China, the world’s most populous country with about 1.3 billion inhabitants, has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It has remained under Communist one-party rule since 1949, but has embraced capitalism in recent decades. Although now less extreme than in the Maoist years, the ruling party maintains a tight grip on the population and regularly suppresses free speech and dissent. Surveys have found it to be the most atheist country in the world, yet its rulers lack respect for basic human rights. In 2014 authorities exerted mainland pressure on a youth-led movement in Hong Kong, demonstrating against undemocratic restrictions on election candidates.

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Constitution and government

The Constitution states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief”, but this is not protected in practice. Those who do profess religion can only worship one of the five state-sanctioned religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Only these five religions are allowed to legally hold worship services, and any religious worship is limited to “normal religious activities” – of which ‘normal’ is never defined.

Narrowing and restricting specifically religious freedoms

The Chinese Communist Party, to which almost all holders of public office belong, requires its members to be atheists. People can and have been expelled from the party if they practised any form of religion.

In some parts of the country, local authorities pressured non-affiliated religious groups to register with one of the five, and arbitrarily detaining members until they registered. People are allowed to worship at home, although there are still reports of authorities harassing and detaining groups worshipping in private.

There are reports of religious discrimination, notably of the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and of the Falun Gong group. The religious freedoms of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang are systematically proscribed, as part of a strategy to conflate their religious practices with the area’s separatist movement.  Muslim officials working for Chinese government departments have been forbidden from fasting for Ramadan, and more broadly China has expanded its definition of “terrorism” to include any public gatherings which “disturb the social order.”

In early 2014 the government launched a programme of removing unauthorised Christian churches in the Zhejiang province – resulting in more than 230 being demolished and even more having their Crosses removed.

Education and children’s rights

There are no faith-based primary or secondary schools, or any form of religious education for primary or secondary school children. Religious groups may apply to setup faith-based universities and colleges for over-18-year-olds, provided they are one of the five major regulated religions. According to figures from the State Administration of Religious Affairs there are currently 92 such schools in operation in China.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

China continues to violently subdue any individuals or organizations which advocate democratic reform.  In the past year, over 65 people have been detained or imprisoned on charges like “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”.  One such case was Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, who has been in prison for nearly six years after being accused of  “inciting subversion of state power” following the co-authoring of Charter 08, a document calling for democratic reforms in China.

All media outlets remain owned by the state, resulting in substantially biased media coverage,  and internet content is still heavily censored.

November 2016 sees a deepening political crisis in Hong Kong, following the banning by Beijing of two pro-independence politicians from taking office, after they lashed out at China during their oath-taking ceremony. 2000 lawyers and activists staged a silent demonstration in protest. The case is pending with Hong Kong’s high court.