What do China’s new regulations mean for the nation’s religions? Gerda Wielander runs the rule over the regulations.
The Chinese Communist government has recently published a new set of regulations governing religion. They have been widely met with fear over the possibility that they may herald a further harsh clampdown on religious activity in China, in particular by Christian groups. Are these fears justified?
The new regulations do not mark a new departure, but are an updated version of those brought out in 2005. These, in turn, were a continuation of the principles contained in the famous Document 19, published in 1982, which set out the framework within which China would tolerate religious activity in an officially atheist state. This balancing act of acknowledging the presence of religion while trying to control its activities has locked the party, and China’s religious believers, into a reluctant embrace. In 1982, when the country emerged from the fierce religious repression under the Cultural Revolution, this embrace felt warm and surprising. In the social and political realities more than three decades on, the embrace feels increasingly tight and unwelcome.
China officially recognises five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. These five ‘official’ religions are governed by ‘patriotic’ state bodies, which regulate their activities. This regulation ranges from worship sites, the production of religious texts and paraphernalia, to ordaining clergy, controlling the extent of their proselytising and giving theological direction. All religious activity outside this realm – whether it be religions other than the five officially recognised or activity outside the ‘patriotic’ organisations – is considered unlawful. But in reality, religion in China is diverse, eclectic and dynamic, and much of it goes on outside the state’s embrace.
Most of the recent changes in the regulations reflect the government’s adaptation to realities on the ground. Reference to the governing of religious publications now includes the Internet, which has become the main medium for publishing religious information in the last decade. Religious schools have been added to the types of organisations governed by the regulations, reflecting the government’s recognition of their existence. The clear rules on accounting practices and tax regulations show awareness of the change in the demographic of religious believers in China in the 21st century and the amount of funds now available to some of them.
In some articles, one can detect the government’s recognition that its behaviour is not always conducive to achieving its goal of marginalising and containing religious groups. Clearer guidelines of how to handle application procedures for religious groups and sites may provide a better framework for local administrative bodies in their dealings with religious groups, which may avoid unnecessary friction. And the ‘safeguarding’ of religious sites from excessive commercialisation shows some degree of respect for the spiritual nature of temples and other significant locales.
The new regulations now allow religious groups to set up charitable ventures, which marks a departure from previous practice when all charitable activities had to be channelled through established secular organisations. This is partly a recognition of the status quo, and partly a way of bringing religious charitable projects directly within the remit of China’s new Charity Law, adopted in March 2016. But while the new Charity Law allows for the legal existence of unregistered social organisations, no such developments are in sight for religious groups where everything outside the registered realm remains unlawful. Indeed, several of the articles in the amended regulations seem intended to make it harder for private gatherings of a religious nature.
Predominantly, the new regulations governing religion are a further example of the way China’s “controlocracy”, as Stein Ringen terms it, has been asserting its grip over every aspect of Chinese society since Xi Jinping’s rise to power.
So far Protestant Christian groups have provided the most comment on the new regulations. These groups feel that much of the new regulations is intended to further curtail the many unregistered churches in China. They come in the wake of a wave of church demolitions and the removal of steeples and crosses from church buildings as well as a harsh crackdown on ‘rights lawyers’, a disproportionate amount of whom are Christians. Some see the activities of Chinese Christians – more than those of any other religious group – as a test case for China’s civil society. They will not be encouraged by this new set of regulations.
However, whether these regulations will mean any real change on the ground, depends mostly on how they are implemented. This will continue to vary, and religious groups will continue to find a way to adapt to the new situation. What is certain is that the tighter embrace will not result in more love for the Party.