Beijing Review Asks Whether China Needs Religious Education

July 26, 2006

An editorial in the January 12 edition of the Beijing Review, a government-run weekly designed for an English-language audience, advocated an ethical education for Chinese young people "based on religious instructions." The statement appears to challenge Communist Party orthodoxy, which calls for Chinese citizens to be trained in "scientific atheism," expressed, for example, in "Strengthen Propaganda and Education of Scientific Atheism," an article (in Chinese) that appeared in the April 16, 2004 issue of Qiushi, the official journal of the Communist Party Central Committee. Party theory holds that theism is an illusion that will eventually be overtaken by rational thinking grounded in science.

The headline of the editorial in the Beijing Review asked, "Do We Need Religious Education?" The editorial was credited to review editor Lii Haibo. Lii reflected on a situation in which, "against China’s fast economic development, people’s ethical quality as a whole seems to be stagnant and even on the decline." Lii argued that many Chinese people believe that Chinese young people need religious education, but that they do not want that "schools should teach Genesis or Buddhist samsara." Instead, "The education they want is an ethical one based on religious instructions," Lii wrote. He did not propose including in school curricula the ethical teachings of any particular religion but concluded that, "To clean and mend the contaminated moral landscape, a religious education may be necessary as a supplement to a comprehensive educational campaign that is imperative for China."

The Chinese government has made no announcement about whether or not it may be considering instruction in religious ethics in Chinese schools. A February 17, 2006, article (in Chinese) in the China Ethnicities News asserted that non-believers should understand religious culture, but it did not address the question of education. Article 3 of the Regulation on Religious Affairs (2004) says that no one may "make use of religion to engage in activities that ... interfere with the educational system of the State." Public security officials have detained students engaging in unregistered religious activity as recently as May 22, 2005, and July 22, 2005.

The Party maintains that the world outlooks of Marxism and religion are fundamentally opposed, but the Chinese government does permit students to study religion in a limited number of venues. Outside of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, some Muslim children receive religious education in mosque schools and private schools, according to an article by a Western scholar. The state-controlled organizations that manage the affairs of registered Buddhists, Catholics, Daoists, Muslims, and Protestants may maintain seminaries, monasteries, nunneries, and Koranic institutes for the education of their clergy. A number of these institutes maintain Web sites, including the Catholic St. John of Montecorvino Seminary (in Chinese) in Shanxi and the Protestant Nanjing Union Theological Seminary in Jiangsu. And more than 20 Chinese universities or government-sponsored think tanks have established small programs or departments for the philosophical or sociological study of religion. The most prominent of these is the Institute of World Religions (in Chinese) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The Shanghai Education Commission in 2004 placed the Old Testament on a list of "recommended reading" for secondary school students, according to an October 22, 2004, Washington Times report.

For more information on Religion and Freedom of Expression in China, see the CECC 2005 Annual Report, Section III(d, e).