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Regulating Religion

Much has been written the past few weeks about the draft revision to the Regulations on Religious Affairs, the main policy document that spells out how religion is to be managed in China.

With the publication for comment of a draft revision to the Regulations on Religious Affairs, now would be a great time to take a second look at the 2013 winter issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly, in which we took an in-depth look at religious policies in China and their impact on the church.

Writing in the lead editorial I noted that, as is the case with everything in China, the situation is complex:

… when seeking to understand the relationship between church and state or the attitude of the government towards religion in general, and Christianity in particular, we need to have a better understanding of what we mean by "the government." Which department? Which level? Are we talking about a government body or a party body? Or both? What about the police? Where do they fit in the mix, not to mention the Ministry of State Security?

This is important to remember as we hear reports of the “Chinese government” doing this or that.

Carsten Vala, Professor of Political Science at Loyola University in Maryland gave a helpful overview of how the religious affairs bureaucracy actually works, especially how policies are made and enforced:

In terms of new policy development and its implementation, the United Front Work Department is most important because it receives direction from the Central Committee of the CCP. (The most consequential documents on religious affairs over the past 30 years have been issued by the party). While the UFWD is a party office, the state offices for religious affairs are the SARA at the national level and are under the State Council. SARA and its local RAB offices are charged with daily monitoring of all religious associations.

Finally, I took a closer look at the various documents that touch on religious affairs in China and their underlying principles:

There are three key government documents that touch on religion. The first is the Chinese Constitution, promulgated in 1982, which references religion in Article 36:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.[1]

While the first half of this article seems to grant some measure of religious freedom, the second half actually places limitations or restrictions. In other words, not only does it not guarantee non-interference in religious affairs by the state, it spells out how and where the state can interfere.

One of the key issues raised in this article is the definition of "normal religious activities." Clearly, the state retains the right to declare that "this" religious activity is considered normal, but "that" is not. It also goes out of its way to stipulate that religion may not engage in certain activities that the state deems harmful.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, however, the Chinese Constitution is not a legal document that can be appealed to in a court of law. It is not "judicialized."[2] A religious believer who feels that his/her right of religious belief is being infringed upon cannot use the Constitution to argue the case.

The second document that addresses religious issues is "Document No. 19: Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question During Our Country's Socialist Period," issued by the State Council (cabinet) in 1982, which detailed how religion could/could not function in Chinese society. It states:

The political power in a socialist state can in no way be used to promote any one religion, nor can it be used to forbid any one religion, as long as it is only a question of normal religious beliefs and practices. At the same time, religion will not be permitted to meddle in the administrative or juridical affairs of state, nor to intervene in the schools or public education. It will be absolutely forbidden to force anyone, particularly people under eighteen years of age, to become a member of a church, to become a Buddhist monk or nun, or to go to temples or monasteries to study Buddhist scripture.[3]

It reaffirms the protection of "normal" religious activities and that religious activities may not interfere with affairs of state or education. It also sets out to protect young people from being forced to participate in religious activities.

The third document is the Regulations of Religious Affairs, issued by the State Council in 2004, and which came into effect in 2005. This document further explains and clarifies the place of religion in Chinese society and lays down detailed regulations for managing it.

It is revisions to this third document that are now being considered. Will the revised version be adopted? And if so, what will the impact be?

We will continue to monitor these developments at ChinaSource.

Image credit: By Dong Fang –, Public Domain,
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

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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