Fisherman in a Boat

Chinese Society & Politics

New Regulations on Religion

ISSUES ROUNDTABLE: NEW REGULATIONS ON RELIGION MONDAY, MARCH 14, 2005 U.S. Senate - House of Representatives Congressional-Executive Commission on China Washington, DC.

S
TATEMENT OF CAROL LEE HAMRIN, CONSULTANT AND RESEARCH PROFESSOR, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY, FAIRFAX, VA

Dr. Hamrin. Thank you, John. I am always happy if I can be of help to the Commission. I think your work is very important. I think you have done a remarkable job of giving Washington a deeper, more complex understanding of the change going on in China, so keep it up.

I view trends in religious affairs as part of a broader trajectory in state-society relations that might be called "outgrowing socialism."

Following a pattern set by the economic reforms, the state still protects and gives special support to select social institutions that are granted a monopoly for certain functions--what we might call state-organized institutions, or SOIs, to reflect similarities to the state-owned enterprises, or SOEs--while also allowing small-scale, private, civic institutions to spring up in order to meet demand.

These smaller and weaker organizations, nonetheless, just like private businesses in China, have greater vitality and flexibility, and gradually put competitive pressure on the state agencies. I think that kind of competition is good.

Thus, the unregistered religious organizations, through steady, positive resistance, have greatly outpaced, in growth and popularity, those belonging to the five official monopolies, the so-called "patriotic" religious associations, this, despite the state's unwillingness to grant them legitimacy and periodic efforts to force them to register through the monopoly associations.

Similarly, more than half of the three million nonprofit organizations of other types in China do not register or they find loopholes for registering in some other way with maximum autonomy.

The lack of legitimacy for the old state-run social system and this widespread passive resistance to it is evidence to me of a more equal relationship developing between the state and society in general as the state is forced to down-size and a pluralistic society develops.

So the state can no longer easily suppress or control social organizations, and even finds them quite useful to lighten its burden at various levels in providing social services, thus, they have to begin to address their concerns in order to get compliance with the regulations.

I am just setting that forth as a comparative context for analyzing these new state regulations on religious affairs. I should emphasize, all of us feel like we are just taking a first cut at understanding these and their implications. This is not the final word, by any means.

Compared with previous regulations which focused on the registration and operation of religious sites, these new regulations are an improvement in the sense that they are both comprehensive and transparent.

One reason I think this is important, is that the central government can no longer say, well, those abuses are due to those local officials who do not know what they are doing. I mean, these are now State Council level, not just RAB level, regulations, so the central government is accountable for enforcing them.

The new rules are detailed, with 48 articles, and systematic in addressing religious affairs. I would say that they do go a ways toward defining what is normal by listing all the things that are legal and approved.

They do not define clearly the demarcation point, of course, between "normal" and "abnormal," other than registered or not registered.

I think there is a discernible trend in the regulations for the state to step back from micro-management of religious affairs to a more general oversight position, giving somewhat greater autonomy and authority to authorized religious associations. This is true of other regulations for other social organizations. But I would say that this paradigm shift, if we want to call it that, took place in the 1990s, not with these regulations.

There was a round of regulations in the early and late 1990s, and now there is another round of regulations for social organizations, including religious organizations, that is sort of an update. They are more detailed, more systematic, and they are an update, basically, on the rules.

These regulations now have the highest level, State Council, legitimation for certain kinds of practices that have actually been won through the perseverance of religious adherents who started doing things, and that became a de facto part of the rules. Now they are endorsed at the highest level.

For example, inter-provincial meetings. I mean, I did not even know there were such things allowed, but they have taken place, so now they are just kind of slipped in here as things that are now listed as normal. So, there are a few things like that that are improvements.

However, most of these practices could already have been found scattered in pre-existing provincial regulations or the implementing guidelines, as Mickey and Dan have pointed out.

So, in a sense, these regulations are more of a snapshot of de facto practices in this arena than any step toward more democratic practices that would meet international standards.

They fall far short of the type of legislation required to protect constitutional rights, or even improve constitutional rights, that would be expected of China after signing the U.N. Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. I think everybody can be disappointed they did not go much further toward where they need to be.

Note, the full meaning and import of these regulations will not be clear until the implementing guidelines are available. Usually that takes months, but since there is a lot of training already under way of religious affairs officials, perhaps they already do have those guidelines, and we just have not read them. Mickey has heard about the handbook that was prepared for religious affairs officials, so maybe when we see a copy of that we will know more.

However, I do think that legal status still will only be granted to religious groups, local bodies of believers, through membership in official religious associations. These regulations all talk about religious organizations, and by that they mean social organizations, membership organizations, not the local congregations, as you will, independent congregations. So, I think that is something we need to really watch closely.

The most important unknown, perhaps, is whether the State will allow new religious associations to develop and be registered and operate or whether they are going to stick with their current five, or maybe add a couple more. That will be important to watch for.

The cautious nature of these regulations is similar to others under way, and regulations being reviewed for updates in the social sector. There are a lot more regulations that now apply, tax and auditing rules, the donation law, and so forth, so it is a much more complex situation.

But I would say we then have the good news. There is an intent to treat religious organizations equally with other social organizations as a normal part of Chinese society and culture instead of a special kind of ideological, political threat that needs to be eliminated. So, we are on the right track that way.

The bad news is, all social organizations are still highly restricted under the dual management system, which this echoes. I will not go into all of those onerous requirements for registration, the quotas that Mickey has mentioned, and so forth.

But I would say that, even though there is suspicion of foreign involvement with all social organizations, there still is even more so for religious organizations. So, there is still no equal playing field there.

Religious affairs are required to be independent and self-governing, prohibiting any foreign denomination, domination being undefined, and it seems to me that these kinds of barricades are very anachronistic at a time when foreign-invested and foreign-run companies are generating more than half the value of all Chinese exports.

But in any case, I would say, too, that we need to see whether the current patriotic organizations revise their constitutions and rules to comply with somewhat more moderate language in these regulations, because there are a lot of internal requirements for members of these associations that are even less close to international norms.

So I would say the most welcome part of these regulations is the intent, apparently, to reduce arbitrariness and abuses by local implementing officials. If this nationwide training includes the police as well as religious officials and legal officials, I think that something good can come of that. Hopefully the content is positive and provides more constraints on their arbitrariness.

The most important bottom-line concluding thought I would offer, is that I think these regulations, along with those for other social organizations, show that the state is under both internal and external pressure to regularize or normalize its relations with religious believers.

Now, of course, they would prefer that via a relationship of control and top-down edict, but they know it is not going to happen. They had to take into account consultation, wide consultations, at least of the official religious groups. There are no longer just purely bureaucratic interest groups drafting and giving ideas and doing research in this area.

There are academic groups and the grassroots religious organizations and international players who make their views known as we are today, and all of that is starting to get into the hopper, putting pressure on the government to keep moving in the direction of recognizing the rights of believers.

So I think maybe this is the beginning rather than the end. There is hard bargaining ahead, perhaps eventually leading to more equal negotiating to protect the rights of the grassroots.

Dr. Hamrin. That is a really good question. It just made me think that we should remember, from a Chinese perspective, these are rules for a certain sector. These are rules for religious believers and religious officials. They are not rules for everybody.

This is not a law to protect religious belief for everybody in China. Therefore, you will have other things going on in other sectors of society that contradict the moderate tone, at least, of these.

So, for example, if you have a Propaganda Department campaign to foster atheism and materialism in the media and the school system, well, that is for everybody else, but it is discriminatory against religious belief. It privileges atheism over religious belief. If you have an Organization Department campaign to winnow out religious believers from Communist Party membership roles, these rules are not for them.

If you have the Education Department instructions to put a freeze on the development of the religious study centers and the more careful attention and reporting on materials that you are translating, publishing, or people that you are interacting with, well, most of these people are party members. So, again, these are religious researchers, they are not religious believers, so these rules are not for them. I think we have to keep that compartmentalization in mind in Chinese culture.

Dr. Hamrin. I would say, among the Han Chinese, that the further down in the system you go, the further away from the emperor you are, the more there has been a remarkable amount of freedom for the registered groups. They have been growing by leaps and bounds.

They have been building new churches and having larger scale meetings, and having foreigners coming in, preaching and teaching, sending people overseas for study, and more and more materials being published, not just scriptures, but other materials.

Opening bookstores. Someone recently sent me the catalogue of a couple of Christian bookstores in small-scale cities, which of course are still large to us, like Hangzhou or elsewhere, where these were bookstores not connected to a church, but just had a lot of material available.

So, I think that regulations at the top and personnel appointed at the top by the government is one thing, and we should always look at the bottom up perspective as well. I do think that the recentralization, though, this effort to try to get a handle on what had been a larger and larger zone of indifference, has rolled back in certain areas.

Personnel is one of the big problem areas, and theology, doctrine, is another. I think in the past, the government was paying the most attention to organizational structure, registration of sites.

But they have been, more and more, promoting certain kinds of theological changes and campaigns, even in the Protestant circle, that are clearly intended to try to get rid of supernatural elements, superstitious beliefs, and focus on ethics and social service, to do something useful to society and forget the rest of it. So, I do think that is not a good trend.

Dr. Hamrin. In looking through these regulations and comparing the social organization regulations with these religious organization regulations, I became more aware that I think, when they talk about religious organizations, they mean membership associations.

So, only the associations, not the local individual group or congregation, can be a legal personage and can do any of these things. The sites that are registered as part of an association can do certain things, but there is no independent way to become a legal personage to do these things on your own. That is my understanding that we can all test out.

I do think that the shift of focus to talk about these religious organizations does suggest that, once they are registered, once they are legal, that they could then apply for special kinds of meetings, large-scale meetings that cannot fit into this churchground, would be possible if you are registered, you are legal, and you go to the police and you can apply.

But this is the biggest challenge that the urban house church people face. They cannot just go meet in a field. They really have trouble finding places to meet, certainly in large numbers. I think, again, there may be a shrinking zone of indifference here. I was told by friends about a couple thousand people who had rented a hall in a theater, an auditorium, for a Christmas eve service. That has been going on for a number of years.

This time, though, the security people cut off all the electricity and there was no heat, no light, and they were sitting there in the dark and people were nervous that it was going to have a bad ending if there was disruption of social order, and so forth.

Actually, they stayed and continued with flashlights, and left peacefully and kind of made a statement, we will not be intimidated. But I do think that is a critical concern.

Dr. Hamrin. This tends to look like recentralization for authorization at the national level for any religious institute, whereas, my understanding is, up until now, provincial-level religious associations were able to set up, not necessarily seminaries, which do seem to have sort of a quota, one for the northeast, one for the southwest, but Bible schools.

I mean, something that would be less than a full seminary, but something that could be more local, smaller scale, two years instead of four years, something like that, or a lot of just lay training institutes of all sorts, some for six months, some for six weeks. I mean, there has been a lot more going on.

So, this could be an effort to recentralize approval over all such activities. We do not know what is a religious institute, all of the above or just the few that are regional or national in scope. We do not know.

Dr. Hamrin. I would just say that I think the government's intention in the civic sector is not necessarily to promote the competition. I think they did see that was valuable in the economic sector.

But the co-optation approach is intrinsic to the whole "united front" strategy, and so all along I do think the intention has been to resurrect these monopoly associations, allow them to develop and set up local churches, even in some areas that never had churches before, which, at the beginning, they were not intending to do, gradually allow them to do enough that they can attract people into the fold, and then that would take care of the problem; everybody would register, everybody would be part of this one group, and then you can just put the squeeze on the people at the top of the group to be responsible for the behavior of all these others.

But it just has not worked out that way. So, I view these regulations as yet one more effort to make the system function, and again we will have to wait and see whether it is going to work any better than previous efforts.

Always, those co-optive efforts have a carrot and a stick, so we are seeing both here. I mean, we are seeing the stick--unregistered groups are being gone after, not ignored and winked at--in an effort to put the pressure on them to either come above ground or just disappear.

So, I am sorry. Did I answer the question? I wanted to say at some point, and maybe I could just say it here, I was talking to someone from the Religious Affairs sector and learned, to my surprise, that considering religious organizations as social organizations and registering them with Civil Affairs is not new. Now, I did not know that any religious associations were registered with Civil Affairs, but they are. I said, why does nobody know about this? He said, well, it is just all very automatic.

I mean, if you were already one of these mass organizations, once the regulations were put out in 1994, which were government regulations, not party policies, then these party mass organizations were just automatically registered, and all the members, all the churches that were part of these associations, were just considered registered.

So, it was sort of, we are going to shift this whole system from party control to government control through regulations, and so register everybody. That was news to me, and maybe needs to be tested out and further investigated.

Dr. Hamrin. That is the standard system. All social organizations have to register with Civil Affairs and be supervised by, or administered by, the functional agency in the government that controls that sector.

Dr. Hamrin. There was huge debate about this in recent years. Reformers in the State Council Legislative Office and the Ministry of Civil Affairs, plus the organizations themselves, were saying that this is just really onerous.

In fact, one of the reasons so many social organizations do not register, or register as businesses, is because they cannot find a government agency that will sponsor them, probably because they cannot make money off of them and they are just a pain.

So, the new effort in the debates going into the foundation regulations, they debated, should we just do away with this? One earlier draft did, but then when you came down to the bargaining at the end, to a consensus that everybody can accept, you put that off for the next round, knowing there will be a next round. This is continually in negotiation, like any good Chinese contract.

Dr. Hamrin. One important difference is, Religious Affairs bureaus have a vested interest in keeping this system, because they do not do anything else.

Dr. Hamrin. Whereas, most other government agencies do have other business.

Dr. Hamrin. You saved all the good questions for me.

Dr. Hamrin. I just think this is an issue to watch very closely, and it is related to what you were talking about earlier about party membership. At the local level in areas where folk religion--or folk faith, which is less organized but more cultural--is really prominent, and it is not just the southeast, but around Beijing, and it is growing all over, you have got party members and party officials who are involved in these local practices, if not some organized religion.

So, just like earlier, when you have so many party members leaving party and government and going into business, but still they were party members, what do you do with them? It is not a matter of recruiting businessmen. It is, what do you do with these businessmen who are already in the party?

It is the same thing here. What about all these party people who have joined or are practicing religion, or their families are? Do you just say, all right, that is fine? Do you try to purge them, somehow roll that back? That is what they have decided to do, for now, at least. Maybe the next round will be a different decision.

Dr. Hamrin. I was a little surprised when I read that, explicitly, religious believers are told that they can take these laws on administrative wrongful action and use those if they feel local officials have abused their authority, because I thought, they are citizens of the PRC, of course they can do that for any kind of administrative wrongful action. But in the Chinese culture, unless it is spelled out, it will not happen. It is not like here, where we assume, well, of course they can, even if they did not say so.

So, the fact that they spelled out that people can take officials to court if there is a problem, or they can get a second opinion, so to speak, if they disagree with the administrative opinion, I think it is important, both because, in fact, then, they are more likely to do so, and second, because then officials know that and may think twice when they make decisions. So, I do think that is important.