Summer 2018 Vol. 38 - No. 189 Impact of New Media on the Church in China

A View of the Revised Religious Affairs Regulations’ Impact on House Churches through the“Interpretations”

Ying Fuk Tsang,
Translated by Ingrid Chan

        The revised Regulations on Religious Affairs (henceforth referred to as“Regulations”) took effect on 1 February 2018. Many have expressed concern about their impact on religious freedom in China. Since November 2017, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) has been publishing daily“Interpretations”of the Regulations on its WeChat public account.[1] As the“Regulations”are administrative regulations (rather than State laws approved by the National People's Congress), the“Interpretations,”penned by SARA, a party to the revisions, are considered authoritative interpretations of the“Regulations.”[2] The “Interpretations”explain the“exact meaning”of the“Regulations,” and help us understand their legislative intent.[3]

        This article will study the impact of the“Regulations”on Protestant“house churches”through the lens of the“Interpretations.”

House Churches Remain“Illicit”

        The so-called“house churches”are Protestant communities which are not recognised by the religious management system in China. For different reasons, house churches refused to register in the state-sanctioned patriotic Protestant organisations, namely the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the China Christian Council (CCC), known collectively as Lianghui (Two Committees). Since the reform and opening-up, the future of house churches, in particular potential changes in the policies and attitude of the government, has been an issue of great concern in China's state-religion relationship.

        Instead of changing the“illicit”nature of house churches, the“Regulations”further cement it. Article 3 clearly states that“the administration of religious affairs upholds the principles of protecting what is lawful, prohibiting what is unlawful, suppressing extremism, resisting infiltration, and fighting crime.”Actually, the statement derives from Xi Jinping's speech in May 2014 at the second Central Work conference on Xinjiang, in which he affirmed “the basic principle for dealing with religious issues.”This principle is now officially added to the General Provisions of the“Regulations.”According to the“Interpretations,”“setting up private Protestant gathering sites,”“impersonating religious personnel to defraud the public,”“illegal evangelising on the internet,”etc., are“illegal religious activities”that “harm public interest.”At the same time, on“resisting infiltration,”the“Interpretations” describe as a“political problem”“foreign hostile forces using religion to‘westernise’and ‘divide’China.”“Some overseas organisations or individuals use legal channels such as investing in enterprises or joint ventures such as hospitals, establishing charitable works, etc., or entering China through tourism, cultural exchange, overseas studies and excursions, then secretly engage in illegal missionary activities. Some operate from overseas, fostering underground religious influence and proxies, setting up strongholds, developing believers, and so assault and divide patriotic religious organisations.” The“internet”and“campuses”are “important means”and“outstanding areas”for the infiltration by these overseas religious organisations.

        Moreover, regarding Article 5 on“external exchanges of religions,” the “Interpretations”especially list some requirements, including“setting up religious activity sites in factories, imposing religious requirement in the recruitment of workers; setting up religious activity sites in exchange for aid with the establishment of medical and cultural organisations.”The above scenarios obviously target individual house churches which have connections with overseas organisations (thereby implicating as well some churches under the“Two?Committees”). It can be said that even though the party-state has not completely banned house churches, it continues to view them as“illegal,”indeed,“deviants” in collusion with overseas religious infiltration.

The Way toward the“Legitimacy”of House Churches

        The crux of the problem is the official recognition of the legal status of house churches in China. When explaining the“Action Guide to Religious Work under New Situations,”Wang Zuo'an, director of SARA, gave clear instructions to“promote the Protestant Church upholding the Three Self-principles, to administer private Protestant gathering sites, so as to attract more Christians to the legal church where they can live normal religious life, and to promote orderly Christian activities.”

        Quite a number of articles in Chapter 4 of the Regulations (on religious activity sites), are directed against house churches. First, Article 19 stated that premises for religious activities include“temples and churches and other fixed premises for religious activities.” According to the“Interpretations,”the former is an“integral structure”for carrying out“collective religious activities”; the latter is“smaller, with fewer believers attending the religious activities”which“are carried out only in ordinary buildings.”

        The above-mentioned category of“premises for religious activities”does not include house churches. It is because house churches do not meet the officially recognised criteria; they are illegal“private gathering sites.”Some house churches want to register. However, according to the“Regulations,”applications for the establishment of a religious activities site must be submitted by a“religious body”(Article 21), i.e. the patriotic religious body (“Two Committees”) of the place where the site is to be located. Therefore, house churches are not eligible to apply. Meanwhile, one of the conditions for the establishment of a religious activities site is that there should be“religious personnel”(Article 20) who meet the requirements of the religion. According to the interpretation of Article 36, the religious personnel should fulfil two legal requisites: (1)“accreditation by a religious body”; (2)“reporting for the record to the religious affairs department of the people's government.” The persons-in-charge of house churches“proclaim themselves” as preachers, and they are not qualified to be “religious personnel.” As many house churches refuse to have anything to do with the Protestant patriotic religious bodies, they cannot become legal religious activity sites unless they are willing to compromise and seek the recognition of the “Two Committees.”

The Nature of“Designated Temporary Activity Site”

        The Chinese government can neither ban the house churches nor enlist them in the “Two Committees.” A decade or so ago, some emerging urban house churches suggested a “third way” of independent registration. However, as it concerns fundamental problems of freedom of association and religious administration system, there is still no adjustment in official policies. One of the remarkable aspects of the “Regulations” is the “designation of temporary activity location” in Article 35: “Where religious citizens need to regularly conduct collective religious activities, but do not possess the conditions for applying to set up a religious activity site, a representative of the religious citizens is to submit an application to the religious affairs bureau of the people's government at the county level which, after soliciting the opinions of local religious groups and the people's government at the township-level, may designate a temporary activity site for them.” This provision, considered an “olive branch” that would appeal to house churches, is an adjustment and breakthrough of the party-state’s house churches policy.

        According to the“Interpretation,”the new policy came about because“in reality, there are religious citizens who need to regularly conduct collective religious activities, but they do not meet the conditions of setting up religious activity sites. In order to meet the needs of these religious citizens, the‘Regulations’have added the provision of establishing temporary religious activity sites, to allow these religious citizens to conduct their religious activities in temporary activity sites designated by the government.”But the“Interpretation”reiterates that religious citizens conducting collective religious activities outside recognised“religious activity sites”is an exception, reserved for“special need and under special circumstances.” Yet the“Interpretation”did not elaborate on the“special need and special circumstances.”It only stated that SARA would formulate plans in the future.

        The application procedure involves the“representative of religious citizens”as well as the religious affairs bureau of the county level. It seems to give the green light to those house churches which do not resist the supervision of the government, but firmly refused the instruction of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. However, the“Regulations”did not completely rule out the role of the patriotic religious organisations, because in the process of approving the application, the religious affairs bureau has to seek the advice of the local religious bodies.[4] According to the“Interpretation,”“this is because the religious bodies know about the religious activity sites and the distribution of religious believers, so they have a say about the designation of temporary activity sites by the government.”In other words, if a house church applies for the“designation of temporary religious activity site by the government,” the local Protestant patriotic religious organisations (“Two Committees”) still have a“say”in this matter. If the“Two Committees”want to shut down the said house church, they can make the excuse that the house church is geographically close to the registered church, and they can reject the application according to the principle of“reasonable configuration”in Article 20.

        Even if a house church gains the status of“designated temporary activity site,”still the people's government at the township-level“under the guidance of the religious affairs bureaus of the people's government at the county level,”“supervises activities at temporary activity sites”(Article 35). Then what is the jurisdiction and scope of the“supervision”? The “Interpretation”does not clearly explain. Nevertheless, as “religious activities at temporary religious activity sites shall comply with relevant provisions of the revised“Regulations,” “the relevant provisions”should play a part in the“supervision.”

        According to the“Interpretation,”the“provisions” cover three aspects: (1) religious activities should“safeguard the national unity, ethnic solidarity; maintain religious harmony and social stability; adhere to the principle of independence and self-governance; religion must not be used to engage in activities that harm State or public interest, or citizens’ lawful rights and interests”; (2)“only designated subjects can launch activities; temporary activity sites cannot carry out religious education or large-scale religious activities, accredit religious personnel, erect large outdoor religious statues, compile or distribute internal religious reference publications, etc.”; (3)“a temporary activity site is not a religious activity site, so it cannot enjoy the rights of the latter. A temporary activity site is not an organisation but a location, a spatial concept, and it is prohibited from carrying out public activities in the name of the religious activity site.”

        The three points above help us understand more the nature of“designated temporary activity sites.”First, house churches must comply with the political bottom line of the party-state. This is the first step of transformation from“illegal”to“legal,”but it is not the final step. As mentioned, this is only an“exceptional”treatment. As soon as conditions permit, “designated temporary activity sites”can be transformed into“religious activity sites” in accordance with the national religious policy. The present administrative policy of the party-state—to incorporate house churches into the Protestant patriotic organisations—has not changed. Secondly, regarding the autonomy of activities, even though the house church is granted the“designation of temporary activity site,” it is not allowed to carry out “religious education, large-scale religious activities, accredit religious personnel, erect large outdoor religious statues, compile and distribute internal religious reference publications,”etc. (not an exhaustive list). Regarding Article 41, the“Interpretation”stresses again that a“temporary activity site” can only hold“religious activities,”“accept religious donations”; it must not organise“religious training courses”or“organise citizens leaving the country to participate in religious training, meetings, activities and so forth.”Thus, the activities of“designated temporary activity sites”are extremely limited.

        Lastly, the restriction of activities fully reflects how the party-state understands the nature of a“designated temporary activity site.”It is a “temporary activity site” for religious gatherings at best. The“Regulations”refer to“temporary activity sites”instead of “temporary religious activity sites,”which implies denigration. As the“Interpretation” states, these are non-religious activity sites, so they “cannot enjoy the rights of the religious activity sites.”Temporary activity sites are not“organisations”(religious organisations), but only a“location,”a“spatial concept.”Therefore, even though house churches (e.g. Shouwang Church, Zion Church) acquire a temporary gathering site, it is essentially an unrecognised religious organisation. It cannot hold any activity in its own right. And their activities are restricted by the “Regulations.”

Prohibitions according to the“Regulations”

        The Communist Party of China describes house churches as“private gathering sites.”Its strategies can be summed up thus: (1) deny legal status (house churches are not“protected” by law); (2) crack down on a small minority (complete “ban”); (3) attempt to integrate house churches into the Protestant patriotic communities (reinforce“education”); (4) house churches that refuse to join the“two-committees,”but are not banned, exist in a kind of “grey”area (continued“guidance”). Such a policy of differential treatment has lasted for some time. The“openness”or“tightening”in the “fusion” reflects the restriction of the religious freedom in China.

        There are quite a number of articles in the“Regulations”that aim at restricting the activities of house churches. For example, Article 11 states that“other organisations or individuals must not establish religious schools.”The“Interpretation”defines religious schools as“full-time institutions of education that provides training to religious teaching personnel and religious personnel.”Religious schools are established only by national religious groups or by the“religious groups” of provinces, autonomous regions, and directly-governed municipalities. For those well-established house churches which run their own seminaries, the“Regulations”again denied their status. Article 40 states that“non-religious groups, non-religious schools, and non-religious activity sites, and non-designated temporary religious activity sites must not hold religious activities and must not accept religious donations. Non-religious groups, non-religious schools, and non-religious activity sites must not organise religious training courses, and must not organise citizens leaving the country to participate in religious training, meetings, activities and so forth.”According to the“Interpretation,”there has been“chaos”in the religions in China for a long time: non-registered religious groups hold religious activities, impersonate religious personnel, organise religious training courses,“collude with”overseas organisations,“organise citizens leaving the country to participate in religious training, meetings and activities.”Note that for the first time the government considers illegal the“participation in overseas religious training, meetings and activities.”This is obviously directed against those religious activities conducted through “self-guided tours” during the last decade. The“Regulations”prohibit the above actions, in order to“lawfully regulate religious activities, to uphold principles of independence and self-management of China's religious undertakings, to resist uncompromisingly overseas infiltration through religions, to contain the spread of religious extremism.”

        Moreover, it is obvious that the“Regulations”do not tolerate the campus ministry of house churches. Article 44 clearly “prohibits religious groups from proselytizing, holding religious activities, establishing religious organisations, or setting up religious activity sites in schools or educational institutes other than religious schools.”The“Interpretation” particularly points out that colleges and universities have become important targets of “overseas religious infiltration,” “disseminating religious thoughts to university students, and taking the opportunity to instil their political ideas and values.”“Some religious organisations with a background in overseas infiltration choose the environs of colleges and universities as their main activity areas where they distribute religious propaganda materials, set up“campus fellowship,”even organise forums and seminars on campuses, drawing university students into their religion by every means.”These activities“violate the principle of separation of state and church.”They challenge the consolidation of the Party's ruling status, the cultivation of eligible builders and reliable successors for the socialist cause with Chinese characteristics, the future of China and destiny of the Chinese nation.”Therefore, it is necessary to“resist foreign infiltration through religion in schools and prevent missionary penetration on campus,”and“further refine the management measures.”

        On the other hand, Christian literature ministry and internet ministry have become important to emerging house churches in the cities. The corresponding regulations can be found in Articles 46 and 47. The interpretation of Article 46 states that“overseas public media accuse and discredit the religious policies and regulations in China,”thus it is necessary to regulate the import of printed religious materials to the Mainland. The“Web”has also become an important channel for the propagation of religion. As“religious websites, web portals, blogs, microblog (weibo), WeChat public accounts, WeChat groups, computer and mobile apps proliferate,”it is necessary to regulate them.

        “Public interest charitable activities must not be used to proselytise by any organisation or individual.” (Article 56) This is directed against individual house churches that have taken part in charitable activities in different ways recently. The“Interpretation”states that“using charity to spread religion is not only contrary to the aims and objectives of charity, but also violates the principle of the separation of charity and proselytism, and deviates from the State's original intention of supporting and encouraging religious organisations to initiate charity. Thus it should be banned.

The Penal Net Trap

        Chapter 8 of the“Regulations”contains penalties for all unlawful acts, which basically cover the ministries and activities of house churches in different aspects. For example,“spreading, supporting, helping…endangering national security and public safety”(Article 63),“organising large scale religious activities without permission”(Article 64), “engaging in internet religious information services without permission”(Article 68), “establishing a religious activity site without permission” (Article 69),“organising without permission religious citizens leaving the country to participate in religious trainings, meetings, pilgrimages or other activities” (Article 70), “impersonating religious personnel to carry out illegal acts such as conducting professional religious activities or defrauding the public of funds” (Article 74).

        Note that the“Regulations”make punishable the act of“providing resources and facilities for unlawful religious activities”(Article 71). The “Interpretation”defines it as “assisting in promotion or organising unlawful religious activities, providing equipment, goods or premises for unlawful religious activities, etc., helping to carry out religious formation courses, and organising citizens to leave the Mainland to participate in religious activities, etc.”According to this regulation, the landlord who leases a property to the house church is also subject to criminal liability. In the past, the government would only pressure the property owner, but now it could bring a case to court according to Article 71. This is meant to exterminate house churches and to prevent them from expanding.

        The regulation on“tax management”and“tax benefits”of religious groups and religious activity sites (Article 59) affirms the“obligation to pay tax,”and also grants“tax exemptions”in some cases, including “donations from other organisations or individuals.”As house churches lack legal status, they cannot be tax-exempt as nonprofit organisations. Besides accusing targeted house churches of “defrauding the public of funds,” now the authorities can also sue them for “receiving donations from other organisations or individuals” (i.e. offerings), but without paying taxes. This measure of cracking down on non-governmental organisations—suing them for tax evasion—can be applied to house churches according to the “Regulations.”

        Even designated temporary activities sites can run afoul of regulations and be subject to penalties. In case of serious violations,“activities can be ordered stopped, the temporary activity site revoked; unlawful gains or illegal assets shall be confiscated.” The “Interpretation” defines relevant “provisions” as (1) “including Article 4 which stipulates that religion must not be used to engage in unlawful activities; must not advocate, support religious extremism; religion must not be used to undermine ethnic unity, divide the nation or carry out terrorist activities”; (2) Article 5 whereby all religions shall adhere to the principle of independence and self-governance; (3) Article 41 which prohibits temporary sites from “organising religious training courses, organising citizens leaving the country to participate in religious training, meetings, activities and so forth”; (4) temporary activity sites must not hold large-scale religious activity, compile and distribute internal religious reference publications, distribute religious supplies and religious artworks, etc. The first two provisions fall within the scope of political principles, while the last two regulate specific operations. In any case, all these regulations are a threat to house churches which may cross the red line at any time.

Be Politically Aware, Build a New Order of Religions

        Wang Zuo'an, director of SARA, published an article in the Qiushi Journal (July 2017), with the title “One must be politically aware to achieve religious work.”[5] He linked religious work with political awareness, political discipline, political direction and political responsibility. Political awareness demands that cadres“realise, grasp and deal with” religious issues politically, knowing that religion is not a“private matter”; its “mass character” has a wide influence on society. Note especially that “overseas infiltration activities through religion intensify daily, and religious extremism is spreading in some areas; illegal religious activities continue despite prohibition; illegal religious activities on the internet challenge current religious policies and regulations,”etc. Political discipline means asking cadres to fully implement the“central policies regarding religious work”;“they cannot feign compliance”;“they must not use particular local circumstances as an excuse to implement a different policy other than the central government's.”At the same time, they should also be on “high alert”regarding the problem of party members having religious beliefs. He pointed out that“religious belief is a red line that party members cannot cross.”Furthermore, Wang stated that party members“should actively promote Marxist atheism.”In terms of“political direction,”Wang highlighted Xi Jinping's direction of religious policies, that is to say, religions should be“sinicised”and be guided by the“socialist core values,”so that they can adapt to socialist society. Wang also stated that cadres should“raise the standard of rule by law in religious work.”Regarding“political responsibility,”cadres should dare to“fix major contradictions or problems as a breach.”

        Wang's points of view tried to correct the deviation in religious work (particularly localism, and party members having religious beliefs, etc.), and to hold high the basic line of the central religious work, which local cadres should fully implement. Obviously, Wang was responding to Xi Jinping's speech at the workshop attended by senior provincial and ministerial officials in February. Xi stressed that“being politically aware is like taking calcium supplement to strengthen the bones.”Therefore, leading officials should“raise their political capability, fortify their political ideals, uphold correct political direction, be steadfast in their political stance and strictly observe political rules, amass political experiences.”Xi added that“the Party should firmly establish political consciousness, and consciousness of the big picture, the core and the line, be one with the politics and actions of the CPC Central Committee.”Xi's statement of“be politically aware”was to implement the goal of“comprehensively strengthen party discipline,”to establish the Party's absolute authority, so as to consolidate his core status. In responding to Xi's speech, the People's Daily published a commentary“Certainty in Political Awareness.”

        “Be politically aware”reflects that the Central government wishes to strengthen its leading role in religious work. As Xi Jinping addressed the National Conference on religious work:“grasp firmly the leadership of the Party, consolidate the rule of the Party, strengthen the ruling foundation of the Party. Politics and religions must be separated. Religions should never interfere with the state functions of administration, judiciary and education. The government should insist on managing according to the law religious affairs that involve State interest and public interest.” When explaining the meaning of the“Regulations,”Wang Zuo'an said, “We cannot say that the new regulations are more‘tight’or‘loose.’We have to see if the regulations fully implement the Party’s basic policy of religious work, if the regulations reflect accurately the Party's‘leadership.’”Therefore, religious work must follow the major direction of national security. Concerning unlawful Christian activities, it is necessary“to protect what should be protected, restrict what should be restricted, and crack down on what should be cracked down.”Religious work should operate fully according to“rule by law,” in order to“maintain the normal order of religions.”In the larger context of“be politically aware,”the aim of revising the“Regulations on Religious Affairs”is to strengthen the control of religious affairs according to“rule by law,”so as to establish a new order of religions in the new era of Xi Jinping.

        Indeed,“be politically aware”cannot reverse the trend of localism which has existed for a long time in Chinese politics. Yet the CPC Central Committee's determination to establish a new religious order is a clear direction in recent years. In 2016, Sun Cunlan, the then head of the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee, said that Xi Jinping's speech at the national conference on religious work“reveals profoundly the special importance of religious work in the overall layout of the Party and the State, and stresses the special importance of strengthening and improving the Party's leadership of religious work in the new situation.”She stated that religious issues are closely linked with the“five in one”overall strategy of economic construction, political construction, cultural construction, social construction,“ecological civilization”construction; it is especially“related to the political security and consolidation of the regime, as hostile forces, out of their own interests and ideological biases, use religion as a breach in their strategies to westernise and polarise China.”Therefore, although the implementation of religious policies varies in different places, there is no doubt the Communist government is further strengthening its leadership and control over religious work during Xi Jinping's new era.

        In the“new era”of“be politically aware”and“firmly grasp the Party's leadership,” the promulgation of the revised“Regulations on Religious Affairs”reflects the Party's attempt to correct the contradictory thinking in religions. As for the policy of house churches, instead of making important adjustments, the“Regulations”exclude more thoroughly“private gathering sites.”It reflects the government's conservative approach in solving the problem of house churches. Its evasion of the core issue of the religious management system clearly shows that there are still many obstacles on the road to religious freedom in China.

Endnote :

  1. This article, published in Chinese in Tripod, #188 (Spring 2018), pp. 7-22, carried extensive footnotes. Please refer to that version for citations which are in Chinese.
  2. Editor's note: The 13th National People's Congress (March 2018) approved a massive restructuring of the Chinese government bureaucracy. SARA, formerly under the State Council, is being absorbed into the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a Party institution, which will supervise and manage religious affairs.
  3. Published in serial form in China Religion since November, 2017, the “Interpretations” will be published by China Religious Culture Publisher.
  4. Editor's note: On June 1, 2018, SARA issued a circular that requires organisers of religious activities at temporary sites to seek guidance from government-recognized church organizations. (Ucanews, June 7, 2018)
  5. Editor's note: “Be politically aware” is part of the “Three Emphasis” education launched by Jiang Zemin. It means “to be comprehensive, to set an example for politics. Correctly and actively implement the Party's basic line and various guidelines and policies, and earnestly improve the quality and effectiveness of work.「講政治,就是要做講政治的表率,就是要在全面。正确、 積极地貫徹執行党的基本路綫和各項方針政策,切實提高工作質量和效果上下功夫。」

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