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III. National Law and Policy on Religion

We will never allow the use of religion to oppose the Party’s leadership and the socialist system or undermine the unification of the state and unity among various nationalities.48

On its face, China’s 1982 constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Article 36 states:

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in any religion.

The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.49

This ambiguous formulation does not answer many questions about what is permissible and what is not. More important is the policy of the Chinese Communist Party on religion, which dates from the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who reversed the Mao-era policy of attempting to eradicate religion from society.

The essence of current CCP policy is to tolerate religious beliefs and practices that do not threaten the Party or state but to closely regulate and, where it is deemed necessary, aggressively repress beliefs and practices perceived as a threat.50 In practice, since the late 1970s China has allowed believers greater latitude for worship in exchange for accepting a regulatory structure designed to limit church autonomy and stifle congregational growth.51

The most recent national policy parameters on religion were established at the National Conference on Religious Work, convened jointly by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council in December 2000. The conference articulated four fundamental principles that underlie regulation of religion in China today.

The first principle is “freedom to believe or not believe in religion.” This principle reflects both the toleration of individual belief and its essential isolation from other social activities. It allows non-threatening forms of religious observance to be carried out within approved temples, churches, or mosques, and at home. Conversely, it is also invoked to curtail any form of proselytization and to prohibit religious observance at all state-managed institutions such as schools, universities, government offices, state-owned enterprises, prisons, and labor-camps. 

The second principle, of “non-interference in religious activities,” refers to the fact that only state-controlled religious organizations can organize and implement religious activities. Links to foreign religious institutions are proscribed.

The third principle of “separation of politics from religion” effectively prohibits critical commentary by religious figures or followers and frequently is invoked to justify government crackdowns on religious expression or dissent.

The final principle, of “the interdependence between rights and obligations associated with religious activities,” inserts conditionality into the exercise of religious freedom. Religious activities are deemed “lawful” only when practitioners fulfill a fixed set of conditions (the “obligations”).

For those trying to practice religion in China, the critical issue is to determine what constitutes “legitimate and protected belief” and what crosses the line into “unlawful activity.” As one legal scholar has stressed, “this determination is made according to [Chinese Communist Party] policies, which in turn are reflected in the provisions of the constitution and in specific laws and regulations.”52

China currently recognizes as “lawful” (hefa 合法) religious activities that are sanctioned and controlled by the government. Any activity that is not state-sanctioned is regarded as an “illegal religious activity” and is liable to “rectification” or “suppression” by administrative or judicial measures. To be considered lawful, religious activities must fulfill all the following conditions:

  • belong to one of the five official religions recognized by the government (Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam);

  •  be carried out by officially-accredited religious personnel;

  •  take place in government-approved places of religious activities; and

  •  be within the ideological bounds fixed by the Party. 

Each of the five recognized religions must also conform its doctrine to specific requirements. For example, Catholicism must not refer to allegiance to the Vatican, while Islam must oppose “separatism” and “illegal religious activities.”

The “Law on Regional National Autonomy” likewise stipulates in article 11 that “[t]he organs of self-government of national autonomous areas shall guarantee the freedom of religious belief to citizens of the various nationalities.”53 However, the “autonomy law” also imposes significant limits that invite selective, politically motivated crackdowns on believers. Article 11 prohibits the use of religion to “to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.” Beijing reserves an important power with respect to the autonomy law: the central government may overrule regulations passed in autonomous areas and restrict religious activities in the interest of national security, public order, health, or education.

[48] “Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji address National work conference,” Xinhua, December 12, 2001, FBIS, December 19, 2001 [CHI-20011-1212].

[49] Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Art. 36 [中华人民共和国宪法, 第三十六条]

[50] Human Rights Watch, China: State Control of Religion (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997).

[51] Mickey Spiegel, “Control and Containment in the Reform Era,” in Jason Kindopp and Carol Lee Hamrin, eds., God and Caesar in China (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), p. 41.

[52] Pitman B. Potter, “Belief in Control: Regulation of Religion in China,” The China Quarterly, Issue 174 (2003).

[53] Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy, 1984, amended 2001. [中华人民共和国民族区域自治法(2001修正)].

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