Three Provinces Issue New or Amended Regulations on Religion

December 8, 2009

The Chinese government has taken steps in recent years to pass more legislation to regulate religion. Since the central government implemented a national regulation on religion in 2005, a number of provinces have followed suit with their own regulations, including three provinces which passed new or amended regulations this summer or fall. Such regulations provide a measure of protection for some religious activities, but such protection is limited in scope and applies only to state-sanctioned religious communities. In addition, while the new pieces of legislation, which incorporate national requirements, lend a measure of transparency and consistency to government regulation of religion, they also articulate tighter controls in a number of areas, as compared to the older regulations they amend or replace.

Three provincial governments have issued new or amended regulations on religious affairs to take effect in the summer and fall of 2009, continuing a trend in issuing revised or new provincial-level legislation on religion since the State Council Regulation on Religious Affairs (RRA) entered into force in March 2005. The new or amended pieces of legislation are the Jiangsu Province Regulation on Religious Affairs (Jiangsu RRA, amending the 2002 regulation via a decision on May 20, 2009, effective July 1), the Hubei Province Regulation on Religious Affairs (Hubei RRA, adopted July 31 and effective October 1, nullifying a 2001 regulation), and the Hainan Province Provisions on the Management of Religious Affairs (Hainan provisions, adopted September 25 and effective December 1, nullifying a 1997 regulation.) Since the national RRA entered into force in 2005, the governments of Shanghai, Shanxi, Henan, Zhejiang, Anhui, Beijing, Chongqing, Hunan, Liaoning, Sichuan, Tibet Autonomous Region, Hebei, Jiangxi, and Shaanxi also have reported issuing new or amended regulations on religious affairs.

As noted in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2009 Annual Report, the Chinese government uses law as a tool to restrain, rather than protect, the right of all Chinese citizens to freedom of religion. Chinese government regulations on religion provide a measure of protection for some religious activities, but such protection is limited in scope and applies only to state-sanctioned religious communities. The regulations also impose tight controls and oversight over various religious activities. At the same time, recent efforts to legislate on religion have lent some formal transparency and consistency to government regulation of religion. The new regulations and provisions from Jiangsu, Hubei, and Hainan bring the provinces' legal regulation of religion up to date with national requirements and lend more clarity to the governments' regulation of religion. Both the Hubei RRA and Hainan provisions are roughly double in length over the regulations they replace, and all three new or amended pieces of legislation introduce more precision and some new explicit protections for religious communities. At the same time, more detailed stipulations also translate into more explicit controls over some aspects of religious practice. Some of the legislation also contains innovations apparently unseen in other recent regulations on religion.

Key features of the Jiangsu RRA, Hubei RRA, and Hainan provisions include:

  • Recognizing a "Positive Role" for Religious Communities. The amended Jiangsu RRA states in Article 1 that the regulation was drafted in part to "bring into play the positive role of public figures from religious circles and lay believers in the promotion of social and economic development," apparently the first regulation to include such language since high-level Communist Party officials and statements began to articulate a "positive role" for religious communities. Article 5 of the Hubei regulation also includes similar language. Despite articulating a "positive role" for religious communities, authorities have used the sentiment to bolster support for state goals more so than to accept and protect religious life within Chinese society. See the CECC 2009 Annual Report for more information.
  • China's Five Recognized Religions. Article 2 of the Jiangsu RRA, retained under the amendments, defines religion to mean only the five religions recognized by the Chinese government: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. The article is similar to provisions in some other provincial-level regulations. Like the national RRA, neither the older 2001 Hubei regulation, the new Hubei RRA, nor the Hainan provisions include specific mention of the five groups, which conceivably could create space for local innovations in accommodating other religions. See CECC analyses on other provincial-level regulations (1, 2) for more information.
  • Religious Activities in the Home. Similar to other recent regulations, Article 14 of the Jiangsu RRA states that religious activities are to be held at registered venues, and Article 19 of the Hubei RRA states that "in general" they are to be held in such venues. Article 11 of the Hainan provisions similarly provides that religious citizens can carry out religious activities in registered venues but also stipulates that they can "live a religious life within one's home," language on worship at home similar to a number of other recent regulations on religious affairs. Language on worship at home carries potential significance for groups of people who want to gather in private residences, outside of state-controlled venues, to hold worship services. As discussed in the CECC 2007 Annual Report, the Chinese government states there are no registration requirements for religious gatherings within the home, but continues to target some private religious gatherings for closure. For more information, see CECC analyses of other provincial-level regulations (1, 2).
  • Property Protections. Compared to the 2002 version of the regulation, the amended Jiangsu RRA appears to refine and possibly increase property protections for venues for religious activities. Article 32 (revised from Article 30 in the 2002 regulation) lends more specificity to the circumstances in which local governments may demolish religious property and adds more specificity to the process for compensating religious groups. In addition, newly added Article 43 outlines steps including the possibility of criminal liability for people who violate Article 32 and demolish religious property without permission.
  • More Specificity, New Deadlines for Official Actions. Some provisions in the new or amended pieces of legislation add specificity to older provisions or clarify them by specifying time limits for officials to make decisions that affect religious communities. See, e.g., Articles 19 and 23 (previously Article 22) of the Jiangsu RRA. Articles 14 and 15 of the Hubei RRA lend more specificity, consistent with the national RRA, to the process of establishing and registering venues for religious activity. For various provisions in the Hainan provisions (some without counterparts in the older regulation) that add time limits for official decisions, see, e.g., Articles 5, 6, 8, 9, and 13.
  • Increased Controls. By introducing more clarity, the regulations also articulate more explicit controls in some cases. For example, the older Hubei regulation provided only a limited number of restrictions on the activities of religious personnel (See Article 7). The new regulation, in contrast, contains 6 articles (Articles 30-35) governing a wider scope of their activities. Some articles include new benefits—like the provision of insurance (Article 34)—but taken as a whole, the articles spell out more controls over the activities and qualifications of religious personnel. The Hainan provisions similarly articulate limits on religious personnel's cross-provincial movement (Article 10) missing from the older regulation.
  • Penalties Changed. Article 41 (previously Article 38) of the Jiangsu regulation adds to and refines a list of activities that may meet with official sanction, such as religious personnel leading religious activities before their status has been put on file. Whereas under the 2002 regulation such activity could be fined, however, the new revisions only specify that religious affairs bureaus order the activities to stop. (Other articles in the amended Jiangsu RRA continue to specify fines and other penalties.) The 1997 Hainan regulation lacked provisions on liability. In contrast, the new provisions spell out both penalties for officials who abuse their power (Article 21) as well as for citizens or religious organizations that violate the provisions (Articles 22-27).

For more information on recent provincial regulations on religion, see CECC analyses of the Shanghai, Shanxi, Henan, and Zhejiang regulations, amendments to the Anhui RRA, amendments to the Beijing RRA, and new regulations from Chongqing and Hunan. See also the written statements of Eric Carlson, Bob Fu, and James Tong, from the CECC 2006 roundtable China's National and Local Regulations on Religion: Recent Developments in Legislation and Implementation, for their analyses of regulations. For additional information on religion in China, see Section II—Freedom of Religion in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.