This article was first published in Chinese in Tripod, No. 138 (Autumn 2005). The “Regulations on Religious Affairs” in Chinese and its English translation can be found in Tripod, No. 136 (Spring 2005).
On November 30, 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao signed Decree No. 426 of the State Council, promulgating the Regulations on Religious Affairs (called Regulations below), which came into effect on March 1, 2005. Drafting the Regulations took six years. Coming straight from the top and nationwide in scope, they are China’s comprehensive administrative regulations aimed at religion. They indicate that the legislation of religious work in China has entered a new course. The Mainland’s official news media publicized the Regulations and gave them high evaluations. On December 19, 2004, an editorial in the People’s Daily affirmed that the Regulations were of weighty significance for protecting the people’s right to freedom of religious belief. Yet both those within China who pay attention to freedom of religious belief, as well as foreign organizations, consider that the Regulations mean nothing new.
Background to Promulgating the Regulations Jiang Zemin, in his report to the Fifteenth Party Congress in 1997, held up the goal of “governing the country according to law.” In March 1999, the Second Plenum of the Ninth National People’s Congress (NPC) passed a constitutional amendment, adding a new sentence as Section 1 of Article 5: “The State upholds the uniformity and dignity of the socialist legal system.” In order to accord fully with the relevant government laws, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) started doing its research in 1999, preparing for the introduction of nationwide, systematic, administrative regulations on religious activities.
Those in academic and religious circles all responded positively to religious laws at the national level. In the late 1990’s, a paper by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), based on research done in Beijing, pointed out that in addition to religious personnel, cadres in religious work were also totally positive on the enactment of a Law on Religion. Those interviewed recognized that “if the law is not thoroughly prepared, governing according to law will be deficient.” They gave this as a major factor in the current healthy development of religion, and concluded that China must speedily enact a Law on Religion. Zhao Puchu, the Buddhist leader, never abandoned his many years of striving and petitioning for the promulgation of a basic law on religion. He said, “Every aspect of our nation’s political, economic, cultural and social life basically has a legal foundation. Only religion up to now still does not have a basic law concerning it. This does not befit our great nation with its 56 ethnic groups and over 100 million believers.”
However, it was obvious to the Party and government that the time was not yet ripe for a Law on Religion. For this reason, they decided to use nationwide regulations to cover the main points of a Law on Religion. As He Kemin, legal secretary for SARA, noted, the Legal Secretariat is the department responsible for legislation. The first step was to put the religious administrative regulations into a framework, 120 articles in 12 chapters, and submit them for legal opinion. This compilation was first submitted to a training class for religious cadres in Xi’an in October 2000. In 2001, a research committee on religious legislation conducted further investigations in Chengdu in April and in Hangzhou in May. Accordingly SARA summoned cadres to more than 30 meetings in various places during June and July 2001, dividing the ordinances by topic for still further investigation. These were finally shaped into the Regulations on Religious Affairs (Proposal), with 76 articles in 11 chapters.
SARA next submitted the Regulations on Religious Affairs (Proposal) to the State Council for inspection and approval. After the Legal Systems Office received the Proposal, they solicited the opinions of Party Central, the relevant bureaus of the State Council, and the people’s government of every province, autonomous region and city directly under the central government. After repeated revisions, it became the Regulations on Religious Affairs (Draft). In accord with legislative procedure, the Draft Regulations were inspected by the Legal Systems Office, and then submitted to the State Council for inspection and revision. They finally passed the State Council during the 57th meeting of its Standing Committee on July 7, 2004, as the Regulations on Religious Affairs. [48 articles in 7 chapters]
Questions Directly Connected to the Religious Regulations
1.) The question of the Five Major Religions
Right up until the present, a serious difficulty for legally regulating religious work in China has been demarcating religion and defining what a legal religion is. We can see that the promulgation of the Regulations has not clearly resolved this hard question.
The Regulations do not speak of the Five Major Religions. They are basically in continuity with the two Decrees of national administrative Regulations promulgated in 1994: Regulations on the Supervision of the Religious Activities of Foreigners in China [Decree 144] and Regulations Regarding the Management of Places of Religious Activity [Decree 145]. Yet back then SARA [then the RAB] in explaining Venues of Religious Activity, continued the old practice and defined a “venue for religious activity” in terms of the situation of the Five Major Religions. In another area, in explaining the Religious Activities of Foreigners, they clarified the statement that China “respects the freedom of religion of foreigners,” by saying “no matter what the religion, no matter whether or not this religion exists in China, the Chinese government accords it respect.” In other words, the government in 1994 basically adopted the principle that “domestic and foreign are different.” On one hand they respected foreigners of whatever religion as well as their religious activities while in China (aside from preaching to Chinese and converting them.) On the other hand, the “legal religions” which Chinese could choose to follow were limited to the Five Major Religions.
Yet the problem still remains: the freedom of religious belief, as established by the Constitution, is clearly not restricted to five kinds of religion. Previous local religious regulations, plus listing the Five Major Religions in the articles could hardly avoid making the government cast other religions outside the scope of “legal religion,” thus causing those religions to lose their innate legality. If the nation uses law to determine what faith the public may or may not believe, then it will be hard to avoid suspicion of violating the Constitution.
In Heilongjiang and Xinjiang, the Orthodox Church is already among the legal religions, and the Russian Orthodox Church has already formally requested the Chinese government to recognize Orthodoxy as one of China’s officially sanctioned religions. They hope that China will resolve this before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. At the same time, in the wake of China’s opening to the outside world, large numbers of Chinese citizens are having contacts with foreigners. Some will certainly come to believe in foreign religions, religions other than the Five Major Religions. How will the right of these citizens to religious belief be guaranteed?
Nowhere in the entire text of the Regulations does the term “Five Major Religions” appear. This indicates that the government is now aware of the existence of the problem. Yet is this or is this not a reflection of the government’s willingness to give religions other than those five some legal room, and an environment in which they can spread within China? Such a space obviously would not tally with the government’s religious policy. I believe that Chapter 2 on Religious Organizations [Art. 6-11] and Chapter 3 on Venues for Religious Activities [Art. 12-26] both clearly contain all kinds of demands. If other religions hope to organize in China and establish venues for worship, then that will be practically impossible. While the government did not plainly list the Five Major Religions, yet the legal manipulations that restrict the establishment of social organizations come into play, and will prevent religions other than the Five from spreading and developing in China.
I believe that, unless the government is willing to open the religious market in China, the only possible policy measure will be to permit those Chinese citizens who follow a religion other than the Five Major Religions to worship on an individual basis. Yet these religions will be prohibited from becoming organized groups and from setting up venues for religious activities. The belief of Chinese citizens in any religion whatever is their “personal business,” which does not violate the constitutional freedom of “religious belief.” But if these other religions one day want to form “social organizations” and acquire legal status, then they will still be restricted. The problem is that a citizen’s freedom of “religious belief” is confined to the scope of “individual” and “personal business.” Does this accord with the spirit of the Constitution? Doesn’t this deprive citizens who believe in religion from entering into external, visible activities, even stripping them of the freedom to organize religious activities? Every religion demands the right to propagate its doctrines. If the religion (aside from the Five Major Religions) simply becomes a private matter within the heart of the individual believer, then this will not match the existing reality of what religion actually is.
2.) The general concept of religious affairs The Regulations distinctly state that “religious affairs” lie at the heart of what is being enacted. Article 5 clearly points out: “The people’s government’s religious affairs departments, at the county level and above, and in accordance with the law, are responsible for the administrative management of religious affairs, which touch upon the public interest and the public welfare of society.” As to what is designated as “religious affairs,” Ye Xiaowen, Director of SARA, as early as 1997 issued an authoritative definition:
In general, religion is individual and internal, a pursuit of deep reflection. Religious belief is a personal matter for an individual, without major connections to national law… Yet religion is not merely a question of individual faith; it is a social reality with definite social structures (religious organizations), social buildings (temples and churches), and social activities (masses of believers participating in ceremonies and other religious activities). This social reality within society as a whole must generate some religious or social affairs. Thus there must be social norms or covenants. These in turn generate the religious laws and regulations of contemporary significance.
We can see that religious affairs are called one kind of public social affairs, indicating that religions function as social entities. This gives rise to all kinds of relationships, actions and activities linked to the common good of society. Such understanding constitutes the legal principles behind the Regulations.
The concept of “religious affairs” and “management” are closely linked. The Regulations hardly mention management by name, yet internal documents [not meant for public circulation] for religious affairs offices rely upon promoting “administrative management” according to the law and give precise definitions of that. This reflects the fundamental aim and spirit of the government in enacting religious rules: to rely heavily on control and to restrain freedom of religious belief through management, with the attitude of being on guard. This is just as Ye Xiaowen said when he explained the Regulations:
Because they entail the common good, these religious relationships, actions and activities must be subject to regulation by law (i.e., forceful national measures to guarantee the regulation of activities). Because they concern the common good, the government must promote administrative management according to law over these religious relationships, actions and activities. Because they entail the common good, management of religious affairs is not interference in normal religious activity, or in the internal affairs of religious organizations. Neither is this any “non-separation of church and state,” nor “management of religion by government officials.”
I believe that it is just this kind of attitude of supervising and guardedness against religion that is spelled out in the Regulations: “In accordance with the law, the State protects normal religious activities…Religious organizations, religious venues and religious believers ought to obey the Constitution, laws, rules and regulations, and support the unity of the country, ethnic unity and the stability of society. No organization or individual should use religion to engage in activities which destroy social order, harm the bodily health of citizens, interfere in the State educational system, or harm the national interest, the public welfare of society or the lawful rights of citizens.” (Art. 3) “Each religion must adhere to the principle of the independent running of their religion. Religious organizations, religious venues and religious affairs are not subject to foreign domination.” (Art. 4)
In China’s current criminal law, the crimes of endangering national security and endangering social order are listed first and second in the general penal code. This explains why the government regards the defense of national and social interests so seriously. The question is, why in the eyes of the government, is religion a factor that can have a dangerous influence on national security and social order? In fact, the 1982 Constitution already stipulated emphatically that no group or individual may exploit religion for destructive activity. Moreover, these illegal activities already exceed the scope of religion, and have no necessary connection to religion as such. A scholar pointed out that if we take the references in the Constitution aimed at religion, and substitute some other term in place of religion, such as politics, economics, culture, social organizations, scientific technology, sports, etc., then the Article would make just as much sense logically. Yet, “nowhere in the Constitution are any such articles or clauses aimed at those other areas. Thus, this gives people the impression that people might exploit religion to destroy the social order, injure public health, or obstruct public education. These are the special traits of religion, and so it is necessary to include in the Constitution special regulations aimed at religion.” Even today, the Regulations are directed only at religion, clearly revealing a tendency to be strongly biased against religion.
By the same reasoning, the State Council will develop diplomatic exchanges on the basis of equality, and not let China be subject to foreign domination. This proceeds from general principles which may fittingly be used for every social organization and affair in China, not just religious ones. Then why single out religious organizations? Does this imply that only religions can be subjected to foreign domination? The Regulations reflect the government’s prejudiced concept of religious organizations.
3.) The problem of religious organizations, venues and personnel The Regulations contain no fundamental breakthrough regarding the establishment and management of religious organizations and venues. They completely follow pre-existing models of control. Religious organizations are governed according to the Regulations on the Management of Registration of Social Organizations and the Regulations on the Management of Registration of Religious Organizations, issued by the RAB and the Office of Civil Administration. These implemented the “system of double management”: like other social groups, religious bodies have two “mothers-in-law”. One is an office to supervise registration, the other is a work unit responsible for business activities. Civil administrative offices supervise the registration of religious organizations, while the RAB oversees their business affairs. The Handbook for Supervising Social Organizations gives extreme power to the unit responsible for supervising official activities, including the selection of those holding authority within the social organization and vetting the appointment and removal of their successors. Directly related to this, RABs, in attending to the broad topics of National Security and Social Order, shall “manage religious affairs in accordance with the law.” This very easily becomes intervention in the internal affairs of religious organizations.
The Regulations on the Management of Registration of Religious Organizations stipulates in Art. 7 “within a single administrative district, there must not be redundant registration of identical or similar religious organizations.” In other words, aside from the current patriotic groups of every rank which belong to the Five Major Religions, the government basically will not allow the establishment of new religious organizations. This restriction can, on the one hand, be directed against the Five Major Religions, viewing the patriotic association of any religion as the only representative of that religion, and rejecting the establishment of other religious groups. At the same time, Art. 7 may also be used to suppress the establishment of any religious body that does not belong to the Five Major Religions.
Regarding religious venues, the Religious Regulations likewise continue to use the supervisory principles of the Regulations Regarding the Management of Places of Religious Activity [Decree 145], and demand that a venue must be submitted to a RAB office for registration, and the setting up of a venue must accord with a number of conditions. One of the more serious changes is that the Regulations supersede Decree 145 and thus simultaneously sweep away the formulations of the Procedure for Annual Inspection of Religious Venues.
Regarding Protestants and the registration of house churches, the Regulations contain no adjustments or changes whatsoever. No matter if it is the outdated Decree 145 and the related Procedures for Registration of Religious Venues, or the newly promulgated Regulations and the subsequent Procedures for the Approval of the Establishment and Registration of Venues for Religious Activities, none of these documents make belonging to a patriotic religious organization a requirement and condition for registration. Yet Art. 13 in Ch. 3 of the Regulations stipulates that to prepare to establish a venue for religious activity, a religious organization should apply to the RAB at the appropriate administrative level. According to Ch. 2 of the Regulations, a “religious organization” means a patriotic organization already recognized by the government. Thus if a Protestant house church hopes to be recognized by an RAB, since it does not already belong to a sanctioned “religious organization,” the house church must pass its application to a local patriotic association to handle on its behalf. In addition, Art. 27 in Ch. 4 further specifies “religious professionals, who have been recognized by religious organizations, and whose names have been submitted for the record to the RAB at the county level or above, may become involved in religious affairs and activities.” This bestows upon the patriotic associations recognized by the government the legal power to confer “recognition” upon religious professionals in the house churches.
Looking at it this way, if a Protestant house church wants to register, it must go to a patriotic association to have its application forwarded to the appropriate level of government, and its church personnel must get recognition as religious professionals. That is to say, given the existing government arrangement, the house church must participate in the Protestant Three-Self Movement and the China Christian Council as a precondition for registration. With the power delegated to them by the RAB, the Two Associations everywhere play the role in the local church of gatekeeper to venues for religious activities. Here and there the RAB permits a group to register without participating in the Three-Self Movement, but these are just a small number of exceptions to the rule.
As Qiao Shenqian, the Vice-Director of the National Registration Service Centre for Social Organizations, mentioned at the end of 2004, the stipulated work unit supervising official activities of social organizations “will still be around for some time,” but canceling this regulation is “definite in due course.” He raised the point of finally abolishing this work unit. Without doubt this will symbolize a big step forward for social groups in China. Yet he acknowledges that the relevant Regulations “will still be in force for some time.” This reflects the vigilance of the government against freedom of association and loosening the registration of social groups. In fact, I believe that the RAB will supervise religious organizations and activities for a long period of time, until the time when all social groups in China obtain full freedom of association.
Art. 27 gives a clear system for listing religious professionals. After the religious organizations have recognized their identity, their names must be enrolled in the RAB registry at the county or higher level. Then they may begin to conduct religious services. And Art. 28 stipulates “A religious professional who takes charge of, or leaves, the post of leader at a venue for religious activity, after obtaining the agreement of his religious organization, must report this to the RAB at the county level or above.” Religious regulations at the local level already had a system for recording the names of personnel, and today this is a formal demand at the national level. When regulations varied from place to place, and religious personnel wanted to participate in inter municipal or inter provincial activities, they had to get the agreement of their religious bodies, and also register their names with the RAB. But the current Regulations do not have this stipulation.
After religious personnel are recognized by religious organizations, why do they still need to enroll their names on the government registry? According to the Explanation of the Regulations on Religious Affairs, since the activities of religious personnel have an influence on society and the nation, of course there must be administrative management of religious personnel in accordance with the law. This reflects the government’s view that the activity of religious professionals does not lie totally within the sphere of religious organizations. In considering how to maintain the common good of society, the government must implement a registry system to keep track of the names of religious professionals.
Compared to the [old] system of an RAB registry for religious professionals in each locality, the [new] system of registering names almost seems like a step forward. Yet all in all, doesn’t the registry system simply help the penal system operate? Doesn’t it give a veto power to the RAB? These questions touch on the authority of the RAB, and directly affect the freedom of religious organizations to manage their own personnel. SARA will issue a Procedure for Enrolling Names of Religious Professionals. This will give a detailed account of such questions. In any case, the RAB has come to rely upon the system for registering names as it supervises religious personnel.
4.) Administrative supervision in accordance with the law To realize governing the nation in accordance with law, and to establish a government of laws [as opposed to government by arbitrary people], the State Council in April 2004 issued Essentials for Implementing the All-Around Promotion of Administration in Accordance with the Law. It put forward a functional transformation aimed at civil administration by law. The main demand of the so-called “administration in accordance with the law” is for administrative organs to act within the scope of rules and regulations. There must be a clear legal basis when implementing every kind of administrative action, respect for order, and accepting supervision from the masses. Since the late 1990s, with the appearance of the Administrative Penal Code (1996), the Law on Administrative Review (1999), the Law on Legislation (2000), and the Law on Administrative Permission (2003), the set of regulations for civil administration in accordance with the law has become ever more complete.
We can see how a number of articles in the Regulations were clearly laid out to match this direction. For example, Art. 5 states that “Every level of the People’s government should listen to the opinions of religious organizations, religious venues and religious believers, and coordinate the work of the supervision of religious affairs with them.” This solitary clause is not forceful enough here; “should listen to the opinions” is not sufficiently cautionary to be useful. “Coordinate the work of the supervision of religious affairs” is certainly muddled writing.
In addition, the Regulations contain rules about administrative penalties. In Chapter 6: The Responsibilities of the Law, we read “When a civil servant who, in the discharge of his duties of supervision over religion, abuses his authority, neglects his duties, practices favoritism, fraud, or anything that could constitute a crime, an investigation into criminal responsibility should be carried out in accordance with the law. Even if no crime has been uncovered, such a person should receive an administrative punishment in accordance with the law.” (Art. 38) And “If a citizen is forced to believe in or not to believe in a religion, or the normal religious activities of a religious organization or venue are disturbed, it is the responsibility of the RAB to take effective measures to correct the situation. If it is behavior which violates the administration of public security, then in accordance with the law, the public security offices should administer punishment. If someone encroaches upon the lawful rights of a religious organization or a religious venue, then according to the law, such a person bears civil responsibility for it. If a crime has been committed, the person is subject to punishment in accordance with the law.” (Art. 39) In the Regulations, overseeing the religious affairs workers and their duties obviously comes first in importance.
In addition, the Regulations make clear demands in the area of “administrative permission.” This term means that government organs which supervise social events have a kind of prior control, a hand in inspecting and critiquing. Yet in the past the scope of administrative permission has not been clear. The definition of this power was fuzzy, perhaps just talking about power without responsibility. An effective and public mechanism to restrict such supervision was lacking. According to the Law of the PRC on Administrative Permission, formally implemented in July 2004, the formulation of administrative permission must be regulated according to the law. It stresses that only the National People’s Congress and its standing committees can regulate such permissions. People’s governments at the provincial level may, as stated in the clauses of the law, grant temporary administrative permissions. Other state bureaus may not regulate any part of the law. In addition, the Law on Administrative Permission further requires bureaus which can grant administrative permission to strengthen the vigilance over their members who can grant such permissions.
In sum, the clauses mentioned above embody the norms for the scope of government administration, and are mirrored in the Regulations. The demands these stipulations make are clearly an initial step in civil administration in accordance with the law, and in adjusting governmental structures. Yet their strength of supervision over administrative organs and their range of authority are still limited, and I believe that there is still room for improvement.
Looking back on religious regulations in China starting from the 1980s up to now, the tide has basically been flowing in two main directions: from government policy to regulations to legal statutes, and from the local to the national level. The promulgation of the Religious Regulations sets a new standard in the legal process for Chinese religions. It is an indispensable, key link in perfecting the legal system and in realizing the governance of the nation according to law. Freedom of religious belief is a basic individual right. As it receives full guarantees through legal enactments, so it will also have a weighty impact on the grand design of a government that rules the nation according to law.
The major premise is to establish a socialist system according to law. The work of establishing laws in China has made real progress in many areas in recent years. Yet we should not forget that it is a system where “the Party, the government and the law form a single body.” The relationship between the policy of the Party and the national law results in the subservience of the law to Party policy. Thus, for a full understanding of the content and significance of the Regulations, we still need to see its systematic connection to the policy of the CCP on religion. So we can see that how the Party comprehension of both the pros and the cons of the social use of religion directs its religious policy. This kind of comprehension leads the Party to protect the freedom of religious belief, and also to take precautions against religion causing disorder, and to collaborate with religions in order to infiltrate them. All of this is clearly manifested in the policies of the Party and the state, in regulations and legal statutes on religion, no matter whether at the local or national level.
Without doubt, in recent years the leaders of the Party have recognized the long-term nature of religion, and affirmed its face value. Yet in their eyes, religious problems (including heresy, superstition, religious fanaticism, foreign infiltration, etc.) still are serious factors that threaten to rock social stability and government authority. It was no accident that, after the National Conference on Religious Work in 2001, there were demands to strengthen religious work, especially by the Party over leaders of religious work, and governmental supervision over religious affairs. Among these were concerns about resisting foreign infiltration under the cover of religion. This is a major concern for China when openness to the outside world is the big problem tugging at the morale of the Party-state. In May 2004, Party Central propagation department distributed Document Number 13, reemphasizing the situation of evil cults, pseudoscience, superstition struggles, and hostile Western forces using religion to promote Westernization and divisionism. The document stressed the vital need to promote Marxist atheism. Some paragraphs viewed all schools at every level as crucial battle positions for propagating atheistic education. This reflects the Party’s view of religious phenomena as hostile forces wrestling to take over the thinking of the masses of people. Sources report that in August 2004, Party Central sent out three circulars in succession, aiming at religious belief of Party members, and expressing increased awareness and concern at leading cadres in charge of religious affairs, and at religious activity in post-secondary schools. This evidently comes from an attitude of managing and limiting the scope of religious affairs.
It is worth noting the current importance paid to increasing the Party’s leadership over religious work, to resisting religious infiltration and to strengthening the propagation of atheistic education. Yet at the same time, will this evolve in the direction of political judgments interfering in religion, or towards increased administrative restrictions on religious activities and events? Will there emerge a situation that policies and regulations override legal statutes? We should attend to such a development. Again, will religious affairs department at every level, when paying a great deal of attention to the premise of “resisting infiltration,” move still one more step towards even more forceful administrative control of religious affairs? While the legal basis has not yet been completely laid, and while people are on the alert for national security and public order, the call to “uphold what is legal, suppress what is illegal, resist infiltration, and attack crime” can easily lead to a time of deviation in the enforcement of law and in the implementation of government policy.
On one hand, the promulgation of the Regulations broke through the old set of locally based religious regulations, and established the first nation-wide, systematic, administrative regulations for religion. Yet on the other hand, the basic purpose still maintains the original keynote of “supervise religious affairs in accordance with the law.”
The Regulations make no big adjustments in the categories and principles for supervising religious activities. They provide the government with a legal basis for the administrative supervision of religious affairs. The premise is protecting the national interest and public interest. Yet at the same time, the Regulations issue rules for overseeing the administrative work of the religious affairs departments. This is a breakthrough, a new tint to administering according to law. Yet the strength of this supervision still has room for improvement. Furthermore, the heart and spirit of the Regulations are still embodied in the management of “religious affairs.” They have not yet discarded the attitude of controlling the management of religious activities. The religious affairs departments still have great authority to supervise and control religious activities, venues and even professionals. The current initiative for administration in accordance with the law only raises a demand for administrative control in accordance with the law while managing religious affairs. The problem still is: are there clear boundary lines to supervision? In the background there is the attitude of guarding against religion. Will this unavoidably lead to restrictions and to interference in the right of citizens to freedom of religious belief? In the name of management according to law, the autonomy of religious bodies and venues still has not yet received full legal guarantees.
I believe that, given the events and the lessons learned in religious work since the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Party has abandoned its plot to eliminate religion, and has determined that citizens’ freedom of religious belief is a basic right. This certainly must be affirmed as progress. Yet the Party attaches even greater importance to national and public security, and so develops regulations for religious affairs. The attitude underlying these regulations, and the related managerial methods, both work especially to control and supervise social entities. To a greater or lesser degree, this restricts the religious freedom of the citizens, and opposes the spirit of international covenants on human rights. Without doubt, the Regulations are an advance when it comes to protecting legal rights and interests, and in overseeing administrative management according to the law. Yet the basic spirit of this enactment still has the management of religious affairs as its keynote. What has particularly given us pause for thought is how religious policy across China is implemented through uniform rules enforced at every level of government. When it comes to the problem of the quality of religious affairs departments and cadres at the local level, administrative supervision easily becomes an agreed-upon term for interfering in the freedom of religious belief.
In China, the questions of freedom of religious belief, popular assembly, and speech are inseparable. Unless the Party is willing to discard its current definition of religious affairs, and in a controlled society, give popular organizations more space and autonomy, then the right of citizens to freedom of religious belief can only obtain a few more technical guarantees under management according to law. Yet the core meaning still has to await a breakthrough and improvement. We affirm that while China is gradually realizing “rule by law,” yet the nation should not abandon taking a step forward and insist on establishing the “rule of law.”
For the development of laws on religion in China in the future, it is worthwhile for us to pay attention to several things, including:
1. With the implementation of the Regulations, the clauses on religious affairs, which have previously been promulgated on every level, should be in the course of revision, so that the regulations at the lower level do not contradict those from the higher level. What will be the content of these modifications? At the same time, can the policies and regulations issued by local governments be fitted into place within the Regulations?
2. When will the bylaws to explain and implement the Regulations appear? Concretely, what will they contain? At the same time, it will be hard to ignore the rules and regulations, and their details, of pertinent departments that SARA will promulgate in accordance with the Regulations.
3. Will religious organizations, venues and believers in every location all be able to have full legal recourse to their rights? Will they be able to contest the implementation of the Regulations on the grounds of administrative supervision according to law, and demand that the government acts in accordance with the law when managing religious affairs? Will they be able to use the law as an instrument and push for the protection of their legal rights and interests? Will cadres and departments at every level be willing to transform their function and accept self-supervision?
4. In 1998 China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But the Standing Committee of the NPC still has not given official approval for it to come into effect. During his visit to France early in 2005, President Hu Jintao stated that the Chinese government is actively researching serious problems related to the Covenant, and will submit it to the NPC for approval when conditions are ripe. Researchers point out that, after the Covenant receives official approval from the NPC, it will be incorporated into China’s system of national laws. Then China will move forward and revise the laws to bring them into compliance with the spirit of the Covenant. Civil rights, including religious freedom, are naturally interconnected to related rights. It will also be worth watching how China will amend its body of religious regulations. These developments will have an intimate influence on the effectiveness of the Regulations, and will be directly linked to improving the space for religious freedom in China.
During the past twenty some years, China has seen great transformations in all areas: political, social, economic and cultural. Without doubt, these changes are extremely important to us in understanding changes in the religious sphere. Following the deepening of the policy of reform and opening to the outside world, the paths taken by China and the international community are converging a bit, and society within China has inevitably experienced deepening institutional and systematic changes. All of this is providing more room than previously for the development of religion within Chinese society. The actual events since the start of reform and opening have already proven that the Party’s old model of managing religion does not respond to the demands and challenges of the new trends, let alone the flood of new problems coming in the future. Will the Party be willing, today or tomorrow, to progress with the times and to reform the control of social organizations, the management of religious affairs and the enactment of religious laws on the basis of freedom of assembly, speech and religion? Or will it be, as Jesus warned against in Matthew 9:17-19, a matter of putting new wine into old wineskins?