Controlling Beliefs and Global Perceptions: Religion in Chinese Foreign Policy

Published date01 January 2021
Date01 January 2021
AuthorJonathan Brasnett
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
58(1) 41 –58, 2021
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881720981513
Research article
Controlling Beliefs and
Global Perceptions:
Religion in Chinese
Foreign Policy
Jonathan Brasnett1
Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) has sought to control every aspect of religion in Chinese
society. Recently, the CCP has increasingly leveraged religious institutions to
disseminate a positive narrative of its religious policies in an effort to preserve
or enhance its relations with countries that identify with those religions. This
has enabled Beijing to avoid criticism and even increase international support
despite widely reported violations of religious freedom in China. This article
expands the concept of religious diplomacy to explain the PRC’s dynamic use of
soft power, censorship and coercion in its international relations. Drawing on
the examples of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, this paper explores the CCP’s
efforts to mobilize its religious institutions in order to (a) promote China’s unique
religious culture, (b) strengthen domestic control through foreign relations and
(c) preserve foreign relations by controlling international perceptions.
China, religion, foreign policy, diplomacy, governance, soft power
Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has espoused atheism and sought to control
every aspect of religion in Chinese society. Although China experienced a
1 Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa, Canada.
Corresponding Author:
Jonathan Brasnett, Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa, Ottawa,
42 International Studies 58(1)
significant relaxation of religious restrictions following the death of Chairman
Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, the accession
to power of President Xi Jinping in 2012 has been followed by a crackdown on
many freedoms that had been enjoyed by a number of religious groups. In
particular, Cook (2017) notes that while so-called Asian religions like Buddhism
and Taoism have enjoyed some support from the CCP, ‘religious persecution has
increased overall, with four communities in particular experiencing a downturn in
conditions— Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and both Hui and Uighur
Muslims’ (Cook, 2017, pp. 6–7). Ongoing efforts to dictate who will succeed the
Dalai Lama after the passing of the incumbent (Goff, 2019), a campaign to remove
crosses from churches in Zhejiang province (Johnson, 2016) and new regulations
restricting the ability of young Muslims to receive an Islamic education or
participate in Muslim activities (Cook, 2017, pp. 66–85), all point to a tightening
of control over ‘foreign’ religions in recent years (Cook, 2017, pp. 31–32). These
increasingly repressive policies towards religions and their practitioners
domestically has translated into significant criticism directed at the CCP from
human rights groups and representatives of several democratic countries in the
international arena (US Department of State, 2019). One might assume that this
criticism has negatively impacted China’s image and influence among countries
where religion plays an important role in society; however, this appears not to be
the case. In fact, in many instances, the opposite appears to be true, which is the
puzzle being addressed in this article.
When considering China’s foreign relations with countries where a particular
religion predominates or carries significant influence in society and in politics,
many of these bilateral relationships are much stronger and more mutually
supportive than the relations between these countries and the more secular,
Western democracies. Many scholars have argued that the reason for China’s
successful relations with developing countries (many of which are home to
influential religions) is because of their dependence on Chinese trade and
investment (Ma, 2018; Marukawa, 2017). It is true that the Belt and Road Initiative
(BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank provide a clear incentive for
developing countries to show support to China in exchange for increased trade
and investment funding. But beyond the obvious economic power wielded by
Beijing vis-à-vis developing countries, and beyond the censorship and coercion
that the CCP has mastered in the domestic context and increasingly in the
international sphere, there is another strategy that is increasingly employed by
China to achieve its international objectives: soft power. It is this tool that allows
the CCP to influence the behaviour of other states and their leaders, and to make
them behave in support of Chinese interests without the use of coercion. Of
course, in cases where soft power has failed to produce Beijing’s desired outcomes,
China has shown no reluctance to resort to censorship and coercion, as will be
discussed in the three cases below. However, in order to contextualize the
persuasiveness of China’s religious diplomacy, the next section will examine soft
power, and in particular, the role of religion therein.

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