Years ago, when I was involved with a teaching program in China, newly arrived foreign teachers were subjected to a yearly ritual. Following a brief orientation period in Beijing, at which they learned about Chinese culture, language, and the educational system in China, an official from the State Administration of Foreign Affairs would show up to host a small welcome reception. Before serving the tea and sunflower seeds, the official would remind the teachers that they were expected to abide by China’s laws, regulations, and rules. This included rules on religious practice; as foreigners, the teachers were told, they could go to church, but could not participate in illegal religious activities.
I was reminded of that yearly ritual when I read the recently published draft of a new document titled “Detailed Implementation Measures on the Administration of Foreigners’ Group Religious Activities in the People’s Republic of China.” The draft was originally posted to the Ministry of Justice website for solicitation of comments; an English translation has been provided by China Law Translate.
Broadly speaking, the 31-article document spells out the manner in which foreign religious organizations can (and cannot) interact with Chinese religious organizations (hint: it’s possible, but there is a lot of red tape), how foreigners may obtain permission to conduct religious activities (hint: must work through the local religious authorities and venues), and the limitations on individual foreigners (hint: don’t do anything illegal).
It was Article 21 that triggered my memory of the yearly ritual, with its list of religious activities that foreigners in China are not allowed to engage in. They include interfering with the affairs of Chinese religious groups, establishing religious groups, promoting religious extremism, illegal preaching, and carrying out religious education or training. “That’s interesting,” I thought. “Foreigners working in China have been told that for decades!”
I reached out to two experienced China watchers to get their observations and analysis.
ChinaSource founder Brent Fulton had this to say:
Many of these provisions were originally contained in State Council decree 144, “Regulations Governing the Religious Activities of Foreign Nationals within China,” which was issued in 1994. The current document is much more detailed and, in the current environment, more likely to be vigorously enforced. It is notable that, despite recent crackdowns on some foreign individuals and groups, and despite a more anti-religious climate in general, the government still allows for a variety of foreign-initiated religious activities and sees a role for foreigners to participate in the activities of officially sanctioned religious organizations.
Unlike Reg. 144, these regulations allow religious materials to be imported in excess of what’s needed for one’s personal use (given official permission), seemingly an admission that such materials are useful to the officially recognized religious organizations.
The prohibition on unauthorized religious training for Chinese abroad is also new, but is in keeping with the 2017 Regulations on Religious Affairs issued by the State Council, suggesting increased scrutiny of Chinese students who attend religious institutions or schools with a religious affiliation outside mainland China.
Jackson Wu, another experienced observer, commented:
The recent draft concerning the religious activity of foreigners will only feel new to those who have not been China watchers for a while. Having read every line of the draft, I see nothing that foreigners have not already presumed to be in force for them. Perhaps, these rules provide more specificity in certain cases. For example, the law stipulates the specific number of religious resources that can be used “for personal use” (cf. Article 25). Also, Article 27 expressly forbids the recruiting of Chinese for religious instruction outside of mainland China (i.e. attending seminary in Australia, the US, Singapore, Malaysia, etc.).
Various statutes are characteristically vague, such as where foreigners are told that they must “Comply with China’s laws, regulations, and rules, respect China’s principle of religious independence and self-management, not have speech or actions antagonistic to China” and “must not interfere with China’s religious affairs or violate China’s public order and good customs” (Article 24).
Article 39 could cause head scratching. Its ambiguity could result in problematic enforcement. It speaks against “religious activities conducted by overseas Chinese in China, Taiwan residents in the mainland, or Hong Kong and Macao residents in the mainland.” The key phrase is “overseas Chinese in China” [华侨在中国境内]. 华侨 refers to either (1) ethnic Chinese in other countries (e.g., “Chinese-Americans”) or (2) Chinese citizens in other countries. The fact that the wording speaks of 华侨 “in China” would seemingly refer to the former. Accordingly, the foreigners with Chinese ethnicity (not citizenship) could theoretically be treated as would Chinese mainlanders.
Another person I spoke with also noted the extra-territorial reach of these regulations as spelled out in Article 27. In some ways this parallels the National Security Law of Hong Kong and will be difficult to enforce outside of the country. Its inclusion, however, does show the “spirit of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”
There are three other things I find particularly interesting in this document. The first is the reference to the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) in the execution of these regulations. This state agency was demoted a few years back and is now under the Party organization called The United Front Work Department. It has very limited power and authority anymore.
Secondly, there also seems to be overlap between SARA and the local Public Security Bureaus (PSB). This is a reflection of the fact that supervision of religious affairs has been localized since SARA’s demotion, giving the PSB a more prominent role.
Thirdly, many of the articles establish procedures for obtaining permission to engage in various religious activities or relationships with local religious groups. Unfortunately, in China there is often a big gap between “this is what you need to do to get permission” and actually obtaining that permission.
The draft posted to the Ministry of Justice website does not give a date for the closing of comments. We will continue to provide updates and analysis as more information becomes available.
Image credit: Huangdan2060, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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