China's New Religious Law Promises Little Change

Monday, January 17, 2005

Tightened restrictions seek to control rapid religious growth.

by Xu Mei

NANJING, January 17, 2005 (Compass) -- China has announced a new law, which comes into effect on March 1, governing the freedom of religion.

The government first announced the new Religious Affairs Provisions on November 30, 2004, according to a mid-December report by the New China News Agency (NCNA). The NCNA, a government news agency, said the new law is regarded as “a significant step forward in the protection of Chinese citizens’ religious freedom.”

The NCNA further stressed that the new provisions are designed to “deal with new situations and issues that have emerged in recent years with China’s rapid socio-economic development.”

However, a detailed examination of the provisions shows that, with some minor exceptions, very little has changed in China’s religious policy. In fact, it appears some of the new regulations tighten existing restrictions.

The new law consists of 48 Articles, divided into seven sections titled General Principles, Religious Bodies, Religious Venues, Religious Personnel, Religious Finance and Property, Legal Responsibilities, and Addenda. They lay out a comprehensive system to control affairs for all religious believers in China.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) first established control over religion in the early 1950s, through its United Front Work Department and Religious Affairs Bureau -- recently renamed the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

The system ran aground during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), but was re-established between 1978 and 1979 and codified in Document 19 of the CCP Central Committee in 1982.

Now more than 20 years later, the new provisions re-affirm the dominance of the Communist Party and the mechanisms of control laid out in 1982.

Beijing’s overriding concern is clearly apparent in Article 3, which states, “Religious bodies, religious venues and believers must uphold the constitution, laws and regulations to safeguard national unity, harmony between the national minorities, and social stability.”

Over the past two decades, the rapid growth of religion has alarmed Party hardliners. Islamic separatism in Xinjiang, Buddhist nationalism in Tibet and Mongolia, the growth of Catholic and Protestant house churches, and the spread of religious cults such as Falun Gong and Lightning from the East, have all combined to place the control of religion at the top of the CCP’s agenda.

Indeed, in late October 2004 as officials prepared to announce the new law, bloody clashes broke out between Muslims and Han Chinese in Henan, China’s ancient rural heartland.

Beijing’s nervousness with its more than 20 million Muslim citizens is underlined by Article 43 of the new law, which authorizes the Religious Affairs department to “prohibit those who take it upon themselves to organize pilgrimages overseas.” This clause is obviously designed to prevent Chinese Muslims from traveling to Mecca.

According to Article 3, the State “protects normal religious activities.” However, “normal” and “abnormal” religious activities are not defined. The CCP reserves the right to make such distinctions.

Government registration for all religious organizations is re-affirmed in Articles 6, 12 and 15. For example, Article 12 states, “The collective religious activities of religious citizens must generally take place in religious venues which have been registered.”

Article 7 stresses continuing government control over religious publications. “Patriotic” or registered religious organizations are still restricted to printing limited numbers of religious books for their internal use.

Books with a religious content are still censored and must not promote “religious extremism.” Again, what is “extreme” is presumably defined by the CCP.

Article 19 stresses the supervisory role of state officials. “Religious venues must accept the supervision and investigation of the Religious Affairs departments.”

There are a few minor improvements in religious policy. For example, Article 15 orders local government to respond within 30 days to requests from religious believers to register a new church or temple.

If implemented, this may help Christian believers to cut through the often impenetrable thicket of bureaucracy when applying for official registration.

The rights of registered religious organizations to their property are also safeguarded, as is the right to proper compensation if religious buildings are demolished as part of China’s vast program of reconstruction, according to Articles 30 through 33.

Article 34 grants permission for registered religious organizations to “set up social service projects in accordance with the law.” Some Protestant and Catholic churches are already operating kindergartens, orphanages, old-people’s homes and clinics on a modest scale, but this provision should encourage expansion of these services.

However, the improvements are more than offset by new provisions to punish members of unregistered religious groups.

Article 43 reads, “Those who arbitrarily set up religious meetings, and religious meetings which after having had their registration cancelled continue to meet, as well as those who arbitrarily set up religious schools, will all be prohibited by the Religious Affairs departments which will confiscate their illegal gains such as illegal property.

“Non-religious bodies and non-religious organizations and venues which undertake religious activities and receive religious offerings will be ordered to stop by the Religious Affairs departments. If they have illegal gains, these will be confiscated. In serious circumstances, they can be fined two to three times the worth of what they have illegally gained.”

Article 43 could have serious repercussions for Chinese house churches. Many of these churches refuse to register for reasons of conscience; others who seek to register are sometimes turned down and thus placed in the illegal category.

Under these provisions, Christians who use their factories, shops or homes for unregistered worship meetings run the risk of losing their property.

Finally, Article 45 ambiguously states that those who “undertake religious activities masquerading as religious professionals will be ordered to stop by the Religious Affairs departments, and their illegal gains confiscated.”

This provision may be aimed at religious cults, but history shows that the government has used similar provisions to harass, arrest and even imprison unregistered Protestant and Catholic priests and teachers, simply because they operated outside the strict parameters of “patriotic” religious activities.

The NCNA claimed the government had spent six years drafting the new provisions, in consultation with “people in law, religion and human rights.”

However, it seems very doubtful that religious people outside the state-controlled patriotic associations were ever consulted. The results are likely to exacerbate tensions between state and party organs on the one hand, and religious communities and individuals on the other.

Religious life in China has mushroomed over the past 20 years and, as recent history has shown, the rigid Maoist framework laid down 50 years ago is no longer sufficient to control it.

The Chinese government has addressed this issue by tightening existing provisions. However their approach seems to ignore the dynamics of a rapidly-changing China.