In 2023, the Chinese government issued new regulations on the registration of religious activity sites—the first update of these rules in over 15 years. What do they actually mean? How different are they from the earlier ones? What do they tell us about the church-state relationship in China today? What can we learn from Xi Jinping’s China?
Putting Regulations in the Big(ger) picture: Xi’s China and Governance of Religions
Let’s start from the last question and work backward, from the larger context to the issue of religions.
Since Xi Jinping was selected to be China’s top leader in 2012, the People’s Republic of China has entered the End of [the Reform] Era, as a recent book by scholar Carl Minzner put it.1 Students of Chinese politics and society have characterized the period from the late 1970s or early 1980s until today as the Reform Era, because the Chinese Communist Party (or CCP) had retreated from the socialist approach of Chairman Mao Zedong, in which the Party-state owned production, directed the economy, and controlled all levels of society.
After Mao, his successor Deng Xiaoping and later leaders transformed Party control, allowing a private sector with foreign investment to become the largest and most profitable part of the economy, allowing the media (for example) to become a more critical and open sector, empowering individuals to make greater choices over their lives, and, for churches, permitting house churches to develop alongside a re-emerging official church sector. This meant that the ideological agenda of the CCP had turned to promoting capitalism and economic growth as the government normalized its regulation of society.
Under Xi, however, these steps toward liberalization have ended and even reversed. Not only has Party ideology surged back to prominence, but Xi has removed term limits on his rule, called upon the media to serve the party, arrested outspoken lawyers and feminists, and renewed pressure on house and official churches; all sectors of society and government have fallen under the CCP’s oversight and control.
For churches, the CCP has absorbed the offices of the government overseeing religion. So, while the State Administration of Religious Affairs office exists at the national level, at lower levels the CCP’s United Front Work Department has overtaken the Religious Affairs Bureaus. Religion oversight is firmly in CCP hands.
In practice, this means that grassroots officials have returned to making decisions based on the Party’s political goal to stay in power rather than making decisions on somewhat more objective criteria. And, since the Christian cross removal campaign in the mid 2010s, the CCP has implemented increasingly harsh measures against churches, whether official or house. Friends in China have told me that as many as one-third of churches have been closed down in some areas, that approval for one-third of preachers have been canceled, and that meeting sites in rural areas are entirely banned. Such measures have left Christians at the grassroots angry and depressed.
With the return of the Party’s political agenda steering societal management, we need to understand Xi’s attitude toward management of religions since 2012 and the longer trend of religion regulations in the last five years. Simply put, Xi’s CCP is far more fearful of foreign influence in religions. This isn’t entirely new. Hard on the heels of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, which the CCP brutally repressed, Communist Eastern Europe collapsed. Churches played a major role in this historic change in Eastern Germany, Poland, and elsewhere. The CCP went on high alert and reorganized its training of Party members to include the possible role of religion in political change.
Yet, under Xi, the CCP fear of religions reached a new level. Not since the post-Tiananmen days had a top leader shined the spotlight on religion. In 2016, Xi Jinping personally chaired the key meeting for Party members and bureaucrats working on religion. In the aftermath, the director of State Administration of Religious Affairs denounced Western countries for using religion to try to change China’s political system and “religious human rights” to harm China’s image of religious affairs.2 Pre-existing regulations indicate that the Party already viewed official churches (and other official groups) as designed for “unity and patriotism” and to act as a “bridge and bond for the CCP and people’s government to unite…with the clergy and common believers.”3
But, as we’ll see below, the new regulations take this to a new level.
A Word on “Law”: Chinese Communist Party Regulation Is Not Western Law
It is tempting to follow some commentators in categorizing the new Chinese religion regulations (or rules, terms which I use interchangeably) as “law.” This is understandable, since the new regulations include language referring to law much more often, suggesting that the “rule of law” is more important. Comparing the 2023 regulation with the 2005 regulation it replaced, the earlier one mentioned “law” or “legal” or “illegal” one time, whereas the 2023 regulation contains more than 50 references. But it is wrong for three reasons.
First, in China, laws are adjudicated through the court system, similar to elsewhere in that lawyers present cases, contend in court, and appointed judges oversee and determine the outcome. In the Reform Era, this court system was at times an effective venue for getting justice, and the Party sometimes lost its cases.
By contrast to the courts, rules and regulations such as the 2023 religious activity site regulation are interpreted by the government (really, political scientists call it the Party-state to recognize that the Party is the real driver in decision-making, not the government or state; this has become only more true under Xi). In fact, the last substantive article of the 2023 regulation explicitly declares that its interpretation belongs to the State Administration of Religious Affairs.
In practice, this means that the Party-state is the final arbiter in any controversy or conflict that may arise between itself and religious organizations, as it—not a more independent source of authority such as the courts system—will decide disputes over, for example, the meaning of ambiguous terms or the scope of the regulations on religion.
The second reason it is wrong to view this regulation as “law” relates to differences between China and democratic countries. In liberal democratic societies such as the US, the rule of law means that laws and regulations are designed to be more or less neutral arbiters of right and wrong, in that they should neither favor nor disadvantage particular people or groups on the basis of their identity. Thus, if China’s religion regulations act as law, for example, the rule of law should treat Buddhists similarly to Muslims or Christians.
In reality, there are “two tracks,” as scholar André Laliberté has put it, because religions are treated differently depending on whether the CCP deems them threatening.4 In fact, the CCP even promotes religions such as Buddhism and Daoism, because the CCP views them as bringing political benefits whereas Islam and Christianity have been under pressure.
Further, religions practiced by border-region ethnic groups, such as Uyghur Islam and Tibetan Buddhism, must submit to Han nationalism. Article 40 requires their venues to “strengthen…education on the awareness of the Chinese national community…[and] strengthen the use of the country’s common spoken and written language….” At the same time, ethnic “customs and religious beliefs shall not be used to interfere with administration, justice, education, and social life.” In short, Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists must submit to Han nationalism by teaching in Han Chinese language rather than their own languages.5
Third, viewing it as “law” misses the CCP’s view of religion as a vehicle for politics. So, rather than these rules setting no more than basic limits to allowed religious practice, the 2023 regulation goes much more deeply into its content and even contains many terms with ambiguous meanings, which in turn have important political as well as religious implications.
Comparing 2023 Regulations to Earlier Regulations: Increasing Specificity
To analyze the new regulations, I compared the Chinese-language text of the 2023 regulations for approval and registration of religious activity sites with that of the 2005 regulations it replaced. (The 2005 regulations replaced the 1994 regulations and were part of the more comprehensive Regulations for Religious Affairs.) The 2023 regulation is five times longer, being much more specific in fleshing out the previously existing articles but also encompassing far more aspects of religious practice.
In terms of political interactions between church and Party-state, ambiguous terms in Chapter 1 Article 3 still include the protection of “normal religious activities” and of “legitimate” interests of religious sites and citizens. Further, organizations and individuals in these venues may not “endanger national security” nor “violate public order and good customs” nor “harm society’s public interests.” While none of these terms is spelled out, clues to their meaning are found in the laundry list of requirements for venues to “support the leadership of the Communist Party, support the socialist system, thoroughly implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” and so on.
The regulation goes further (in Article 29) to say that the venue should be replaced if foreign groups are involved in teaching, or it “endanger[s…] national security…undermin[es…] national unity…[is] being dominated by foreign forces…[or] organizing…unapproved religious activities outside religious venues…” The meaning and scope of these terms is unclear.
Venues should also “practice core socialist values” and “adhere to the Sinicization of China’s religions.” Friends in China tell me that “practic[ing] core socialist values” and Sinicization has meant in some cases that Protestant preachers and pastors are required to practice sermons before Party-state officials to prove their content is acceptable. Later articles (Art. 30 and 36) put the burden on the management of the site to educate citizens in these values and in Party support, but also to regularly organize personnel to learn “the principles and policies of the Communist Party of China…[and] China’s excellent traditional culture…” which Chinese Christians have argued translates into churches being required to teach traditional Confucian values.
Art and buildings should also be Chinese in style, as Article 50 stipulates venues “should integrate Chinese culture and reflect Chinese style in terms of architecture, sculpture, painting, decoration, etc.” And, in a later article (Chapter 2, Article 27), the managers of the site must “love the motherland and support the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system…have a correct style of conduct, decent person…”
In terms of interactions within the religious realm, preaching orthodox doctrine regarding salvation has become more difficult. In Chapter 1, Article 5 it asserts that organizations and individuals in religious venues may not “create…conflicts between different religions, within the same religion, or between religious citizens and non-believing citizens in religious venues.” It seems hard to imagine preaching an orthodox message without possibly upsetting people of other religions or even people of different denominations, and it certainly leaves leeway in the hands of officials to make such determinations.
Isolate Churches from Each Other, Set Internal CCP Oversight, Create Leadership Files
In addition, Chapter 1 states that religious activity venues may not “form affiliations with each other” (Article 6), meaning that they should be isolated from each other, neither part of a larger denomination or church body nor linked with churches of different denominations. This is akin to a return to the closed, “cellular society”6 of Maoist China, in which all of society was atomized in discrete units with only the Party linking (and monitoring) different elements of society.
Application for establishment of a religious activity site is remarkably burdensome in terms of the paperwork required. The regulation requires in Article 15 of Chapter 2 that the applicant submit copies of the rules and regulations for “Personnel, finance, assets, accounting, and archives, public security, fire protection, cultural relics protection, health and epidemic prevention…” Venues are also required to start “establish[ing] files for the permanent residents of the venue…” (Article 35) and report any disciplinary actions of leaders to the government as well.
Furthermore, even though religious clergy must have certification from the government and submit a host of identification documents, and even though members of the management organization are hemmed in by a raft of requirements (such as being loyal to the CCP), venues “should establish supervisors” to ensure the management organization and members follow rules and regulations, and these supervisors are “elected” (in the words of the regulation) by the groups themselves and the Party-state agencies that manage them. In my research, such processes are often dominated by the CCP, which can forcibly impose its own candidates. In other words, the Party-state is finally establishing its own monitoring cells within the churches, temples, mosques, and other sites just as it has done with private companies.
2023 Regulations: Codifying the Increasing Pressure on Religion
In conclusion, these 2023 regulations continue a decade-long intensification of “rule by law,” wherein the Party-state wields legal regulations to achieve its political goals, rather than instituting a “rule of law” that limits governmental power. While the language of political rule becomes more and more legalistic, the practice is more and more controlling, and repression continues to increase as well.
- Carl Minzner, The End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise, (Oxford, 2018).
- See Lavicka, Martin, and Julie Yu-Wen Chen. “New Measures for Governing Religions in Xi’s China.” China Report 59, no. 3 (2023): 264.
- André Laliberté, “The Two Tracks of Xi Jinping’s Religious Policy,” Berkeley Forum, March 16, 2020, accessed January 15, 2023, https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/the-two-tracks-of-xi-jinping-s-religious-policy.
- Lavicka and Chen 2023.
- See Vivienne Shue, The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic (Stanford University Press, 1990).
Carsten T. Vala is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. He published a book on the rise and fall of public house churches like Beijing Shouwang church in 2017 (The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God Above Party?), and …View Full Bio
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