China’s new re­li­gious reg­u­la­tions

The Myanmar Times - - News - GERDA WIELANDER news­room@mm­times.com

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.

– Pol­icy Fo­rum

Gerda Wielander is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in Chi­nese and head of Mod­ern Lan­guages and Cul­tures at the Uni­ver­sity of West­min­ster, Lon­don.

Photo: EPA

A wor­ship­per prays at the Jin­gan Bud­dhist Tem­ple in Shang­hai, China, on Septem­ber 10.

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