous is the government about millenarianism that Christian churches are prohibited from preaching about the Second Coming or Armageddon—when earthly governments will be swept away.

Numbers of those who regard themselves as followers of a particular religion are only estimates, though some are more reliable than others. Difficulties include the absence of official records and the difficulty of measuring for religions that lack a notion of membership. Muslim parents welcome their newborns into the world with words that connect them to the faith, and being linked to ethnic identity, one can count as Muslims the numbers of members of those ethnic groups. Counting baptisms could provide an accurate number of Christians except that not all Christian groups in China practice baptism, and there are thousands of small, local underground churches scattered throughout China’s large countryside. Most difficult are Buddhists and Daoists. There is a concept of dedicating oneself to a particular master in Buddhism (guiyi), but that is for the very dedicated. Most Buddhists are simply “followers,” people who worship at Buddhist shrines and temples and regard themselves as such. Popular Daoism is permeated with folk religion and is coterminous with membership in local temple communities.

In the absence of official records, one turns to surveys to provide information on the numbers of those who identify with a religion. Pew-Templeton is a relatively reliable one though the numbers should be seen more as indicative rather than as precise. Most numerous are the 304 million followers of Daoism, which includes practitioners of folk religion. Buddhists number 255 million, Christians, 72 million, which probably breaks down into 10-12 million Catholics and 60 million Protestants, and Muslims, 28 million.

What is more certain is that despite its officially being an atheist state, many signs point to religion growing in China. Protestantism provides the clearest evidence of growth. From an estimated 800,000 to one million followers in 1950, they are now conservatively estimated to number 60 million, with some approximations reaching 100 million and beyond. Purdue’s Prof Yang Fenggang writes that, given their 10% per annum growth rate, Protestantism will be the majority religion in China by 2030. Further evidence is the crowds one encounters at temples and monasteries, many of whom burn incense and make offerings, though it is unclear how many do so as tourists “doing what one should do at a temple” rather than as committed followers. As for whether this growth includes officials, a Protestant minister in Xiamen, responding to a question as to whether officials join the church, emphatically replied, “Yes! They even compete to become Elders!” Others have told me that officials tend to prefer Buddhism or Daoism, which are in practice less strict and allow them to beseech the gods to protect them from their corruption being found out.

A key reason for the increased interest in religion is what philosopher Ci Jiwei and others identify as the moral degeneracy (daode lunsang)  in China. Following attacks on the “four olds” and traditional morality, the government tried to instil the morality of “New Socialist Man,” but it then dropped this effort following Reform and Opening Up and abandoned the masses to Socialism With Chinese Characteristics and the morality of the market. A 2007 survey found that many were searching for something on which to anchor their lives and re-establish trust between people. This desire for moral guidance may also explain why, despite the emphasis in Chinese society to become wealthy, the prosperity gospel has made little inroad.

David Schak is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation and Griffith Asia Institute.