The long-awaited revision of the draft religion regulations circulated last September was signed into law last month and will take effect February 1, 2018.
Last autumn’s draft evoked a groundswell of concern among Christians in China, many of whom had hoped the government would provide a path toward legal status for China’s unregistered churches. The final version retains the harsh language targeting unregistered religious activities, unofficial religious schools, unauthorized religious instruction, and religious believers going abroad for training, conferences, or other activities. In keeping with the times, the regulations require that religious information services on the Internet be registered with the religious affairs department at the provincial level or above.
The new religion regulations are sweeping in scope and, if fully enforced, could mean major changes for China’s unregistered church, not only in its worship and meeting practices, but also engagement in areas such as Christian education, media, and interaction with the global church. Yet the nature of these activities and, indeed, of much religious practice throughout China, makes enforcement extremely problematic.
As Gareth Fisher pointed out in his 2014 study of lay Buddhist practices taking place in the courtyard of a prominent temple in Beijing, much of China’s religious life occurs on “islands of religiosity” within the contested gray area between official and unofficial practices. How to define what constitutes “religious activity,” “religious sites,” or “religious content” depends ultimately on the subjective definition of officials charged with enforcing the regulations.
Whether officials at the local level will want to enforce the regulations is another question altogether. In recent years the most common way for local police to keep tabs on leaders of unregistered Christian groups has been by meeting regularly to “drink tea,” an arrangement that has served both parties well. Recently an unregistered church pastor told of a conversation in which a local policeman criticized the new regulations, complaining they would disrupt the cordial relationship they had, up until now, enjoyed.
Regulating China’s religious life using the myriad provisions contained in the new regulations seems a bit like trying to nail the proverbial Jello to the wall. Having more nails in the toolkit does not make the task any easier.