Chinese Church Voices

Why Christians in China Must Prepare Themselves for the New Regulations on Religious Affairs

Chinese Church Voices is an occasional column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

The long-awaited religious regulations circulated last September will take effect next week. Brent Fulton gave a short summary and analysis soon after the regulations were released. Last October Chinese Church Voices posted an article from Tianfeng magazine, a Three-Self Patriotic Movement publication, which highlighted the necessity of the regulations.

This week we are publishing an analysis of the regulations from Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. In this post, Wang Yi writes a critique of the regulations and warns Christians in China of the coming pressure that will result from the new regulations. He dissects why the new regulations are a violation of religious freedom and should therefore be resisted by Christians in China.

Pastor Wang Yi is known in China for his frank and outspoken critique of the government’s policies towards religion. We would like to remind our readers that Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

Next week, Chinese Church Voices will post an alternative view of the new religious regulations in China. Stay tuned!

My Five Views on the New Regulations on Religious Affairs | Wang Yi

Ultimately, my position is quite simple. As far as faith is concerned, these new regulations are evil; as far as the constitution is concerned, they are illegal; as far as politics are concerned, they are foolish. As the pastor of a house church, I intend to peacefully reject this regulation’s legitimacy and implementation. Wang Yi

The new Regulations on Religious Affairs, signed by premier of the State Council Li Keqiang, was released on September 3, 2017, and will take effect from February 1, 2018.

As a Chinese house church pastor who has studied church-state relations and followed religious legislation for a long time, I have the following five views toward these new regulations.

Number 1: These regulations go even further down the road of violating the constitution. It is an illegal law that opposes the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience of millions of citizens.

Freedom of religion and faith is a basic right of citizens in the constitution. The State Council has no right to establish administrative license and impose administrative restrictions on citizens’ constitutional rights. Article 1 of the regulations asserts that “This regulation is laid down in accordance with the constitution and related laws.” This amounts to making a confession without being formally charged and admitting that this is an illegal law. First of all, the State Council is not yet authorized by law and consequently has no right to make administrative legislation—and it absolutely cannot directly restrict citizens’ constitutional rights. Second of all, up to this point the National People’s Congress has not made any “related laws” concerning the protection of citizen’s religious freedom. To speak plainly, the first article’s claim is a total lie. The regulations are a continuation of principles and systems of religious administration dating to the Cultural Revolution. This is an ugly, anti-rule of law, anti-constitutional product of that time.

How do the regulations go even further down the road of violating the constitution? Although the 2005 Regulations, which gave the Religious Affairs Bureau jurisdiction to “administrate religious affairs,” were an act of illegal self-authorization, it still had clear limits and scope: namely, to manage “religious affairs touching upon national interests and public social interests.” In constitutional theory, reasonable grounds for restricting citizens’ constitutional rights are “major and urgent public interests.” Although the old regulations violated the constitution by restricting citizens’ freedom of religion, they still clearly stated nominally reasonable grounds for each restriction it imposed: “national interests and public social interests.” Because of this, no matter how the government self-defined or abused this reason in practice, most house churches’ normal gathering and worship fell outside the old regulations’ jurisdiction. In other words, even according to the regulations published in 2005, the Religious Affairs Bureau had no authority to administrate all religious affairs because the overwhelming majority of religious activities did not constitute a major and urgent conflict with “national interests and public social interests.”

Now, however, our government has deemed that citizens’ individual and collective religious freedom inherently conflicts with national interests. This is really how those “fighting atheists” think—the ones who have been leading the system of religious administration since the end of the Cultural Revolution. That is to say, the fundamental problem for China’s religious administration system is the Cultural Revolution way of thinking that leads it. It is openly opposed to the citizen’s freedom of religion protected by the constitution.

The new regulations have crossed the line in using the public excuse of "major and urgent public interests” to restrict citizens’ constitutional rights. Now it is brazenly attempting to establish a universal system of religious control, deriving from “People’s Government at all levels.” Furthermore, it adds a series of new control objectives that encroach on citizens’ constitutional rights (such as actively guiding religion to adapt to socialist society, checking extremes in religion, etc.).

Under the old 2005 Regulations, the State Council illegally established (in truth, it only continued) a system of religious administration led by the Religious Affairs Bureau (with restrictions nominally “touching upon national interests and public social interests”). But over the past ten years or so, the Religious Affairs Bureau has actually been powerless to supervise and manage the millions of Christian house churches (and the situation gets even more complicated when you include other religions). What is shocking and worrisome, then, is that the new 2017 Regulations take the Religious Affairs Bureau’s dominant pattern to another level. It does not hesitate to drag the entire government system into “religious administration work.” The new regulations clearly include “religious work” in the scope of the function of “People’s Government at all levels,” and even drags “villager committees and neighborhood committees” into this enormous system of religious control.

Number 2: These regulations as a whole are an infringement upon and negation of citizens’ religious freedom in the constitution. It turns its back on public law and international law’s common definition of “religious freedom.”

This is not administrative legislation to protect religious freedom—it is legislation against religious freedom. It is clear from these new regulations that the “fighting atheists” and anti-religious ultra-leftist ideology in government still hold the dominant role in the religious administrative system.

Bottom line, religious freedom implies citizens’ individual and collective freedom of speech, and their action and association in maintaining, spreading, teaching, and carrying out religious faith.

Religious freedom implies that the government cannot judge if religion is right or wrong; government has no authority to direct or examine religious groups and religious activities in their doctrinal teaching and governing.

Religious freedom also implies that, except where they jeopardize “national interests and public social interests,” citizens’ corporate worship and other religious activities should not be limited by the state. The government has no authority to limit citizens’ religious activity to the time and location it decides. The State Council, however, has presumptuously established judgment and limitations toward so-called “sites for religious activities,” essentially limiting and infringing on citizens’ constitutional rights. The State Council has no authority to establish this administrative license.

Religious freedom also implies freedom of teaching and training within a religious association. This especially relates to religious citizens who are parents—they must have the freedom to choose religious education and activities for their children. The new regulation has added many new restrictions on these areas and has likewise encroached on citizens’ constitutional rights. It is an illegally established administrative license.

The logic and spirit of rule of law is actually very simple. It does not mean that without government permission, citizens cannot gather and engage in religious activities. Rather, it means that without constitutional permission, the government cannot restrict citizens from gathering and engaging in religious activities. It does not mean that citizens cannot engage in religious instruction and training without government consent. Rather, it means the government cannot infringe on the people’s freedom of religious instruction and training without the people’s consent.

As these new regulations make clear, the State Council’s aforementioned administrative and legislative acts commit the grave crimes of violating citizens’ freedom of religion and discriminating against religious citizens. Under such serious circumstances, those who commit these crimes should be punished with three years’ imprisonment—yes, those very legislators and law enforcers!

Number 3: For house churches that have not entered the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement organization,” the new regulations register them in the Religious Affairs Bureau as “temporary sites of religious activity.” This leaves some room, but is nevertheless unacceptable.

The old 2005 Regulations required that “gatherings of religious citizens for religious activity should generally be carried out in registered sites for religious activity.” But only “religious organizations” registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs could apply for registration as a “site of religious activity.” And within Christianity, this “religious organization” was defined as the “Three-Self” system, comprised of the China Christian Council and National Committee of the TSPM. Because house churches refuse to join the “Three-Self,” millions of believers can only gather in “unregistered sites of religious activity.” The old regulations had no intention of solving this longstanding problem in church-state relations, but it did leave a certain amount of legal space for house church gatherings. In fact, those who enforced the law over the last ten years respected this space (up to a point).

The new regulations have kept the language that “gatherings of religious citizens for religious activity should generally be carried out in registered sites for religious activity.” But it has strengthened restrictions of citizens’ constitutional rights: “non-religious organizations, schools, activity sites, and locations not appointed as temporary sites of activity may not organize or host religious activities.”

On the other hand, the new regulations allow for “temporary sites of religious activity.” Outside of recognized “religious organizations” (meaning the Three-Self), “representatives of religious citizens” may apply to the Religious Affairs Bureau for registration as a “temporary site of religious activity.” This obviously leaves space so as to incorporate a portion of the house churches into the government’s system of religious management. Perhaps the government hopes that through a fresh round of pressure, propaganda and force, house churches that do not join the Three-Self may be made to register with the Religious Affairs Bureau as “temporary sites of religious activity.”

But to the house churches, this is still unacceptable.

For one, religious freedom implies that a person or a group of people’s faith should not be controlled by a government department. Religious freedom implies that, outside of the government’s normal management of religious activities [as it governs any behavior] (non-discriminatory, handling religious and non-religious groups the same), churches cannot accept any government “direction, guidance, management, and approval” of religion itself.

Secondly, the church cannot accept any system of examining or approving the times and locations of worship, preaching, and teaching. Therefore, not only is this permission to have “sites of religious activity” unconstitutional, but it is unlawful and goes against the Christian faith.

Outside of registering with the Ministry of Civil Affairs as an independent “religious organization,” and outside of accepting normal administration by government departments (Ministry of Civil Affairs, Public Security, etc.), house churches must not accept any registration with the religious department as a “site of religious activity.”

Number 4: These new regulations do not provide the slightest help in solving millions of religious citizens’ religious freedom and legal status. It does not solve the half-century long standoff between house churches and the official Three-Self system. We do not have the strength to bear either more deeply entrenched “People’s Government at all levels” or greater church-state conflict. If the government allowed enforcement of the regulations to be optional, they would be functionally useless anyway.

Those who drafted these regulations lack not only sympathy for history and our present condition, but also lack foresight and political wisdom for the future. One of the hidden dangers in social conflict and political crisis is claiming to move forward in bringing religious work under rule of law, while actually going backward. Driven by the arrogance of a blind ideology, those legislators cannot easily resolve this hidden danger in church-state relations. On the contrary, they attract this danger—indeed, they actively seek it!

Over the last fifty years, house churches in China have constantly endured political and legal pressure from this regime. Even so, they have not decreased or lost influence. On the contrary, they have been constantly reviving and growing. In fact, they have assumed many cultural functions in society. On the other hand, as society has progressed and there have been limits on administration and enforcement, the government has lessened its use of barbarous, unlawful methods such as physically torturing and eliminating the church. The church, meanwhile, is much more willing and ready to pay the price for its faith and freedom of conscience than the government at all its levels is willing and politically able to pay. No one who has worked as a civil servant in the Religious Affairs Bureau should overlook this historical fact. If the government is really so ambitious that it wants to create a system of religious control unprecedented these last 40 years—for the sake of brief political benefits and speculation—then it will be responsible to history and the people, and to everyone with reasonable expectations of the Religious Affairs Bureau.

Ultimately, my position is simple. As far as faith is concerned, these new regulations are evil. As far as the constitution is concerned, they are illegal. As far as politics are concerned, they are foolish.

Number 5: As the pastor of a house church, I intend to peacefully reject the legitimacy and execution of these regulations.

Despite any of the regulations’ administrative decisions and possible punishments for me and my church, my conscience constrains me to reject these regulations. I shall use any nonviolent, legal means necessary to urge the government to reconsider: whether by litigation, appeals, lodging complaints, or submitting a constitutional review of the regulations before the National People’s Congress. I oppose these regulations’ serious infringement of citizens’ freedom of religion, and I oppose their illegal restrictions of Christianity.

Not only that, but I encourage every Christian loyal to the gospel and the cross of Christ, and every church loyal to the lordship of Christ, to prepare yourself. For the sake of the gospel and your conscience, be willing on the one hand to respect and submit to the government’s authority to enforce the law—and be willing on the other hand to peacefully resist these wicked, anti-Christian, anti-constitutional laws. Have no part in this wickedness which would oppose our faith and violate citizens’ rights, but be willing to endure harm to our interests and injury to our bodies.

Moreover, I encourage all Christians who work in law, politics, public welfare, education, and related fields, to either bravely speak out with a loud voice, or to quietly advance the abolishment and change of these unlawful laws.

To this end, I thank the one true God with a reverent heart, that through this plight he would allow the church in China such a chance for a revival of the gospel. As it suffers gladly and refuses to back down, the church has an opportunity to give witness to society of the Lord’s kingdom and order. It has an opportunity to testify that Christianity’s freedom of conscience and gospel of souls are higher than all earthly authority.

For this reason, I also tremble with fear and weakness. May the crucified and risen Christ help me and help his church. Because he is with us, he will personally overcome his enemies, and he will have mercy on China’s countless souls. In the end he will turn around the intentions of those at the top of the political hierarchy. He will defeat the “fighting atheists,” and drive them from their many transgressions. He will also soften the hearts of the countless law enforcers, that they may know and confess the Lamb that was slain.

Written in Chengdu, September 8, in the year of our Lord 2017.

Image credit: Peter Liu via Flickr.
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