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China’s new law on religion: A great leap backward

Stricter rules on spiritual venues signal a tightening of the screws on minorities

In September, the Chinese Communist Party made a move to further subjugate and control religious institutions in China and the occupied regions of Tibet, East Turkestan and Southern Mongolia.
Its law on Administrative Measures for Religious Activity Venues, also known as Order No.19, issued by the State Administration of Religious Affairs, repeals older regulations from 2005 and deals a further blow to the fundamental principles of all religions by smearing them with the party’s ideology.
The new decree has 10 chapters and 76 articles — ranging from rules on the approval and registration of religious venues, to those on organizational management and legal liability. Article 1 states that the measures are formulated in accordance with the Chinese Constitution “to standardize the management of places of religious activity, protect normal religious activities, and safeguard the lawful rights and interests of places of religious activity and believing citizens.”
However, many of the law’s provisions contradict Article 36 of the Constitution, which grants citizens “freedom of religious belief,” making the first article of Order No. 19 a technical faux pas.
The five major religions recognized by China are Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Taoism. Up to now, China has used various means and laws to suppress religious bodies in China, Tibet, East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia and Hong Kong, depending on each territory’s circumstances.
With the recent order, Beijing aims to gain blanket authority to clamp down on any religion, anywhere, with impunity. “Places of religious activity shall uphold the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system, thoroughly implement Xi Jinping’s ideology of socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era ... practice core socialist values, adhere to the direction of Sinicization of China’s religions” — with these words, Article 3 betrays what the government really has in mind.
Where is religious freedom if religious bodies are forced to adopt the ideology of an individual or a system that do not believe in religion at all? How can this be interpreted under Article 36 of the Constitution? Is the CCP above the Constitution? These are questions the leadership must answer; so far, its decision to undermine the free practice of religions and religious education has been justified under the guise of protecting national security and public safety.
Chapter 2 of the order, “Establishment approval and registration,” has 16 Articles with more than 20 subclauses that make the establishment and registration of any monastery, temple, church or mosque a tedious and confusing task.
Provisions include the need to involve local and provincial religious groups, form a management organization through democratic consultation, and identify members and religious teachers. These are all complicated steps that restrict the freedom of both religious disciples and their teachers — for example, Tibetan lamas and monks are well-respected and, up to this point, have required no special permission from any authority to teach.
The change in rules also leaves applicants at the mercy of the party cadres in the Religious Affairs Bureau, responsible for issuing certificates to register places of religious activity.
These places “shall not be named after churches, sects, or persons,” Article 16 says. But it is a common religious practice, for example in Buddhism, to name a monastery or temple after ancient seats of learning, or the school or teacher it is associated with.
In the third chapter, “Management organization,” Article 24 is ambiguous and open to abuse due to its vagueness. To form an organization managing a place of religious activity, the article requires “democratic consultation” without providing further explanation of what this entails, and that the body “shall be composed of religious clergy, representatives of local religious citizens and other relevant persons,” without defining these roles.
In addition, Article 27 states that the members of the management organization must be mainland residents of Chinese nationality. Why is that so? And how, for example, can Tibetans find such people in Tibet? All these rules together can be read as a deliberate attempt on the part of the CCP to harass religious practitioners, deter them from establishing places of worship and complicate the formation of organizational committees, as well as reflecting the party's discriminatory approach.
The latter is further evidenced by the condition that “Places of religious activity shall establish a study system and regularly organize the personnel of the place to study the guidelines and policies of the CCP, national laws and regulations, Chinese excellent traditional culture, religious knowledge, and so on.” This article, No. 36 in Chapter 4, forces religious practitioners’ indoctrination into CCP ideology and propaganda, and legalizes the party’s interference in religious venues and education.
The desire to force Chinese culture upon minorities with disregard for their own beliefs and cultures is also demonstrated by the provision that “Places of religious activity should reflect a Chinese style and integrate Chinese culture in the architecture, sculpture, painting, decoration, and other visual aspects” (Chapter 6, Article 50).
The law also prohibits building large open-air religious statues outside of temples and churches, thereby justifying the destruction by Chinese authorities of a 30-meter-high Buddha statue, a 7-meter-high Buddha Maitreya statue and 45 prayer wheels in Drago county, in the historical Tibetan province of Kham, in December 2021.
Furthermore, the decree establishes that there should be a proper system of evaluating the members of religious management organizations and that anyone “undermining national unity, splitting the country” shall be removed. As loyalty to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, and promotion of the Tibetan language are considered splittist activities, Tibetan monks and monastic establishments are bound to face increased difficulties and repression.
China already passed Order No. 5 in 2007 to assert control over the selection and appointment of the reincarnations of the Tibetan Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, producing hollow religious teachers who parrot communist propaganda — the current Beijing-installed Panchen Lama being the most notable product of this policy.
Now, with the latest order (implemented on the same date, Sept. 1, 16 years later), China aims to give CCP cadres a free hand in closing, oppressing and crushing any religious institutions not conforming to Xi’s ideology.
According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religion Database, there are 228 million Buddhists, 106 million Christians, 24 million Muslims and 6 million Taoist followers in China.
This gives a sense of how many people’s lives will be affected by the new law — as well as the CCP’s fear of religious believers, especially if we consider that, in comparison, party members number 98 million.
However, repression and restrictive measures are not the solution. It is only by respecting the religions and cultures of minority nationals that China can win the legitimacy to rule.
Minority nationals have been protesting the Sinicization of their cultures and religions; but with this order, China has made the process of Sinicization, namely adherence to Xi’s ideology, mandatory.
International and religious communities around the world should join Chinese, Tibetans, Uyghurs and Southern Mongolians in rejecting this draconian and unlawful decree, and in calling for Chinese and minority nationals to enjoy religious freedom as enshrined in the Chinese Constitution and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Silence on the part of the international community will embolden the Communist Party leadership to commit further religious atrocities and profane religious teachings with its ideology. This would be a great leap backward for civilization.
Nov 15, 2023 11:28
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