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Buddhist Charities and China's Social Policy

An Opportunity for Alternate Civility?
Philanthropie bouddhiste et politiques sociales en Chine: la possibilité d'une sociabilité nouvelle?
Filantropia budista y politicas sociales en China: la posibilidad de nuevas habilidades sociales?
André Laliberté
p. 95-117


Les institutions bouddhistes chinoises représentent-elles une source de sociabilité nouvelle pouvant favoriser une évolution vers un système politique plus ouvert ? On peut y répondre dans une perspective comparée qui prend en compte trois domaines d'intervention où des conflits peuvent émerger entre autorités étatiques et religieuses: l'éducation, la santé, et l'aide publique. Après un survol des politiques sociales chinoises et du rôle minimal dévolu aux institutions religieuses dans leur mise en œuvre, il est fait état des actions philanthropiques des institutions bouddhistes. Celles-ci ont adopté la même prudence que leurs collègues taïwanaises: une attitude propice à la civilité, certes, mais pas un encouragement à la réforme politique.

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Introduction 1

  • 1 I would like to thank the City of Paris' emergence program and the Social Sciences and Humanities R (...)

1The development of religious institutions in China is one of the most remarkable trends of the last twenty years. Among the many issues it raises for the future of China, an important one is the effect of religious institutions' growth on politics. Few subscribe nowadays to the view that religion will vanish as science delivers on its promises of a better tomorrow. Among those who believe that religion can remain a relevant influence in politics, one can distinguish two broad perspectives. On the one hand, some apply de Tocqueville's view that religious diversity positively affects democracy. On the other hand, the argument that religion is an “opiate for the masses” sees religions' revival or endurance in authoritarian countries like China as a trend that is compatible with the resilience of that regime. That view holds that religious beliefs distract people from their mundane suffering with promises of salvation and therefore sap the will of people to challenge the political structures responsible for their situation. The Tocquevillian view has received support from analysts who have looked at the relationship between religious vitality and transition to democracy in Taiwan (Madsen, 2007; Kuo, 2008), and it is also receiving validation from sociologists who, moreover, posit more specifically a link between Christianity and liberal values in China (Yang, 2005). The opposite view of religion as alienation was upheld under Chairman Mao as the Chinese government's orthodoxy to justify its policies against religion, but Chinese authorities during the mandate of Jiang Zemin have upheld the same view, this time as a rationale for a more positive appreciation of religion and its role in strengthening a stable society. It is an irony lost on no-one that a nominally atheist state should now use religion in its governmentality. The behavior of Christians in China seems, partly, to vindicate the Tocquevillian perspective on the impact of religion on the politics of democratization. But this question remains open for Chinese Buddhism, which has received less attention than Christianity, or even Tibetan Buddhism.

2To understand the extent to which this is the case, the goal of this paper is to set the context of China's social policies and describe the ways in which Buddhist charities get involved to help the state. What we observe in China unfolds in a global context of state retrenchment from social policy, in which relations between the state and religious institutions are becoming more complementary. This follows a century-long period in which the modern state authority over religious institutions all over the world has been ascendant. For countries like China, where state authorities remain insecure about their legitimacy and control, and religious institutions are facing a remarkable revival, state retrenchment from social policy poses formidable challenges. Such governments are considering relying on the human capital, financial resources and foreign contacts of religious institutions to help them address issues in social policy for which they seek support, while ensuring that such reliance does not generate a political capital that could represent a potential challenge to their authority. In the case of China, the confrontation between the state and the Falungong, a spiritual movement claiming to offer an alternative to public health care, illustrates both the potential and the risks of out-sourcing social services to religious institutions at a time when the costs of health were becoming too prohibitive for many in that country (Ownby 2010; Palmer 2007). The argument presented in this essay is that the Chinese state seems confident that it does not incur such risks by letting Buddhist institutions deliver social services.

Religion and Social Policies in a Comparative Perspective

3Social policies include three broad domains of public intervention, which altogether represent the largest component of developed states' budgets: education, health, and social security. Religious institutions have been involved with these policies in the not-so-distant past of the West to a far greater extent than today, and remain involved in these policies for many developing countries. Although China does not qualify as a “developed economy” according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), more than half of its budget is devoted to these three areas of spending. But even if Chinese leaders consider their country to be a developing economy, until recently they afforded religious institutions a far more limited role in public affairs than other developing countries were willing to do. Before modern states were established, religious institutions often ran services in education and health care as well as relief to the poor, albeit not always in a comprehensive manner, as described by Liang Qizi (1997) in her work on charities during the Ming-Qing transition. In undertaking these activities, they were often in a position to maintain their own authority alongside – if not against – secular political rulers. Conflicts between religious institutions and states emerged when the latter sought to expand their control and took up increasing responsibilities for education and health, thereby directly challenging the source of religious institutions' influence (Manow, 2004; Wilcox, 1997).

4Education today still remains an area of potential conflict between state and religious authorities when their respective views on morality, the meaning of life, obligations and duties do not converge (Manow and Palier, 2009). In China, the state and religious institutions have clashed over education for two main reasons. An important issue of contention was the availability of resources to deliver education, but ideology itself was also at stake, as explain Ji Zhe and the contributors to a special issue on the subject in the journal Extrême-Orient Extrême-Occident (2011). Hence, when the republican and the socialist regimes in China sought to spread education to the population, they decided to harness the material resources of religious institutions to meet their objectives, seizing their land and property in an attempt to turn temples into schools (Goossaert and Palmer, 2010; Ashiwa, 2009: 52-55; Nedostup, 2009; Goossaert, 2006; Duara, 1991).

5Public health, and in particular reproductive health, women and children's welfare, elderly care, and long term care, is another domain of public policy where the ideals of religious leaders and their followers can clash with those of the state's civil servants. Religious teachings and the political ideals of modernizers harbor specific moral views about family, gender relations, sexual orientation, and dignity that can be difficult to reconcile even when they include ethical principles such as justice, equality, and universality (Kahl, 2009).

6Finally, Social security, including social insurances and poverty alleviation measures, represents another potential source of contention for religious associations. This time, however, the state is more likely to be criticized for not doing enough. When the state fails to provide social security, it can set the stage for the kind of unrest that is detrimental to political stability and therefore the development of religious institutions that thrive on the latter (Quadagno and Rohlinger, 2009). Religious institutions, in that case, are more likely to demand state intervention than reject it, unless tax extraction affects them too much.

7Comparative analyses of social policies in developed countries (Esping-Andersen, 1990), or the transition economies in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and East Asia (Haggard and Kaufman, 2008) emphasize many explanatory factors for the development of these policies but the impact of religious institutions represents a blind spot. This shortcoming in our knowledge is a major problem in our understanding of the challenges that states face when they try to design, expand, or reform their social policies. Since the nineteenth century, religious institutions have fought bitterly to oppose the expansion of the state's responsibilities in social policies. For example, in France throughout the late 19th century up until the beginning of the 20th century, the Catholic Church and the state have fought for control over education (Lanfrey, 2003). In other cases, religious institutions supported the expansion of the state's social policy. Hence, the Catholic Church under Bismarck favored the implementation of social insurances, in the hope of countering the influence of communist parties over the labor movement (Dickinson, 1996). In all these cases, these battles between religions and the state were part of a broader process of democratization.

8Studies on the states' attempt to use temples to serve its own social programs in education and health care during the late Qing dynasty and the early Republican period reveals important differences between China and the situation experienced in the West that remain relevant today (Goossaert and Palmer, 2010; Nedostup, 2009; Goossaert, 2006; Duara, 1991). While the state tried to establish its authority in China in the early twentieth century, it did not have to deal with a single unified institution like the Catholic Church. It faced instead a number of local associations, of varied levels of capacity and resources. In that context, apart from conflicts between the Nationalist Party (KMT) and Christian schools (Lutz, 1988), the state encountered little opposition from religious institutions in the development of a modern state's key institutions in the realm of public health and relief to the poor. Buddhist institutions, Christian missionaries, and redemptive societies as well had established orphanages, schools, and clinics, but the unsettled political situation during the whole period made it difficult for them to nurture a unified and effective leadership that could articulate, let alone defend, a corporate position on issues of public interest such as poverty alleviation. This became even more difficult during the first two decades of the People's Republic. Then, the state sought actively to prevent any religious institution from getting organized and provided through the People's Communes and State-Owned Enterprises a comprehensive array of social services. In other words, any analysis of Buddhist institutions' weak institutions today must keep that in perspective.

9With the reform policy adopted after 1978, the requirements that People's Communes and State-Owned-Enterprises act as sole provider of social services have been jettisoned. This major change did not mean a similarly radical shift with respect to state-religion relations because China does not have a public sphere comparable to post-industrial democracies where religious institutions can advance their own corporate interests. Besides the formal aspect of state control of religion, however, the context of changing social policies provides to a number of religious actors opportunities to assert themselves as institutional actors. Although their influence in policy debates remains unexplored and difficult to assess, their potential for the delivery of social services, and therefore to become important stakeholders, is growing in importance. As Ji Zhe has written, it is a remarkable paradox that the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to control religious institutions has provided them with a cohesiveness that was lacking in the Republican period and that had made them vulnerable at the time (2008: 257).

10The findings discussed below on relations between state and religion in China and their impact on social policies seeks to address shortcomings on this relation by recent literature on the welfare state which has expended beyond the confines of Western Europe, the Anglo-Saxon democracies of the New World, and Japan (Haggard and Kaufman, 2008). The same blind spot is found in the work by Ian Gough and Geoff Wood on the issue of welfare regimes in developing countries, which addresses in particular the role of informality and welfare mix in the social policies of states that refuse to follow the way of Western European states, with their more generous welfare outcomes (2004). They have examined an even greater and more diversified number of societies than Haggard and Kaufman did and their emphasis on informality brings attention to the role of religions at the basic level. The societies studied by Gough and Wood have seen a resilience of religiosity that compelled many to look anew at the effect of religion on the welfare state. However, their discussion on social policy in Asia offers very little on the role of religion. This reflects the scholarship on the role of religion in East Asian social policies, which sometimes refer to a Confucian welfare model and emphasize the role of family, but seldom pays attention to religious institutions (Walker and Wong, 2005; Gough, 2004; White, Goodman, and Kwon, 1998). This neglect is all the more baffling considering the importance of religion in the politics of the region, a reality that has been observed in studies of transition to democracy in Asia (Cheng and Brown, 2005).

11The next section will consider Buddhist institutions as an emerging and growing source of support to the state in the implementation of its social policies. Although this discussion will be limited to Buddhism, it is clear that other institutionalized religions such as Daoism, the various Christian denominations, and Islam, as well as local temples cults, lineages, and devotional groups, are also active in providing social services in a significant way. However, while Islam and Christianity are active in charity and the provision of social services in societies where their adherents represent a majority of the population, Buddhist and Taoist associations may be able to reach out to a greater proportion of the Chinese population, as they can be the institutional expression of traditional religions for a greater number of Chinese. Among these two latter traditions, Buddhist associations have demonstrated in Taiwan, the closest society to China culturally speaking, their ability to deliver social services in health care, education, and disaster relief.

The Expansion of Buddhist Philanthropy in China


12There is little doubt that Buddhism has experienced an extraordinary growth in the last two decades. By 2004, the National Bureau of Statistics' database on religion in China noted that close to half of the new Buddhist temples and associations it has registered had been established after 1992 (see table 1). It remains difficult to interpret properly this expansion, however: it could mean a surge in the number of Buddhist believers and the construction of new temples and monasteries as a response to an increasing demand, or it could simply represent an effort to rebuild temples and monasteries that have been destroyed or neglected in previous periods of history. There is no doubt that this state-sponsored rehabilitation of Buddhism as a legitimate component of Chinese society is not a full restoration to its previous status as an important institution. When we put this growth in a broader historical perspective it is clear that Buddhism is far from reaching the influence it once held in China. Hence, Holmes Welch's landmark study of Buddhism between 1900 and1950 quoted surveys of the Republican government that counted more than 256,000 temples and monasteries with monks, nuns, or laymen and laywomen in residence within China's provinces between 1937 and 1945 (Welch 1967: 419). This number represents more than three times the number of all religious associations currently registered in 2004 by the Statistics' bureau. As Ashiwa (2009: 55) and Welch (1968) both noted, Buddhism had suffered a series of setbacks since the Taiping Rebellion. They also endured persecution during the modernizing campaigns to turn temples into schools during the Late Qing and the early Republican era (Ashiwa, 2009: 49-55; Duara, 1991; Welch 1968). Although the religion went through a modern reform movement with the monk Taixu (Pittman, 2001), it was constrained by conditions prevailing under the periods of warlordism, the Japanese invasion, and the Civil War. In other words, the travails experienced by Buddhism during the Cultural Revolution represented the nadir in a long period of persecution from modernizers, warlords, and religious leaders that extended far beyond the era when China was under the leadership of Mao Zedong. In short, the current Buddhist revival remains rather modest when set in the perspective of China's longue durée.

  • 6 The category “associations” is very inclusive: a close look at the data for Shanghai compiled for t (...)

Table 1: Buddhist institutions 6 in China, by year of founding


Before 1949




After 1992












Source: CNBS, Atlas of religion, 2004.

13With these qualifications about the expansion of Buddhism in mind, it is clear that the situation of temples and Buddhist institutions, like religion in general, has improved dramatically after Deng Xiaoping repudiated most of Mao's policies on religious affairs. The number of new Buddhist temples and associations increased in the 1980s during the reformist administrations of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. This coincided with efforts to lure Taiwanese, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese's investments in China. This relative acceptance initially did not mean greater openness for Buddhist institutions, which remained subjected to regulations that forbade any non-liturgical activities within temple and no activities whatsoever outside of temples. The early wave of temple and monasteries' construction in the 1980s went through a sharp drop in the year that followed the June 4th massacre, but it experienced a swift revival following Deng Xiaoping's Southern tour in 1992 (see Figure 1). In 1996, 659 Buddhist temples and associations were built or established in that year alone, an unprecedented peak that would not be repeated until 2004, which is the last year for which official data covering the entire country are available. It is not clear yet if the decline in growth experienced after 1996 indicates a consolidation of established temples and institutions, or a more ominous trend of limiting the expansion of the religion. As will be discussed below, however, the diminishing rate of new constructions from 1996 to 2004 contrasts with the continuing growth in the charitable activities performed by Buddhists institutions in the same period and after.

Source: ACMRC, 2010.

Figure 1. Buddhist Association by year of founding


Table 2: Provincial Buddhist associations and related charities or foundations


Creation dates

Name of Foundations






China Buddhist Charity Foundation




Public Interest Foundation






Chongqing Buddhist Charity Merit Society




Nanputuo temple Charity Foundation




Gansu Buddhist Charitable Foundation




Guangdong Buddhist Charitable Foundation




Guangxi Buddhist Charitable Foundation






Hainan Buddhist Charitable Foundation




Hebei Buddhist Charity Merit Society




Charitable Society






Hubei Buddhist Charity Merit Society




Hunan Buddhist Charitable Foundation




Jiangsu Buddhist Charity Movement to help Pupils




Charitable Foundation




Buddhist Merit Society














Shandong Buddhist Net Charity Center






Buddhist Charity Merit Society






Tianjin Buddhist Charity Merit Foundation









Sources: compilation by the author from provincial Buddhist associations' reports, newspapers, and Buddhist charities' self-declaration.

The variety of services offered by Buddhist philanthropy



14The claim made in this article was a straightforward one: Chinese Buddhist institutions are expanding dramatically, and this go beyond the rebuilding of temples. The Chinese government, at all levels, encourages them to get involved in charity and to assist in the delivery of a number of social services. This is a new development because until recently religious institutions were forbidden to do anything but perform liturgical activities within temples and other buildings designated for that purpose. By doing such activities, Buddhist institutions can gain respect and appreciation among non-Buddhists. However, there are no signs so far that they could make political capital gain out of this endeavor.

15In fact, the recovery of Buddhist institutions remains fragile. Government support should not be taken for granted, and as the experience of Falungong before has demonstrated too much attention on them could bring a halt to their activities. Buddhist institutions are driven by a rational interest for the survival of their institutions and because of this concern their leaders have never come out publicly in favor of political reform, in contrast to Christians, who have been vocal on issues of civil liberties. Perhaps some Buddhist leaders express such concerns in private but if that is the case, there is no way to obtain confirmation that they are.

  • 26 The evidence for this attitude is routinely found in the editorials of the official publications of (...)

16Members of Buddhist philanthropic associations are convinced that they offer the government a very valuable service. They are aware of the gaps in the different dimensions of social policy, whether it is health care, education, or poverty alleviation. The task ahead, however, is daunting. Some hope that Buddhist institutions will be able to offer more comprehensive forms of healthcare services in the future. Most Buddhist institutions do not have such plans because they only started to redevelop their temples in the 1990s, and they feel that there is too much work to be done. More important, perhaps, there is an absence of consensus on where Buddhism should stand in the implementation of social policy, and there are no sustained and systematic teachings on what should lay Buddhists do. They can contribute to nurture high levels of civility, but they are not on record for supporting a citizenry that could articulate constructive criticisms of governmental policies' shortcoming when they arise. In other words, Buddhist institutions are not among the actors that put pressure on the Chinese government to engage in political reforms that could overcome the sources of growing social inequalities and poverty among vulnerable populations and, at least in public, they express preference for stability and social harmony. 26

17This article has opened with a question about the possibility that religious diversity could affect positively democracy: assuming that the vitality of Buddhism, along with the growth of Christianity, signifies that there is religious diversity in China, there are no visible effects on democratization that can be inferred from that diversity. The growth of Buddhist institutions does favor the expansion of civility by encouraging the growth of a more compassionate and caring citizenry, but in doing so, it tends to strengthen the resilience of the current regime rather than undermine it with demands for democratic opening: by merely providing a safety valve to social tensions it dampens the forces for political change.

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1 I would like to thank the City of Paris' emergence program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the financial support necessary for the research leading to this article, to Wu Pengfei, Deng Keyi, Jing Feng and Jiawen for their assistance during the fieldwork, as well as the interviewees for their generosity. In addition, I express my gratitude to the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, where I was a public policy scholar, for giving me the space and time to undergo revisions for this article. Finally, I extend my thanks to Vincent Goossaert and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. All the omissions and mistakes, of course, are mine.

2 Hubei, Hebei, Anhui, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Fujian, Henan, and Shanxi.

3 Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin.

4 The resources of reading rooms attached to the Yufo temple in Shanghai, the Bailin temple in Hebei, and the Foxueyuan in Guangzhou have been especially helpful in providing access to a large number of periodicals, brochures and documents produced by many locations I had not had the opportunity to visit.

5 The Buddhist monks were usually referred to me by Chinese scholars.

6 The category “associations” is very inclusive: a close look at the data for Shanghai compiled for the Atlas of Religion reveals that the survey lists local Buddhist associations (fojiao xiehui ), stricto sensu, as well as lay devotee lodges (jushilin ), monasteries (chanyuan ), nunneries (an ), Buddhist institutes (foxueyuan ), temples (si or miao ), and even, in one case, a shop to sell candles, which was connected to a Buddhist temple. As the survey mentioned by Welch suggests, however, the figure for the number of temples before 1949 is not reliable.

7 Interview in Guangzhou with the Vice-Director of the Provincial Bureau for Religious Affairs, June 2010.

8 See “Wo shi zhaokai fojiao cishan gongde jijinhui huanjie jidi'erjie lishi huiyi (Our municipal Buddhist charity's second assembly re-elect its leadership')” at the following URL

9 Interview with a monk in White Cloud Temple, Taiyuan, July 2010.

10 Interviews in the summer of 2010 in Shanghai and Nanjing.

11 Interviews with colleagues in Shanghai, June 2010.

12 For examples, colleagues in the department of philosophy at Suzhou University during a meeting in June 2010 mentioned that the Hanshan Temple () was able to generate an annual income of about 100 million yuan from the sale of visiting tickets to the temple, and used that money for charity activities, including 15 schools.

13 Interview in Xiyuan temple, July 2011.

14 Interview with a lay volunteer working for a Buddhist charity in Shanghai, June 2009.

15 People interviewed on this issue are aware of the limitations imposed by regulations, but as the discussion on transnational charities below will show, some are enthusiastically planning to go this way.

16 During interviews with monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists in Hubei, Anhui, Hebei, and Shanghai, all interlocutors praised the Taiwanese Tzu Chi Foundation as an example to emulate.

17 This kind of activity was described during interviews in Shanghai, June 2009, and Hubei, May 2004.

18 “2009 ”. Suzhou Municipal Statistic Bureau. 2010-01-20. Retrieved January 22, 2012

19 Interview in Nanjing, July 2011.

20 Interview with two scholars in Shanghai, June 2010.

21 Interview in Xiamen, June 2010.

22 This is displayed in the quarterly Cishan, produced by Nanputuo.

23 The Shaolin Ciyouyuan has issued a brochure detailing its organization and the beneficiaries of its services.

24 Interview in Yangzhou, July 2011.

25 Interview in Yangzhou, July 2011.

26 The evidence for this attitude is routinely found in the editorials of the official publications of the Buddhist association of China, as well as those of local associations and temples.

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André Laliberté, « Buddhist Charities and China's Social Policy », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 158 | 2012, 95-117.

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André Laliberté, « Buddhist Charities and China's Social Policy », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 158 | Avril-juin, mis en ligne le 17 juillet 2012, consulté le 10 février 2016. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/assr.23789

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André Laliberté

School of Political studies, University of Ottawa,

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© Archives de sciences sociales des religions

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