Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Harnessing the Potential of Religion and Reform in China

Jean Wu and Sarah Brown


By Jean Wu and Sarah Brown

June 23, 2014

Over the past twenty-five years, China has transformed itself into the second largest economy in the world, urbanized over half of its population, and made significant strides in providing for the education and welfare of its citizens. Despite this progress, the problems of corruption, uneven distribution of wealth, and imbalanced governance that were present in 1989 remain an issue today. The current leadership in Beijing has taken some bold moves in addressing these problems, most notably an anti-corruption drive that has removed several high-ranking officials from their positions as well as a party-wide “Mass Line" education campaign to improve how officials respond to citizens’ needs. Nevertheless, these are deep-rooted problems that continue to sow resentment, and in some cases violence, thus posing a major challenge to social stability in China.

While citizens have not expressed their grievances against the government at the same scale as in 1989, the manner of protest chosen by some in recent months points to an urgent need for reform—reform that addresses not just the symptoms but the sources of discontent. Moreover, in light of multiple self-immolations among Tibetans and the recent violent attacks in Kunming and Urumqi, these reforms must come to terms with the varied ethnic and religious environments across China.

The government’s response to the attacks in Kunming and Urumqi has necessarily emphasized military and security efforts in order to prevent further violence against innocent people. However, if these efforts are not coupled with mechanisms for increasing dialogue between government officials and grassroots residents and faith leaders, they run the risk of alienating the very citizens who are best equipped to assist the government in combating violent extremism.

China’s reform agenda should therefore include bold revisions to the country’s religion policy. For several reasons, allowing greater space for religious communities would contribute to sustainable conflict prevention and social harmony. For one, religious groups can effectively deliver social services, helping to resolve issues related to uneven distribution of wealth. Second, the conscience-driven discourse raised by people of faith can act as an effective bulwark against the moral vacuum that often arises during a nation’s rapid transition to a globalized market economy. Finally, a modern, transparent, and just system of religious freedom creates the context in which religious believers self-regulate and marginalize the influence of extremist elements, thus freeing up officials to focus on other pressing issues such as the economy and the environment.

At stake is nothing less than China’s continued development. The breathtaking advances made in the last twenty-five years cannot be consolidated and sustainably extended without smart, systemic reforms in many areas—including religion policy. According to a recent study conducted by Georgetown University and Brigham Young University, “religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies.” In less developed regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, religious restrictions may actually be undermining the government’s efforts to promote economic growth and social development. 

The same study also points out that “religious freedom is…correlated with one of the key ingredients of sustainable economic development: lower corruption.” In a speech Chinese president Xi Jinping gave in January, he stated that “the prevention of corruption must be taken into consideration in the country's various reform measures so as to stop all potential loopholes and ensure reform proceeds smoothly.” China’s growing religious communities could serve as one of the most effective allies in combating corruption and maintaining a stable social environment conducive to China’s continued development.

- Jean Wu and Sarah Brown are research fellows at the Institute for Global Engagement.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”