On February 1, 2018, the much-anticipated revision of the Regulations on Religious Affairs came into effect in China. Since they were first announced in 2016, this new body of regulations has caused much consternation among religious believers, as well as to foreign workers in China.
A close reading of the regulations would indicate that things are likely to get much tighter for religion in general, and for the unregistered churches, both Protestant and Catholic, in particular. The new regulations include many new provisions, as well as more enforcement mechanisms.
In China, there is often disconnect between stated policies and their implementation. As a result, since February 1, everyone has been waiting to see, in tangible terms, how they will impact religious life in China.
Then, just six weeks after they went into effect, something interesting happened. The State Council announced that the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), the agency that wrote the regulations and is responsible for their implementation, is to be abolished.
Management of religious affairs will be shifted to the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a Party organ whose mission is to make sure all segments and sectors of society remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party.
People we have spoken to who are more familiar with the inner workings of the government and Party tell us that this is a potential “game changer.” This change, then raises some important questions:
1. How does the mandate of the UFWD differ from that of SARA?
Especially as it relates to Christianity, SARA’s mandate has been to keep the church small and to “solve” the problem of the house church. That has been the basis of the domination of the registered church and the confrontational stance towards the house church.
The mandate of the UFWD, on the other hand is to promote Party-State policies and make sure that all segments and sectors of society remain loyal to (or at least don’t challenge) the Party. Historically, their tactics have been more along the lines of co-option and infiltration, although recent events in Henan Province might suggest otherwise. Some have also suggested that the UFWD is not as concerned about the distinctions between registered and unregistered churches as they are with cultivating loyalty.
If you want to learn more about the inner workings of the UFWD, I recommend an episode of The Little Red Podcast: ”How to Make Friends and Influence People: Inside the Magic Weapon of the United Front.”
2. Are the religious regulations still relevant?
Given the fact that SARA wrote them and was thus responsible for their implementation and enforcement, it’s entirely possible that the demise of SARA has rendered (or will render) the regulations moot. It’s also possible that SARA will continue to exist in some form, but as a subsumed entity within the UFWD, and thus will still be able to carry the regulations forward. Since it is a Party—not State—organization, however, UFWD enforcement mechanisms may be different. This may mean that former SARA officials who are now part of the UFWD will be busy jockeying for position or simply trying to figure out how things work that they will not be able to meaningfully address the implementation issues of the policies that went into effect February 1.
3. How will the religious associations like the CCC and TSPM interact with the UFWD?
The Chinese Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, or the “Two Meetings” as they are often referred to, are the semi-autonomous bodies that stand between the official churches and state. They are the primary means through which SARA exercises supervision and control of the churches, approving personnel and programs, something that is outside the scope of responsibility of the UFWD. It is not known, then, how the associations will interact with the UFWD.
4. How will the churches, both registered and unregistered adapt to this new environment?
The sources we spoke to expressed their belief that the churches will have to make adjustments as well. Neither the registered church nor the unregistered church can approach the UFWD in the same way they approached SARA. Not being able to adjust may mean a lost opportunity for the churches.
Some believe that churches that refrain from becoming too political, establish accountability structures, and provide social benefits will remain in good stead. Where activities are deemed threatening, however, the UFWD is likely to respond more quickly and harshly than SARA.
So, having settled into what was thought to be a “new normal,” it seems that the religious community in China (both Chinese and foreign) must now adjust to a new new normal.
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource 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 of Northwestern-St. Paul …View Full Bio
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