Freedom of Religion in UK’s Foreign Policy: the Case of China

The economic importance of a strong UK-China relationship is increasingly recognised by British politicians. When the Rt Hon George Osborne MP, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, visited China in 2015, he was welcomed by the Chinese media precisely for being “the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region’s business potential instead of finding fault over the human-rights issue.”

But the relationship between China and Britain has not been exempt from human rights contentions. In 2008, for example, Prince Charles refused to attend the Olympic games in Beijing due to his concerns over China’s occupation of Tibet. In 2012, the previous PM the Rt Hon David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in London and was banned from China for a year as a result.

This blogs examines one aspect of human rights abuses in China: namely, freedom of religion, specifically for Christians, Buddhists and Muslims.

Religion in China

The recent resurgence of religion is one of the most important social changes in modern Chinese history. However, religious activities in China, in particular those among ethnic minorities, continue to face political suppression. Insisting that all religions need to abide by a socialist ideology and contribute to Chinese socialism even though socialism in China is more of a political slogan than socio-economic reality, China’s President Xi Jinping has increased the pressure on religious groups and institutions. The following documents in more detail the contemporary situation of some religions in China, focusing in particular on the Christians, Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists.

Christians in China

Though there is significant difficulty in acquiring reliable data on the state of religion in China, one estimate puts the number of Chinese Christians between 83.4 million and 125.2 million, 6.1% and 9.2% of total Chinese population respectively. A Pew Research Centre report shows[RS1]  that a sharp growth in the number of Christians in China has occurred since the early 1990s, picking up momentum particularly after the mid-1990s.

Since 2014, the Chinese government has engaged in systematic efforts to demolish crosses installed on church buildings, and has been exceptionally harsh in crushing Christian protests. One report estimates that the total number of crosses demolished in one single province in eastern China in 2014 and 2015 reached as much as 1,500.

The Chinese government has also attempted to thwart the growth of Christianity through strenuous efforts at cracking down on unregistered underground family churches.

Muslims in China

A 2009 Pew Research Centre report puts the total number of Muslims in China at 21.7 million[RS2] . There are ten Muslim ethnic groups in China. Most of these Muslims concentrate in northwest and southwest China, in areas that border upon Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Burma.

The political condition of Muslims continues to deteriorate. Islamophobia is widespread both online and offline. The Uyghur Muslims, concentrating primarily in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (or East Turkistan), often face severe repressions in their religious activities. Security cameras are installed in mosques. Arbitrary police raids in private homes in search of religious materials are not uncommon, and often result in violent clashes. Ethnic clashes of a violent nature are not uncommon in Xinjiang. Radio Free Asia reports in 2015 that as many as 700 people may have been killed in political violence in Xinjiang in 2013 and 2014, with ethnic Uyghurs three times as likely as Han Chinese to have lost their lives in the clashes. The Government has also embarked on a consistent campaign in the past several years to force Uyghur women to stop wearing headcover, forbidding those doing so from entering government premises.  [RS3] 

A famous and moderate Muslim website in China run by a group of Hui Muslims,, was shut down by the Government in 2016 for its religious background. One of its founding members has been indefinitely detained; others have been placed under close monitoring by the state. Efforts by Muslim groups in seeking legal assistance and a fair trial made have been thwarted by the Government.

Tibetan Buddhists in China

China’s occupation of Tibet - and its persecution of Tibetans - continues to remain a thorny issue. There are around 7.8 million Tibetans currently living in China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Human Rights Watch recorded 479 cases of detainment of Tibetans under the name of “political offences” from 2013 to 2015. While Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns constituted over 90% of political detainees in Tibet in the 1980s, they represent less than 40% of the 479 cases recorded in this recent Human Rights Watch report, showing that resistances and protests against religious and political persecution have gained wider ground beyond the institutional establishment of Tibetan Buddhism.

Despite extensive international criticism, the Chinese Government nevertheless recently carried out the plan to considerably downsize Larung Gar Buddhist Academy, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist institution of advanced learning located in Serta County in Kardze of China’s Sichuan Province. The action has displaced up to 7,000 monks and nuns, and large sections of the academy have been razed to the ground.


It is important that Britain expands its current engagement with non-official channels of intervention. The British government has already set the path to this expansion: it has worked with international partners, in particular civil rights organisations in China, to visit individuals under house arrest, observe court trials (or attempt to, often with limited success), and maintain contact with human rights defenders. But collaboration with China-based international partners is currently also under severe threat. 2016 has witnessed some of the worse crackdowns on international as well as domestic NGOs in China. In promoting collaborative work with China-based human rights NGOs, therefore, the UK Government must evaluate the risks thus posed to the local partners, who might be more likely subjected to intimidation and police harassment than their British colleagues. 

Guangtian Ha is a research intern at Bright Blue. He received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University in 2014.