What is Patriotic religious education?

Earlier this week, Meng Jianzhu, China’s Public Security Minister, and a member of the State Council, visited Lhasa accompanied by military and religious officials, including Ye Xiaowen, the Director of China’s Religious Affairs Bureau. It is the highest-ranking delegation to visit Tibet since the unrest began, and its composition – military and religious affairs officials – was no accident. Though unreported in the Chinese media, Meng had a very specific message for the region’s restive Buddhist monks: the monasteries will be stepping-up “patriotic education” campaigns.

Patriotic education in Chinese religious seminaries has been a cornerstone of Chinese religious policy since the early 1980s, and the fact that Meng – and presumably, Ye Xiaowen – are planning to require more of it provides a very useful insight into the way that China’s highest policymakers are thinking about the sitation in Tibet (and, by reasonable extension, religious policy in general). So, in hope of clarifying certain issues emerging from Tibet, especially those related to religious policy, I’m going to use this post to offer a brief primer on Patriotic religious education, its origins and current status. Many reports from Tibet and West China are mentioning it, but I’ve yet to find any that explain what it is, why it exists, and where it comes from. In my opinion, those questions are key to understanding the religious component to the ongoing crisis (merely one facet, but an important one).

But first, I feel obliged to note that – in regard to Chinese religious policy – my expertise (if it can be called that) relates to Christianity and the Chinese Catholic Church. Outside of a single visit to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery/seminary in 2006, I’ve no first-hand knowledge of the issues that confront those institutions. I do, however, have quite a bit of first-hand information gathered by visiting and talking to individuals associated with China’s Catholic seminaries and convents. The two faiths – Catholicism and Buddhism – don’t map so neatly, but they do share some of the same regulatory challenges in China, and they both require Patriotic educations of their young religious.

So, some history.

The March 1978 meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, at which sixteen religious leaders appeared as members of the conference, marks the beginning of contemporary Chinese Communist Party religious policy. Over the course of the next few years, temples and churches were allowed to re-open, monks and clergy were allowed to resume old duties (albeit under strict supervision), and religious-minded Chinese could – with difficulty, depending upon location – practice their faiths under very firm guidelines. Accounts from this period suggest an outpouring of faith (one priest described it to me as a spring bouncing back from the pressure of the Cultural Revolution) that caught the government off-guard and generated some very specific concerns.

First, there was a deep and understandable concern that religious enthusiasm among a specific ethnic group could trigger unrest. In 1980, Deng XiaoPing himself expressed this concern to a visiting British delegation in Beijing: “I would like to point out that in China when we talk about freedom of religion, it particularly concerns our policy towards different nationalities because, generally speaking, the problems mainly exist among national minorities.”

A second, related concern extended back to the 1950s, the anti-communist (and anti-Chinese) agitations of the Catholic Church in Shanghai, and Buddhists led by the Dalai Lama in Tibet; in both cases, the Party perceived a foreign influence and/or organized opposition (the Vatican hierarchy was particularly unsettling) that sought to destabilize the new Chinese state. Among other reasons, this fear of foreign influence influenced the formation of religious “Patriotic Associations” that sought to separate Chinese religious believers from foreign co-religionists. Later, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, foreign religious leaders were beginning to return to China – as tourists, typically – on organized tours or as members of official delegations. Some of these visitors became known to the Chinese government, and their presence was a matter of deep suspicion. Who were they trying to influence and train?

Finally, the authorities were deeply concerned about the aging and – by extension – rapidly depleting number of Chinese religious leaders (again, priests, monks, etc). Religion wasn’t going to go away (Deng believed that quite sincerely), and neither would the demand for religious leaders. So, if China didn’t do something to create a new generation of religious leaders in the Party’s image, somebody from outside of China would step in to do the job for China.

It required four years of thinking, but on March 31, 1982, the Communist Central Committee issued Document 19 – “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during our Country’s Socialist Period” – to party committees, military units, and other relevant personnel (it was later published in the June 16, 1982 edition of Red Flag, a party magazine). It was – and still is – the most complete and relevant statement of the Party’s overall religious policy and viewpoint. I’m going to offer some lengthy passages from Document 19, but first I want to encourage anyone interested in these subjects to see out the complete text. The English-language translation that I’ll use is taken from Appendix XII to Anthony S.K. Lam’s “The Catholic Church in Present Day China” (published and distributed by the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong).

From the outset, Document 19 approaches religious belief – particularly in minority areas – as a phenomenon that must be managed, not suppressed. This is an important point, and it remains one of the guiding principles of Chinese religious policy, especially as it relates to religious education:

[Party comrades] … are not being realistic who think that, given the present existence of a socialist system having a certain degree of economic and cultural progress, religion will soon die. Those who think that they can wipe our religious thinking and practices with one blow by relying on administrative or coercive measures are even further from basic Marxist tenets on religion. They are entirely wrong and will do no small harm.

Later, in an explicit statement of policy (that hasn’t changed), the text adds:

The Party’s basic policy on religion is to have respect for and protect the freedom of religious belief. This is a long-term endeavor until the time when religion will of itself disappear.

Soon, though, the generalities give way to specifics clearly directed at specific practices of certain religions (including the overthrown Tibetan Buddhist theocracy):

Therefore, it is strictly forbidden for religion to interfere in government administration, juridical procedures, as well as in public and civic education. Nor should anyone under 18 years of age be compelled to believe in religion, to become a monk or nun or to pray in temples. Feudalistic privileges and oppressive systems that religion formerly employed and that were abolished will not be reinstated. Now will religion be permitted to question the Party’s leadership or the socialist system or to weaken national and ethnic unity.

The next section is entitled “The Party’s work with religious professionals,” and it begins by claiming:

To win over, unite, and educate religious believers is primarily the task of religious professionals. Therefore the essentials of the Party’s religious work are directed toward them in order for the Party’s religious policy to be implemented … [Due] to many years of natural attrition, the present number of professional religious has greatly diminished … [W]e must give sufficient attention to religious persons, especially leaders, to unite them, care for them and help them make progress. We must patiently develop their patriotism and law abiding spirit as their support of socialism, developing in them a sense of national and ethnic unity.

Up to this point, Document 19 merely encourages and supports the rehabilitation of patriotic, loyal religious leaders. But the next step – the obvious one – is the foundation for patriotic religious education in China:

The careful education of the younger generation of religious personnel will have decisive meaning for religious organizations in China. Therefore, besides continuing our task of winning over, uniting, and educating the present generation of religious personnel, we must also assist religious organization to operate their own seminaries to train their future leaders. Seminaries must effectively train a new generation of young religious professional who love their country, support the Party’s leadership and the socialist system, have sufficient religious knowledge and interact well with religious believers … [S]eminarians should continually strive to deepen their knowledge of patriotism and social while raising their cultural level and acquiring religious knowledge.

In practical terms, what does this mean? First, open religious seminaries in China are under the jurisdiction of local religious affairs offices which have the right and responsibility to approve curricula taught in those seminaries. In theory, this sounds draconian; in practice, it is more of a nuisance than anything else. According to individuals to whom I’ve spoken, and who are involved in Chinese religious education, the curriculum inspectors are rarely educated in the finer points of religious doctrine. Instead, they have expertise in “patriotic” education and Party doctrine, and on these points, they can be difficult. That said, the religious educators whom I know don’t have much concern for how the Patriotic portion of a curriculum is assembled. So long as the religious component is left unedited – and it usually is – there isn’t much of a problem.

I’d very much like to share the complete curriculum taught in a Chinese religious institution, but in the interests of protecting the identity of my sources, I cannot do so. Instead, I’ll just say that – in one particular Chinese institution of religious education – the first two years of study include all of the religious courses that one might expect (15 in total), but also specific courses in: Chinese Laws, Chinese Government Policy, and Chinese History. This institution’s internal staff are not responsible for teaching the Patriotic courses, but instead “outsource” them to middle school teachers and/or government/Party officials with varying degrees of competence.

As noted earlier, I’ve never attended a Patriotic course in a Tibetan monastery, so I really can’t say whether or not they are more coercive than those taught in the Christian institutions where I’ve reported. My instinct tells me that they don’t differ significantly, but for one difference: China’s Christians are predominantly Han Chinese, and so are unlikely to be (as) offended by a Sino-centric view of Chinese/Tibetan history. Yet, according to the few reports we have on the subject of Tibetan religious education, it is precisely the Sino-centric view of Tibetan history that is riling – at least, in part – so many Tibetan monks.

Document 19 warned of this possibility:

In some ethnic minorities almost the entire populace believes in one particular religion, such as Islam or Lamaism. Among these peoples, religion and ethnicity are closely interwoves. In the Han race, however, there is no fundamental relationship between ethnicity and forms of religion … [W]e must learn how to distinguish the particular circumstances of each ethnic group and of each relgion … [I]f the Party remains confused and does not firmly grasp this particular question at the present stage of our struggle to lead such a great country as ours with different ethnic groups toward a modern socialist state, then we shall fail to unite our people and lead them toward this goal.

There is no additional information available on just what Meng Jianzhu meant when he claimed that the Tibetan monasteries would be required to implement more Patriotic education, it seems unlikely to result in the unity that Document 19 – now twenty-six years old – was trying to produce. That said, I feel fairly confident in claiming that an enhanced Patriotic curriculum in the monasteries will neither make them feel more free, or unified with China. Such an approach – coercive under any definition – is precisely what Document 19 labeled a “leftist” tendency worth stamping out. Whether it will be stamped out is something that I’m in no position to assess; but what is abundantly clear – to me, at least – is that the official thinking on the Tibetan question is now located somewhere in the mid-1980s.


  1. Thank you very much for posting this. I have read many instances of that term, “patriotic education”, that China is implementing and was quite clueless on what it truly was. I don’t understand clearly, why China is using such coercive methods today to ‘strengthen’ ethnic unity. Forcing monks to denounce their teachers and Dalai Lama, doesn’t really make them more loyal to the Communist party.

    Its very ironic, over a thousand years Tibet has been protected by China’s emperors because of its religious knowledge; the last place where all of the greatest pieces of Buddhist thought survive [where in India, it slowly died away], and now the complete opposite, China (communist party) hates religion. Well, thats my 2 cents. Thank you for this post~

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I’m currently writing my undergrad thesis on the changes the CCP has made to the Chinese Catholic Church and seminary education is definitely one of them. I have yet to find a source that actually tells me what kind of “patriotic” courses are included in their education, so thanks again!

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