Friday, October 29, 2004

China: Debating religious liberty.

Date: Friday 29 October 2004
Subj: China: Debating religious liberty.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.



China's repressive religion policy is simply not working. Not only is China's repressive control of religion ineffective, it is difficult and expensive to administer and becoming internationally embarrassing due to its human rights abuses.

But a debate on religious liberty is stirring in China. At a recent two-day conference on the topic of religion and law held in Beijing, a senior Religious Affairs Bureau official told the conference that Beijing was in the process of revamping its religion policy and that a "comprehensive law on religion" was being considered that would result in religous groups having more autonomy. His speech was followed by another senior Religious Affairs Bureau official who indicated that officials are divided over the issue and social cohesion needed to be consided above religious rights. The debate coming out of Beijing will be very interesting to follow.


Recent reports in the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post (SCMP) indicate that Chinese authorities are reassessing the way they handle religion. In an article entitled 'Religious Groups Get More Room To Move', by Nailene Chou Wiest in Beijing (SCMP 20 October), Zhang Xunmou, the director of the Religious Affairs Bureau's policy and legal department, told the recent Beijing conference on religion and law that China is in the process of revamping its religious policy. He said the aim is to move from control by diktat to the rule of law in order to curb arbitrary interference by the state and give religious groups more autonomy. Officials would have limits on their power and would be obliged to follow set rules when dealing with religious groups. Officials abusing their power would face legal action.

Mr Zhang described this as "a paradigm shift", noting that limiting state authority over religion was a revolutionary concept in Chinese history, as China has long had secular institutions for regulating religious affairs and conferring legitimacy on religious groups. Interestingly, Zhang also commented that Beijing is working on reducing administrative costs and drafting rules on taxing religious groups.

Mr Zhang claimed that the government does not have a problem with religion per se, but only with foreign interference. The SCMP explains, "In the 19th century, Christian churches were seen as collaborating with Western powers to challenge the Chinese state and Mr Zhang said historical grievances still coloured policies on religion, as expressed in the 'Three Self' principles – self-administration, self-support and self-propagation. However, he said these principles were a reaction to the power of the foreign churches in China and were not directed against religion itself."

It must be noted that those churches most faithful in observing the Three Self principles are in reality the house churches, which are, generally speaking, truly indigenous, self-administrating, self-supporting and self-propagating Chinese churches. These house churches are however, illegal by virtue of their being outside the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which is (ironically) financially assisted, administered and controlled by the Communist authorities, and generally reflect Western traditions.

AsiaNews sources in Hong Kong comment: "A comprehensive law on religions is something positive but only if the government recognizes religious freedom as an innate human right, not – as is the case now – as something conceded by the state. To safeguard this right, the government should do away with the Patriotic Associations which are a political element in the body of religions. Alternatively, they should put the Patriotic Associations under the authority of bishops and other religious leaders, not – as is currently the case – over them." (Link 1)

In a subsequent report entitled, "'Stability the Key' to new rules on religion" (SCMP 23 October), Nailene Chou Wiest reports that Ji Wenyuan , vice-director of the Religious Affairs Bureau in Beijing, also spoke at the Beijing conference on religion and law. Ji Wenyuan lowered expectations with his warning that China's "special circumstances" must be taken into account. Mr Ji said that when considering China's religion policy, priority must be given to social stability. "A religion must be accepted not only by its own congregation, which follows its teachings, but also by non-believers who can live with it," he said. Mr Ji expressed his belief that Western-style religion laws would prove unworkable in China because China's circumstances were different.

AsiaNews comments: "Given the growing social unrest in Chinese society, the government is concerned that religious communities might become rallying points for opposition forces. This fear explains the growing crackdown and arrest of underground religious leaders and the tightening control over official religious groups." (Link 2) Maybe this social unrest and fear of opposition is what Ji Wenyuan was refering to when he appealed for consideration to be given to China's "special circumstances".

Ji Wenyuan's words indicate that there is division in the Religious Affairs Bureau on the issue of granting religious groups greater autonomy. For Zhang Xunmou, granting religious groups more autonomy would solve many problems and possibly even open some opportunitues. For Ji Wenyuan, the compromise may prove to be something along the lines of Vietnam's new religion law which grants full religious freedom to everyone but makes it a criminal offense to undermine social harmony or unity – putting the church at the mercy of the local community, dependent on local tolerance. China and Vietnam are alike in that they have both basically rejected Communist ideology and passionately embraced market capitalism whilst retaining a totalitarian dictatorial one party rule state in the midst of a people crying for increased freedoms and government accountability.


On 26 October, the German Evangelical News Agency "idea" published an interview with Bishop Wolfgang Huber of Berlin, whom "idea" describes as one of Germany's most significant Protestant leaders and Church representatives. Bishop Huber has called for an intensified human rights dialogue with China, saying talks should not only focus on economic liberties but should include fundamental rights of the individual such as religious liberty.

The "idea" release of 26 October explains, "In Huber's view it is unrealistic to assume that economic liberalization in China will automatically be followed by an improvement in the human rights situation. 'Unfortunately I can well imagine that a very capitalist economy and an authoritarian state socialism will continue to coexist for rather a long time,' said Huber." (This is exactly the point made by the Reverend Nguyen Hong Quang of Vietnam in his article "How is it possible?" which can be found on the WEA RLC website.)

On Monday 25 October, Colin Powell received an agreement from Beijing that they would resume a human rights dialogue with Washington.


1) Beijing promises more freedom for religions
AsiaNews 20 Oct 2004

2) For China’s government stability comes before religious freedom
AsiaNews 25 Oct 2004