New National Regulation on Religious Affairs to Take Effect on March 1, 2005

February 15, 2005

A new Regulation on Religious Affairs (RRA) will take effect on March 1, 2005, according to official sources. The State Council passed the RRA in July 2004 after a lengthy drafting process, and Premier Wen Jiabao signed a decree promulgating the new regulation on November 30, 2004.

While Chinese officials and experts have praised the law as an advance in protecting the right to freedom of religious belief, others condemn it as tightening the government’s control over religion. The regulation seems principally to be a compilation of existing laws, but some observers believe that the new wording will permit the registration, and hence "legalization," of other religions besides Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism, the five currently permitted.

The central United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party [Zhonggong zhongyang tongyi zhanxian gongzuobu] (UFWD) is the key Party agency with authority over religious affairs. The UFWD Web site offers a relatively complete set of the written policy documents, rules, and regulations that relate to religion (see the page titled "Religious Policies and Regulations" [Zhengze yu fagui], under the section "Policies and Regulations" on the UFWD Web site (Religious Policies and Regulations). The top central government agency dealing with religious matters is the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA -- formerly called the Religious Affairs Bureau), which heads a hierarchy of provincial and local offices governing religious matters.

The five central measures and implementing rules issued by the State Religious Affairs Bureau in the past were:

  • Measures for the Registration of Venues for Religious Activities [Zongjiao huodong changsuo dengji banfa], issued April 13, 1994 (Measures for Registration of Venues);
  • Measures for Annual Inspections of Venues for Religious Activities, issued on July 30, 1996 [Zongjiao huodong changsuo niandu jiancha banfa] (Measures for Annual Inspections);
  • Implementing Regulations on Provisions of the People’s Republic of China for Managing the Religious Activities of Foreigners within the Borders of the People’s Republic of China [Zhonghua renmin gongheguo jingnei waiguoren zongjiao huodongguanli guiding shishi xice], issued on September 26, 2000 (Regulations on Provisions for Foreigners);
  • Measures for the Implementation of the Registration of Religious Social Groups [Zongjiao shehuituanti dengji shishi banfa], May 6, 1991 ( Measures for Registration of Social Groups); and
  • Measures for the Employment by Religious Schools of Foreign Experts [Zongjiao yuanxiao binyong waiji zhuanye renyuan banfa], issued November 19, 1998 (Measures on Hiring Foreign Experts).

The RRA will probably not abolish or modify these measures and rules. In addition, religious organization, belief, and practice has also been governed by numerous provincial and local level regulations. For provincial religious affairs regulations, see the left-hand column of the UFWD page, Religious Policies and Regulations. The Web page does not claim to be a comprehensive listing, but almost every major city or province has some form of religious regulation or rule listed there.

The United Front website divides provincial regulations and rules into four groups according to issuing entity and coverage, either “comprehensive” or “specific.” For example, the comprehensive regulations, with minor variations, cover a broad range of matters involved in the regulation of religion: religious organizations, clerics, venues for religious activities, religious activities, religious schools, religious properties, and foreign contacts. Specific rules, on the other hand, focus on a narrower topic, such as clerics, venues for worship, and, in one example from Hebei, the definition of what constitutes "normal Catholic religious activities" (Rule on Normal Religious Activities.)

o An example of a “comprehensive” rule issued by a provincial people’s congress is the “Anhui Province Regulation on Religious Affairs” [Anhuisheng zongjiao shiwu tiaoli], promulgated by the 12th meeting of the Standing Committee of Anhui Province’s 9th People’s Congress on October 15, 1999 (Anhui Regulation). This regulation has 10 chapters: “General Principles, Religious Organizations, Religious Clerics, Venues for Religious Activities, Religious Activities, Religious Schools, Religious Property, Religions’ Foreign Contacts, Legal Responsibilities, and Supplement.”
o An example of a “comprehensive” rule issued by a Provincial People’s Government is the “Yunnan Province Regulation for Administration of Religious Affairs” [Yunnan sheng zongjiao shiwu guanli guiding], promulgated by the Yunnan Provincial People’s Government in Decree No. 53 on December 2, 1997 (Yunnan Regulation). This regulation has 9 chapters: “General Principles, Religious Organizations, Religious Clerics, Venues for Religious Activities, Religious Activities, Foreign Exchanges and Communications, Penalties, and Supplement.”
o An example of a “specific” rule issued by a provincial People’s congress is “Qinghai Province Provisions for the Administration of Religious Clerics” [Qinghaisheng Zongjiao jiaozhi renyuan guanli guiding], promulgated by the 28th meeting of the Standing Committee of Qinghai Province’s 7th People’s Congress on August 28, 1992 (Qinghai Regulation on Clerics). This regulation lists clerics of the five official religions and provides that they are to be graduates of special religious seminaries or examined and approved by the relevant Patriotic Religious Organization. Listed prohibitions for clerics under this Qinghai law include: interference in state administration, judiciary, education, marriage, birth planning, or technical work, as well as participation in unapproved large, trans-regional religious activities.
o An example of a “specific” rule issued by a Provincial People’s Government is “Guangdong Provincial Provisions for the Administrative Management of Venues for Religious Activities” [Guangdongsheng zongjiao huodong changsuo xingzheng guanli guiding], issued on March 23, 1988 (Guangdong Provisions). This regulation has 6 chapters: “General Principles, Venues for Religious Activities, Management of Venues for Religious Activities, Religious Clerics, Religious Activities, and Supplement.” This category includes three regulations from Xinjiang, one on clerics, one on religious activities, and one on venues. Interestingly, Article 2 of the regulation on clerics specifically includes "priests of the Eastern Orthodox Religion" in the definition.

These Xinjiang regulations include much greater detail than those from other provinces, specifically prohibiting any revival of feudal religious special rights, for example.

It is unclear whether or not the RRA will require revision of any or all of the provincial regulations, or whether its lack of detail in key areas governed in detail in the local laws can be taken to imply a loosening of regulation. However, there is no reason to suppose that its enactment means that such local laws are or will be rescinded.

Advance Praise from Inside China

Commentary on the significance of the new regulation has been mixed. Chinese experts and officials have been enthusiastic. Several spoke about the upcoming regulations after an international conference on religion and law in Beijing in October. Zhang Xunmou, director of the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) legal department, said then that the new RRA means a “paradigm shift” in running religious affairs, in that it puts believers and administrators on the same footing, each side with its own rights and obligations. (See remarks.) By this, Zhang seems to have meant that state functionaries would be held to prescribed standards in exerting authority over religious believers and the organizations and venues for worship formed by them. He explained that such rules were revolutionary in the Chinese context because, throughout history, Chinese political authorities were never forced to share power with religious entities as European states did. While this was true to some degree in the Chinese past, most of the protections granted to believers by the RRA (in Articles 38, 39 and 46, for example) already belong to them under existing law, and cannot by any measure be said to be revolutionary.

Zhang also said that the new rules would emphasize self-government and self-support rather than heavy government supervision, as part of a general trend in China to reduce administrative costs. Article 4 does require each religion to maintain “independence, self-government, and self-management,” [duli, zizhu, ziban] reflecting the Party’s fear that “hostile forces” might try to gain influence inside China through mission work and donations from outside. This principle was not new, however, and had already been a part of the Guangdong Provincial Rules on the Administrative Management of Religious Venues [Guangdong sheng zongjiao huodong changsuo xingzheng guanli guiding]("Guangdong Rules") promulgated by the provincial government on March 23, 1988 (see Article 10). The Guangdong Rules generally followed a model originated by the Central RAB and rejected as national rules by the more liberal legal personnel of the State Council. This stricter model represented an increase in intrusive supervision by the RABs at various levels, and specified a strong supervisory, gatekeeper role for the Patriotic Religious Organizations (PRO's). For example, they required venues for worship to be managed “democratically,” by a management organization set up by the cleric and representatives of the congregation “under the guidance of the PRO.” In the RRA, National Religious Organizations (not referred to as "Patriotic") appear in Article 11, which delegates organization of the hajj pilgrimage to the “Muslim All-China Religious Organization,” and Article 27, that gives the National Buddhist and the National Catholic Organizations authority over the succession of Living Buddhas and the nomination of bishops.

In addition, Zhang said that other up-coming rules would impose a tax on religious groups that would become a regular part of local revenues - news that may please local governments but that can hardly be welcome to the groups involved. At the same conference, Jin Ze, deputy director of China’s Institute on World Religions, noted that one area that has needed reform for some time was the status of the fast-growing “folk” belief systems not included in the five officially recognized religions of Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, Catholicism and Protestantism. Professor Zhang Qianfan of Beijing University said that under the current system, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of belief cannot be enjoyed by believers not falling into the five recognized groups. On this point, the new regulations do not provide any definition of religious belief that would explicitly go beyond the currently recognized religions, although Article 12, which defines the venues in which group religious worship can take place, says:

In general, the collective religious activities of believers shall take place in a registered venue for religious activities (Buddhist temples, Taoist temples, mosques, churches and other fixed places for religious activity)...

The phrase “in general” could make this broader than the more precise language in Article 2 of the 1994 regulation:

The sites for religious activities referred to in these regulations mean Buddhist temples, Taoist temples, mosques, churches and other fixed sites for religious activity. To establish a site for religious activity, one must register. The mode of registration shall be governed by the RAB of the State Council. .

Feng Jinyuan, a CASS religious expert called upon to advise the drafters on the new provisions, noted that disagreements had delayed promulgation since 2001. “The core disputes centered on the definition of ‘religious affairs’ and the scope of the regulations,” said Feng. He said the absence of a definition of “religious belief” in the final product shows continuing government conservatism on the issue of religion. However, the small community of Russian Orthodox Christians in China has expressed confidence that the new law will finally allow them to get legal status, long denied because they fall outside of the official five religions.

Elaborate Schedule for Applications and their Approval

Article 13 of the new RRA sets up an elaborate schedule for action by the RAB’s of various levels in place of the general delegation of authority in the last sentence of Article 2 of the 1994 regulation. The applications go first to the county RAB; if that RAB thinks the application has merit, it must forward it to the city RAB within 30 days. The city RAB then has 30 days to decide on the applications of temples, mosques and churches before reporting them to the next higher level RAB (usually the province). Finally, the provincial level RAB has 30 days from receipt of the report to make the decision on the application. The result of all this extra language is that the RAB system has 90 days in all to act on the application. Only after that approval can the applicants go ahead to construct the meeting place.

Article 38 does provide for disciplinary or even criminal sanctions if the RAB officials “abuse their powers, neglect their duties, or practice graft for personal gain in the course of managing religious affairs.” This means that, in theory, religious believers can get redress against officials who try to deny an application by delaying the response indefinitely.

That is not the end, however, for Article 14 lays out the basic conditions on which the approval is to be based. Some of these are broad enough to swallow up any constraint on arbitrary action by the RAB system:

14.1, [T]he sponsors of the venue must not violate Article 3 of the RRA, which requires them to obey the “Constitution, laws, regulations and rules and safeguard national unity, ethnic solidarity, and social stability,” and prohibit their “use of disrupt social order, harm citizens’ health, impede the educational system, or harm the national interest, the social public interest, or the rights and interests of citizens,” or Article 4 of the RRA, which requires that such venues maintain independence from foreign control;

14.2, there must be a “need” for the venue;

14.3, there must be clerics qualified to lead the rites;

14.4, they must have sufficient funds;

14.5, they must have a rational structure and avoid interfering with other local residents. (emphasis added)

Hostile officials or zealous Party members could interpret several of these to bar almost any projected meeting place. Some observers have noticed that the 1994 list of prohibited behavior is thinner than that in Article 14.1 of the RRA, and wonder whether the addition of the “social public interest” [shehui gonggong liyi] and the “citizens’ legal rights and interests” [gongmin quanyi] gives the RAB significantly more flexibility for abusive denial of approval. Others note that the RRA prohibits the “use of religion” for the listed threatening purposes, while the 1994 regulation refers only to the “use of venues for religious activities.” This change could be intended to broaden the inquiry in such cases to all areas of the lives of religious believers and the activities of their organizations, but more likely simply reflects the fact that the 1994 regulation governed only venues, while the new regulation is "comprehensive.".

Some of the favorable commentary in China argues that the new regulation makes specific provision for ordinary activities like publication and sale of religious books and art and for participation in external exchanges. However, in general, these activities were already allowed under the 1994 regulations (Article 7 of the 1994 “Regulation on the Management of Religious Venues” and Article 2 of the 1994 “Provisions of the People’s Republic of China for Managing the Religious Activities of Foreigners within the Borders of the People’s Republic of China”).

Much of the commentary in the official press seems, by praising the regulations for their superior and more rational “systematization”, to conflate rule of law with rule by law. We see that this is no accident, for Wang Zuoan, deputy director of SARA, assured listeners that the new regulation simply transforms mature and tested Party policy into law, and is “a way of strengthening and improving Party leadership over religious work in the new situation.” He also said: “By management according to law, we mean to regulate the behaviors of the personages in religious circles and the masses of religious believers, restrain the activities of groups and religious venues, and bring religious activities within the scope permitted by laws and regulations.”

Human Rights Advocates Are Critical

Human rights advocates outside of China responded much more negatively. One Hong Kong expert predicted that the clearer rules would mean that there would be less room for unregistered groups to maneuver. Taking another tack, Amnesty International pointed out that the new regulation does nothing to define the vague categories in earlier rules that have allowed the Chinese police a free hand in prosecuting - and persecuting - believers. A term that cries out for definition is “normal” [zhengchang], in the protected category of “normal religious activities.” In addition, Amnesty noted that on December 1, the very day after the public promulgation of the RRA, police near Zhengzhou picked up the prominent religious leader Zhang Rongliang. Zhang himself had been under threat of arrest since he issued a manifesto in 1998 trying to protect his group by clarifying the distinction between the “house,” or unregistered churches, one of the largest of which he leads, and “evil cults” banned during the campaign against the Falungong in October 1999. First arrested in 1974 for “counter-revolution in the guise of religion,” Zhang is said to have been detained six times since, serving a total of 12 years behind bars and occasionally suffering torture.

When the law banning evil cults was first announced, Chinese authorities reassured questioners that it would not be used against unregistered “house churches”. However, it quickly became clear, with the arrests of Zhang and others on charges of “using a cult to sabotage the law,” that the new law would indeed be used as a weapon against unregistered Protestants as well as members of the Falungong spiritual movement.

Bernardo Cervellera of the Asia Times in Rome takes an intermediary position on the RRA. He sees some legitimizing benefit in the new procedures for registering religious schools, constructing and using venues for religious activities, conducting “large-scale” religious activities that cross administrative borders, and setting up statues outside of religious buildings. Cervellera also appears to approve of the system established in the RRA for handling applications for registration. He attributes the new system to complaints by unregistered Protestant groups that their numerous applications to register were often simply ignored.

Cervellera also notes with qualified approval the novel provisions on religious property in Chapter V of the RRA, which protect such properties from the predation of local authorities, including illegal confiscation and looting, and provide for certificates of ownership and user rights for religious groups. Other possibly favorable provisions suggest that religious groups will now be able to participate more easily in the growing movement to supplement inadequate government services to the poor. Article 34 of the RRA allows religious organizations to run social welfare services and put any proceeds derived from them to a “commensurate” religious purpose. In addition, Article 35 allows religious organizations to accept overseas donations for activities that suit the groups’ religious aims, presumably including the provision of social services allowed under Article 34.

Chapter VI of the RRA, “Legal Responsibility,” contains the provisions that are most troubling to human rights advocates. Article 40 provides for criminal, administrative, and civil sanctions for crimes involving “the use of religion to carry on activities that harm national security or public security, or violate citizens’ personal rights and interests and democratic rights. Article 41 provides for punishment of listed violations of administrative rules on registration, reporting, and independence of foreign interference. Advocates are also troubled by Article 4, which extends the 1994 regulation’s prohibited activities to:

o Disrupting social order,
o Harming citizens’ health,
o Obstructing the national education system,
o Or otherwise harming the national interest, the public interest of society, and citizens’ legal rights and interests.

The language of the last cause of Article 4, which includes the mysterious phrase “the public interest of society” [shehui gonggong liyi] could be used by officials and police hostile to any form of religion to dangerously expand discretion to arrest and prosecute religious practitioners. It should be noted however, that the additional phrase does already occur in Article 1 of the 1994 Provisions of the People’s Republic of China for Managing the Religious Activities of Foreigners within the Borders of the People’s Republic of China as well as in several existing local regulations. For example, the Guangdong Provincial Regulations on Management of Religious Affairs (promulgated on June 30, 2000 by the Standing Committee of the Provincial People’s Congress define “religious affairs” as relations between religions, the state, society and citizens relating to “the public interest of society.”