In a recent Religious News Service interview, Brian J. Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, also notes that China's futures in religious freedom and harmony are also tied to their economic fortunes.
According to data from the ongoing Pew Research global restrictions study, social hostilities involving religion in China increased fourfold between 2007 and 2012 (see chart at left).
This weekend's attack at the train station in Kunming, one of China's largest terminals, is the largest attack outside of Xinjiang. The predominantly Muslim Uyghurs used to be the majority population in the far northwest Xinjiang region of China, but due to immigration from other parts of China, they now represent less that 50% of the region's population.
In fact, data from the same Pew Research study finds that overall restrictions on religion in China, which were already very high, have also increased during the same time period.
Chinese authorities argue that such restrictions on religion are needed to maintain security, promote social harmony and keep religious hostilities in check. However, the data suggest that rather than reducing religious hostilities, added restrictions on religion may add to the grievances.
Social science research has identified this as a religious violence cycle. For instance, Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke in The Price of Freedom Denied show that, contrary to popular opinion, ensuring religious freedom for all reduces religious violence and conflict. While it may be that some restrictions on religion are necessary to maintain order or preserve a peaceful religious homogeneity, the research shows that restricting religious freedoms is associated with higher levels of violence, not less.
Answering this question is particularly important in China because it has the largest religious population of any country besides India, according to Pew Research demographic studies.
The Yin & Yang of Religious Freedom in China
In a recent Religious News Service interview, Brian J. Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, also noted that while China may have some of the highest restrictions on religion in the world, there have nonetheless been great strides in the past 50 years.
But today, almost one-in-two people in China follow a faith. 300 million Chinese are affiliated with folk religions. Globally this means that more than seven-in-ten (73%) of the world’s folk religionists live in China.
China not only leads the world in the number of folk religionists, but also in the number of Buddhists. Some 244 million people in China adhere to Buddhism, making China home to half (50%) of the world’s 488 million Buddhists.
Moreover, China's 68 million Christians make China home to the world’s seventh-largest Christian population. China's approximately 25 million Muslims constitute the world's 17th largest Muslim population, right after Saudi Arabia (# 16) and before Yemen (#18).
And China has the world's second largest shares of people who belong to faiths in the “other religion” category (16%), many of whom are adherents of Taoism. The World Religion Database estimates there are more than 8 million Taoists worldwide.
China’s economic success would not have been possible had the country kept religion and other forms of identity completely suppressed. Grim said, "I’m not making the argument that religious freedom was what launched the country’s economic success, but if draconian restrictions on religion and other things had not been lifted, the level of success we see today would not have been attained."
Indeed, solving China's religious hostilities problem not only will pay dividends for social harmony, but also in helping to consolidate and mature the economic advances of the past decades.