In a small number of countries (former colonisers all) somewhat sensational and misinformed accounts have appeared of a new wave of religious ‘repression’ in China, targeted at Christian groups and certain forms of Islam (the Uyghur in Xinjiang). Crosses have been removed, churches have been closed down, pictures of Mao Zedong have been installed, and misguided believers have undertaken vocational and ideological training. What they do not say is that the only religious activities they mention are actually illegal. Why? They constitute so-called ‘house churches’, which are not registered with the government and are thereby outside the law. In this respect, they are no different from small Muslim cells in some (usually western) parts of China where extremism and radicalism are promoted. Obviously, these activities too are illegal.
What these reports miss is the underlying reason for such a development (I am never sure whether this is deliberate or due to ignorance). The reason lies in consistent, uniform and countrywide application of socialist rule of law. Since I have addressed the rule of law in an earlier piece, all that is needed here is a summary.
Rule of Law
On 11 March 2018, the annual National People’s Congress amended the preamble to the Constitution, from ‘improve the socialist legal system’ to ‘improve the socialist rule of law’. The change was only in the final character of the phrase, from 制 to 治 – although they have exactly the same pronunciation: zhì. Significantly, there is no inherent opposition between ‘legal system (fazhi)’ and ‘rule of law (fazhi)’: the former designates the legal system as one among others, such as economic, political and cultural systems; the latter indicates that law is foundational to all the other systems.
Why the shift? The reason lies in the opposition between ‘rule of law (fazhi)’ and ‘rule of human beings (renzhi)’. From the late 1970s to the 1990s, debate over this tension led to a clear preference for rule of law, since ‘rule of human beings’ recalled the ‘evil fruit (eguo)’ of the Cultural Revolution and the unwitting evocation of the sage-king whose virtue was key. In light of this debate, ‘rule of human beings’ came to influence the understanding of ‘legal system’, which at times bore the sense of ‘rule by law’. More specifically, the existence of a legal system was not enough to prevent ‘rule by human beings’. Thus, from 1997, we find the promotion of rule of law, or literally a ‘socialist rule of law country (shehuizhuyi fazhi guo)’, which entered the Constitution in 1999.
The test of all this is in practice, where the key phrase is ‘governing the country according to law (yifazhiguo)’, particularly ‘in all respects’ or ‘in an all-round way (quanmian)’. As Xi Jinping put it in his report to the CPC nineteenth congress in 2017: ‘We must promote the rule of law and work to ensure sound lawmaking, strict law enforcement, impartial administration of justice, and the observance of law by everyone’. It is precisely Xi Jinping – who is seen by some as an old-style communist hardman – who is assiduously promoting socialist rule of law. The implications are that everyone in China – from the highest officials through citizens to foreigners – is subject to the rule of law.
The impact is being felt in all areas, whether prostitution, corrupt CPC officials, foreigners on improper visas … Long is the list, but I would like to focus on the revised Regulation on Religious Affairs (published in 2017, coming into effect in early 2018). It is by no means new, for it continues an emphasis already apparent in the 1982 Constitution. As article 36 of that Constitution state: ‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief … The state protects legitimate religious activities. No one may use religion to carry out counter-revolutionary activities or activities that disrupt public order, harm the health of citizens or obstruct the educational systems of the state. No religious affairs may be dominated by any foreign country’.
The revised regulation of 2018 may be summarised in article 3: ‘protecting the legal, stopping the illegal, containing the extreme, resisting infiltration, and combating crimes’. Let us see what these phrases mean.
Protecting the legal (baohu hefa): legal religious activities are not only permitted, but also proactively protected by government at all levels. Examples of such activities include the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches of Protestant persuasion, the 2018 agreement between the Chinese government and Vatican on uniting the two arms of the Roman Catholic Church in China, Islamic institutions, Buddhism and so on. As the recent ‘white paper’ indicates, China now has 200 million believers of various faiths, of which the legal forms of Christianity number about 50 million. In other words, if you want to practice your religion in China, there are more than enough legally recognised ways to do so.
Stopping the illegal (zhizhi feifa): unregistered religious activities are illegal, including the ‘house churches’ that have been the focus of some sensationalised accounts in the small number of countries mentioned earlier. Through a complex and diverse history, some ‘house churches’ have developed more conservative evangelical theology, anti-communist assumptions and can be subject to foreign interventions by conservative international Christian bodies. Further, they can see themselves as the only genuine form of Christianity, dismissing organisations such as TSPM and its associated China Christian Council as ‘compromised’ or ‘heretical’. How is ‘stopping the illegal’ practiced? More directly, unregistered meeting places have been closed down, which has risen to a new level after the revised regulation – at times heavy-handedly and with reprimands from the government. Indirectly and informally, individual TSPM members often encourage those involved in ‘house churches’ to join registered churches, while TSPM ministers ensure that congregations are not tempted by ‘house church’ claims.
Containing the extreme (ezhi jiduan): the focus is not merely on terrorism in Xinjiang and Tibet, but also intolerance among other religious groups. Evangelical Christians, who tend to be found in unregistered ‘house churches’, are mostly at fault on this matter. In the new regulation and the white paper, key terms relating to these concerns appear: religious harmony (zongjiao hemu), social harmony (shehui hexie), stability or steadiness (wending) and security (anquan) – although each term is difficult to translate.
Resisting infiltration (diyu shentou): no religious organisation should be influenced or controlled by an outside body – a consistent feature of anti-colonial sovereignty.
Combatting crimes (daji fanzui): if ‘illegal’ includes sins of omission, ‘crime’ designates sins of commission.
By now it should be obvious what ‘governing the country according to the rule of law’ means in relation to religion. However, it is not a Western liberal approach to rule of law, which is framed to protect capitalism and the private individual. Instead, as an article by Chen Youwu and Li Buyun (2018) observes, ‘socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics’ arises from the fact that China follows the socialist road, which entails Marxist jurisprudence, takes account of China’s concrete conditions, socialist democracy and a socialist market economy.
To sum up: as socialist rule of law is being enforced across the country, everyone and every organisation is subject to this rule of law, which is central to the construction of socialism. In this respect, illegal religious activities are no different from: foreigners who operate in China under false pretences; the scam operators who used to be prevalent a decade or so ago; prostitution which has effectively been shut down in more and more parts of China; the fake student ID cards that used to be for sale close by where I live in Beijing; or the government official who secreted away monies in offshore accounts (these are rare indeed as I write).
Some may wish to practice religion in China and some may not, but if you want to do so, it is possible in perfectly legal ways. If not, watch out. The socialist rule of law is here to stay.