China Announces 'Change' in Religious Policies

Friday, November 12, 2004

Government officials discuss new regulations while raids and arrests continue.
by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, November 12, 2004 (Compass) -- In a two-day international conference on religion and law held in Beijing on October 18 and 19, Chinese officials said they were open to changes in religious policy.

During the conference, Zhang Xunmou, director of the policy and legal department of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA, formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau), said the days of issuing administrative orders on religious affairs were over. New laws would set clear limits on the authority given to local officials to control religious activity.

Zhang said existing laws and regulations were now inadequate after two decades of reform. He also claimed the new approach would be a paradigm shift in China’s religious policy.

However, Ji Wenyuan, deputy director of SARA, emphasized that China was unique and cautioned against the adoption of religious policies from the West, the South China Morning Post reported on October 23. In the past, Chinese Christian converts were accused of “collaborating” with the West and corrupting Chinese culture.

Asia News said the changes in religious policy were a positive step forward, but only if the government recognized religious freedom as a basic human right. On October 25, the news service quoted an anonymous source in Hong Kong who said the announcement was merely “cosmetic” -- a move aimed at “sheltering China from international criticism against its harsh religious policy.”

Zhang Qianan, a professor at Peking University, confirmed to reporters that while the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, this freedom was only available to groups recognized by the state.

Indeed, Ji’s cautious admonition of “change, but not yet” was borne out in a wave of arrests and raids carried out on Christians in October.

In mid October, a building belonging to a house church leader was raided by police. “They took everything from her -- all she has left is a mattress,” one source told Compass. “They watch her place all the time and someone is stationed outside the house 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Bibles were also confiscated in the raid, along with other Christian literature and tapes.

In late October, another house church leader reported that authorities were watching him closely. One of his church meeting points was raided in the last few days of October, and many believers were arrested, beaten and questioned.

Information obtained during questioning led to raids on several other meeting points for the same house church network. The believers have now scattered and their pastor has gone into hiding.

One ministry reported a sharp increase in persecution throughout September and October, with a large number of arrests. One co-worker was beaten to death after she was arrested by police. A 70-year-old Chinese believer was also arrested in Xinjiang province; this man was hospitalized after a severe beating.

Another co-worker was arrested in Shaanxi province. Police confiscated all of the family’s belongings, “right down to their very last chair.”

Perhaps more significantly, four printing presses were shut down within the space of a month, when police discovered they were printing illegal Christian materials. One press operator was puzzled by the raids, saying “... we have never seen this type of crackdown before.”
Another source who verified the closure of one printing press said the owner was arrested and held on false charges while his warehouse was emptied of thousands of Christian books.

Officials said the new regulations proposed at the conference would strengthen the self-government of registered churches and reduce administrative costs for SARA. Tax laws and levies would also be applied to registered churches, some of which had amassed considerable wealth.

An article in the Shanghai Daily on October 19 seemed to indicate that changes were already underway. The article said the Bible would be placed on a recommended reading list for students in the city, along with a popular series of Kung Fu books. However, some parents interviewed by the newspaper said they were concerned that students would be adversely affected by what they read in the Bible.

After the changes were announced, deputy director Ji said that Beijing must tread carefully in making these reforms. He emphasized that social stability and harmony must be the basis for any new laws, stating, “A religion must be accepted not only by its own congregation, which follows its teachings, but also by non-believers who can live with it,” according to an article in the South China Morning Post on October 23.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Chinese officials on October 25 to discuss human rights violations, The New York Times reported. Talks ground to a halt earlier this year after the U.S. proposed a resolution against China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Li Zhaoxing, China’s foreign minister, assured Powell that China was now willing to re-open the dialogue on human rights abuses.