Fortunately, a newly published volume in English provides some useful insights. Authored by Kim-Kwong Chan (Honorary Research Fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council) and Eric C. Carlson (Brigham Young University, Utah), Religious Freedom in China: Policy, Administration, and Regulation, has an impressive, 30-page annotated bibliography of state regulations, policy documents and directives (including regional ones), etc. that apply to religious life in China. Nothing of that kind had been produced before, and the authors deserve to be commended for that achievement only. Key secondary sources in English are listed as well, and the volume concludes with the full text – in Chinese and English – of the new regulations that came into force on 1st March 2005.
But an annotated bibliography would only be of benefit to experts with access to specialized libraries. However, this slim volume is likely to attract a wider readership, since it contains a 10-page foreword and a highly informative 24-page introduction explaining clearly how religious policies are made and implemented in China. This is probably the most useful and enlightening summary we have come across on this subject in recent years, since it not only focuses on the legal texts themselves, but greatly clarifies the context in which they are applied.
With the advent of the PRC in 1949, atheism became an official state policy. Five religions were officially recognized (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism), but on condition that there should be no foreign interference, which created serious problems for international, centralized religious bodies, such as the Roman Catholic Church. From the late 1950s (the ‘Great Leap Forward’) to the late 1970s (the end of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1976), strongly anti-religious policies were enforced. However, there has been more tolerance of believers – insofar as they are not seen as adversaries of the PRC and of the Chinese Communist Party – since 1978. According to official figures, there are more than 100 million believers in China.
As the authors explain, religion is seen in China as a private matter: one can believe what one wants, but expressing those beliefs may be a different matter. The law ‘has been developed to protect the state from interferences by religions in civil and governmental affairs’ (p. 1).
The Communist Party, which has 65 million members, plays a key role: ‘the de facto locus of decision making in China lies in the Party, not the government’ (p. 2). Unless they belong to a national minority, Party members are not allowed to belong to a religion; however, today there are cases of believers among Party members, and this is tolerated, as long their faith is not publicly proclaimed. Within the Party, religious groups are dealt with by the United Front Work Department (UFWD).
The National People’s Congress is the supreme legislative authority in China. But there are also people’s congresses at provincial and local levels, which sometimes leads to discrepancies between laws pertaining to religion passed in one area and another.
The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) at the national level and the Religious Affairs Bureaus (RABs) at the provincial level deal with the daily life of recognized and registered religious groups. With RABs extending even down to the village level, one might get the impression of a highly centralized modus operandi. Reality seems, however, to be quite different: there is actually a high degree of local autonomy.
‘In reality then, these regulations and policies are subjected to a wide range of interpretations by local cadres […]. These local government cadres interpret and implement the religious policies that affect the daily affairs of religious believers. Due to problems of coordination across all levels in a country as large as China, the implementation of the Party’s very same policy on freedom of religious belief can range from endorsement of religion to suppression’ (p. 16).
Local socio-political dynamics may play a stronger role than one would think. According to the authors, a number of abuses infringing on religious freedom in China occur at a lower level, within RABs, whose personnel have little knowledge of religion. But the situation is said to be changing, due to the general efforts toward improving the professional knowledge of cadres: some of the younger among them now even have degrees in religious studies.
The security apparatus deals with unofficial religious groups. The Public Security Bureaus (PSBs) have dedicated units dealing with suspicious religious groups. The Ministry of National Security monitors foreigners likely to engage in religious activities in China. Except for those from national minorities, security officers are not believers.
On a number of issues, including religion, ethnic minorities enjoy more freedom than Han Chinese, since ‘policies on national minorities […] often supersede national religious policy’ (p. 10). It is easier for an official belonging to a national minority to keep his or her religious beliefs. In some cases, the national minority policy has even favoured one religion: notwithstanding official national policies, the Uygur Autonomous Government in Xinjiang has declared that ‘no religion except Islam exists there’, which has put other believers in Xinjiang, especially Christians, in a legal limbo (p. 10).
The authors remark that reality is actually even more complex, since there are areas ruled more or less autonomously by ministries, such as the Ministry of Petroleum (in some oilfield areas), the Ministry of Forestry or the railway system. In practice, believers living in such zones will often have to get permission from those ministries, for instance, in order to build a place of worship.
The prominent role of the Communist Party and ideology – despite ongoing changes – has other practical consequences. For instance, there are no provisions for chaplaincy in prisons. Similarly, ‘there is no provision allowing any religious activities’ in the armed forces (People’s Liberation Army, PLA). Thus the PLA ‘is one of the very few major military forces in the world […] that has no military chaplaincy’ (p. 12). There are, however, known cases of PLA members who are believers, but they keep a low profile.
In order to be legal, a group – religious or not – must be registered. ‘After the 1989 Tiananmen square incident, the government began intensifying its oversight and enforcement of the law over many forms of unregistered groups’ (p. 14). The fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe also gave rise to concerns that religious factors had played a role in these developments, and that China should prevent the West from using religion to sabotage Chinese communism, as it had done – Chinese analyses assumed – in the former Soviet bloc (p. 19). In the mid-1990s, some Christian groups were branded as ‘evil cults’ and made illegal. In 1999, it was the turn of Falun Gong. The government has paid increasing attention in recent years to law enforcement against all organizations labeled as ‘evil cults’.
But more generally, the authors see an increasing refinement of China’s religious policy since the beginning of the 21st century, although they do not expect any radical changes to be made. According to Chinese official analyses, social adjustment following the accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) will be accompanied by religious growth. The existence of religion is acknowledged; it is not expected to disappear; but the government wants it to adapt to Chinese socialist society (in official terms: ‘mutually adapt’). Religion will be tolerated, as long as it poses no threat to the regime and does not enter the political domain.
unregistered religious groups will be allowed to continue to operate with the tacit approval of local authorities (rather than their having to begin officially recognizing such groups, which might open a Pandora’s box), although, generally speaking, ‘unregistered religions may be worse off, as the [new] regulations [effective nationwide on 1st March 2005] give less room for maneuvering in grey areas [than] the prior ambiguous rules’ (p. 24).
Only the future will tell whether the prospects seen by the authors will indeed reflect the future of religion and religious policies in China. One may actually wonder in how far the government will manage to maintain its policies, if the expected religious growth does indeed materialize. And despite all the planning, there might still be unexpected pressures in the years to come. In any case, at this point, the reviewed work provides very useful help for understanding China’s policies and regulations concerning religion.
Kim-Kwong Chan and Eric R. Carlson, Religious Freedom in China: Policy, Administration, and Regulation. A Research Handbook. Santa Barbara (California) and Hong Kong: Institute for the Study of American Religion and the Hong Kong Institute for Culture, Commerce and Religion, 2005 (XVI+90 pp.)
If you would like to order Religious Freedom in China from Amazon, just click on the link!