Amid China’s Economic Prosperity, Diminishing Religious Freedom
Religion & Liberty Online

Amid China’s Economic Prosperity, Diminishing Religious Freedom

“Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the decapitation of Catholic Life in Shanghai,” writes Father Raymond J. de Souza in a National Post article titled “Catholics in Chains” published last week. This strong and unfortunately true statement comes at the heels of the passing of the 97-year-old legitimate Catholic bishop of Shanghai, Bishop Joseph Fan Zhong-Liang last week. His death underscores the continuing reality of government religious restrictions imposed on Catholicism, which hinder bishops’ ability to lead their flocks and undermine the ability of Chinese Catholics to participate fully in the “universal Church.” These and similar topics will feature in a forthcoming conference sponsored by the Acton Institute in Rome on April 29.

According to de Souza, the Bishop died “having spent more than 50 years in the aogai – Chinese gulag – and under house arrest. Bishop Joseph Fan Zhong-Liang, a Jesuit priest, was denied even in death the proper rituals due to a Catholic bishop. He died as he lived, in quiet, resolute refusal to swear allegiance to the politburo of Beijing rather than the pope of Rome.”

A long history of oppression of Christians by the Chinese Communist authorities precedes Bishop Fan Zhong-Liang’s death. De Souza shares the example of the then bishop of Shanghai, Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, who during the Maoist regime was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment, for failing to accept a position in the uncanonical Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, “in which Catholics would be given some liberties to worship as long as they rejected the authority of the pope, and recognized the Chinese government as head of the Catholic Church in China.”

Due to government restrictions upon religion, there exists a division within the Chinese Catholic Church to this day. There is the underground Church, which maintains a public allegiance to the Pope as St. Peter’s successor and the Patriotic Church, which supports the Pope but avoids acknowledging his authority. “The Patriotic Church is registered under the Chinese government, while the Underground is not,” explains Tom McGregor in a Crisis Magazine article.

While China recognizes the right to worship, the state essentially forces Catholic clergy and laity to act in ways inconsistent with the Church’s long-standing tradition. In an interview with AsiaNews, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong outlines the problem concretely:

With the power position they [the Beijing government] have acquired in dealing with religions, they are destroying not only the religions but also the good name of our nation. The only purpose of their work seems to be ‘enslaving’ our Church (unfortunately with much success) by forcing our bishops and priests to betray their conscience, their faith.

A recently released Pew Research report, “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High” takes a look at 198 countries and territories around the world, and quantifies the levels of government restrictions on religion, as well as social hostilities involving religion. The report affirms the pressures placed on religion in China. Within in each of the six years of the study (since 2007), the country has demonstrated very high government restrictions on religion. In 2012, it was listed among the most religiously restrictive countries in the world, and for the first time in the study’s history, moved into the “high” category for social hostilities involving religion.

This evidence, coupled with the experiences of Bishops of China should come as alarming news. But as de Souza makes clear, “Over 60 years it is possible to become accustomed to almost anything. China now thinks it is normal that the Bishop of Shanghai should be under house arrest.” Indeed, it is time for Christians everywhere to recognize the pressures placed on Christian and other religious believers in China. China’s progressive opening to the global economy and some of the blessings of economic liberty presents us with numerous opportunities to help freedom make its ways into Chinese political and religious life.


Through its upcoming Religious and Economic Freedom Conference Series, the Acton Institute will consider the status of religious freedom in the world, the value in strengthening it, and the ways in which religious liberty helps to strengthen political and economic freedoms more generally.

The first conference of the series, titled, “Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives From East and West,” will take place on April 29 in Rome and is free and open to the public. Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, will speak on “the political and economic challenges of Christians in mainland China.”

For more information visit the conference series webpage and download the upcoming conference poster.

Matthea Brandenburg

Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.