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China's Religious Policy: The Unfinished Mandate

Among the provisions contained in Document 19 were the instructions that, "In order to ensure further normalization of religious activities, the government should hereafter, in accordance with due process of law, consult fully with representatives from religious circles in order to draw up feasible religious legislation that can be carried out in practice."1 Although a host of national and local regulations having the force of law have been promulgated in the years since Document 19's appearance, the process of consulting with believers and drawing up appropriate laws passed by the National People's Congress to govern religious activity has never been carried out

Zhang Shoudong, an associate professor in the China University of Political Science and Law, sees this process of legal development as central to China's continued progress as a society:

[W]hen we review the legality of religious groups and re-define the position of religious groups in the current system, we should not remain merely at the policy level which holds that 'the state shall actively guide religions to adapt to the socialist society. Instead, we should be proactive in guiding religious legislation to correspond with civil society and define the legal role of religious groups in terms of civil society. In doing so, we will have a better chance of building a harmonious and civil society in China.

In order to resolve conflicts between the state regulation of religious affairs and the church's struggle for existence and development, the state should regard the church as a common member of the civil society and should not regard it as an enemy to the building of a harmonious society . Religious legislation should follow the spirit of deliberative democracy and demonstrate communicative rationality between the state and church, so that church can have a say in the drafting of such legislation. Otherwise, they will resist the law, thus rendering it ineffective.2

According to Zhang, the problem is that the Party has never abandoned its class struggle mentality in dealing with religion and thus continues to single out religious groups as potential threats to the national interest. Only when the government recognizes the legal status of grassroots religious organizations and allows them to have a voice in society will the current tensions between church and state be resolved.3


1The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country's Socialist Period," China Documents on Religion, Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University, Accessed May 9, 2013

2Zhang Shoudong, "The Relationship Between Religious Legislation and Civil Society," Pu Shi Institute for Social Science, July 6, 2012. Accessed May 10, 2013.


(Excerpted from Brent Fulton, "A Tale of Two Churches," in Bruce P. Baugus, ed., China's Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014. Available from Amazon.)

Image Credit: Erik Torner, via Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio