China issues new regulations on religions

The Chinese government has issued new regulations on religions in China, published Sept. 8 by the State Council for Legislative Affairs and due to take effect in February 2018.

The regulations include statements that religions must be “guided” by the government’s Religious Affairs Bureau; that they must “not be controlled by foreign forces”; and must “sinicize,” that is, eliminate foreign influence. Religious leaders who have “not obtained or have lost religious professional credentials, must not engage in activity as religious professionals”; and must not make unauthorized trips abroad.

In light of reports earlier this year that the government and the Holy See were close to reaching an agreement on normalizing the appointment of bishops for China, this announcement demonstrates that the Chinese government is pursuing two contradictory goals. They want to appear to the outside world to be protecting freedom of religion, which is guaranteed by Chinese law, but in reality they often violate this freedom, seeking instead to completely control the activities of all religious groups.

History of restrictions

Since the Chinese government was unable to eliminate religion during the early decades of Communist Party rule, it has tried for several decades to control religions through its United Front policy, which dictates that religious groups must serve the cause of building the socialist state, which includes submitting to state control and supporting its policies.

Since the 1980s, the government has used a multifaceted approach, which has included “hard” measures such as detaining or limiting the movement of church leaders, both in the “official” or registered, and “underground” or unregistered Catholic communities, as well as placing heavy pressure on them to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), a government organ to control the Church. They have also required church leaders to attend political re-education sessions, surveilled church activities through overt and covert measures such as spying and installing video cameras, and censored online communications and websites.

Party officials also use “friendly” or “soft” measures meant to improve people’s opinion of their presence and involvement, such as the renovation and rebuilding of churches, allowing Masses in English and other languages for foreigners, providing money and status to Church leaders who support the CCPA and allowing cooperating priests greater latitude to run programs or to travel abroad. Gestures like these can benefit both sides. They allow the government to claim that they are helping churches rather than opposing them, and they allow the official Church to minister to the legitimate needs of many people, who eagerly want this.

Impacts on communities

For many Catholics in China, the key issue is not whether a given priest is “official” or “underground” but whether or not his ordination has been approved by Rome, and whether he is seen as a shepherd who truly cares about his flock rather than his own status or pleasing government authorities. Adding to the complexity, however, some — though not all — in the underground Church completely reject anyone who participates in the CCPA, while some others, even priests, actually participate in both communities, and in some places the two are attempting to reconcile and once again worship together.

Undoubtedly the government’s desire to reach an agreement with the Vatican on episcopal appointments, which has faded out of the news of late, is for them a way to shore up their legitimacy in the eyes of the outside world, showing an apparent willingness to work with the Holy See, and to ease the nearly 70-year-old tensions with both Chinese Catholics and the Vatican. But the new regulations maintain firm control. This is consistent with broader reports of President Xi Jinping’s recent actions to further solidify his grip on power. To some analysts, Xi appears to be moving toward more hardline policies and rhetoric. Because of this, conditions will likely become more difficult for Catholics in both official and underground communities. For the CCPA, it portends a likely increase in surveillance and monitoring of Masses and events, and more difficulty in organizing classes or youth group activities and charitable works. The increase in direct control may discourage participation, making believers feel increasingly watched and uncomfortable. Monitors or spies may also sow division among believers, a subtle attempt to weaken or sabotage the overall life of parishes.

Regarding the underground communities, the regulations call for huge fines for illegal activities, which could include any Masses celebrated by unregistered priests or in unregistered locations, which is still the majority of China’s Catholics, who live in rural towns and villages. This move is seen as an attempt to force unregistered priests to register with the CCPA, which they have rejected for decades and are unlikely to comply, as this refusal is one of the key tenets of the underground Church.

Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 letter to China’s Catholics affirmed their stance when he stated that the CCPA is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.” For most Chinese Catholics, including those in the underground Church, it is not registration with the government per se that poses a problem, but rather their objection is to the CCPA, which since 1957 has aimed to separate the Church in China from the Holy See and the influence of the pope.

The regulations do not bode well for improved relations between the Holy See and the Chinese government. Earlier this year, when an agreement seemed imminent, some in the underground Church expressed dismay and that such an agreement with the party under the current unacceptable conditions would in effect equate to turning a blind eye to the coercion and sometimes outright persecution still used by the regime to exert control.

Power politics

Looking at the question of religious freedom in the context of the bigger picture in China, some prominent scholars have said that the Communist Party’s hold on power is now the most tenuous it has been in the last 30 years. The regime is attempting to tighten its grip on power in many ways that appear to be desperate. These include increased censorship of the internet, blocking major communications sites. The government also cracks down on human rights champions and religious leaders who are still detained, including underground Catholic Bishops James Su Zhimin and Cosma Shi Enxiang, who was reported in 2015 to have died, but authorities informally retracted this report and have not surrendered his body.

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Some see this apparent desperation as a sign that the Communist Party cannot hold on much longer, that the pressure with which it controls society will lead to an eruption. Others are more pessimistic and think that human history’s largest “totalitarian market economy” will continue to increase in strength, effectively keep a lid on Chinese society and spread its influence abroad. In this scenario, the ones seen as fortunate are those who escape, and we see greater evidence of this as record numbers of Chinese people are moving and investing their money abroad. Chinese dissidents — many of whom have become Christians — have for decades hoped for a regime change and the advent of democracy, and feel that short of this true reform and the protection of human rights, including religious freedom, will not be possible.

John Lindblom studies in the World Religions and World Church doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame.