New Rules And “Sinicization” Campaigns Reduce Religious Freedom

New draft rules from the Ministry of Justice, translated by China Law Translate, aim to further limit foreign participation and influence in Chinese religious life. Foreign adherents of religious groups not under the umbrella of China’s five state-regulated official faiths—Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Daoism, Buddhism—will likely see their freedom of exercise restricted. At CNN, James Griffiths reported on how the new rules will impact religious practitioners and scholars in China:

[…] “I was struck by the repeated use of the phrase ‘China’s religious independence,’ which points to the nationalist desire to purify religions of ‘foreign’ influences,” [Rian Thum, an expert on Islam in China at the University of Nottingham] said. “The regulations look like an effort to seal off Chinese religious practitioners from their fellow believers outside the country. Even lectures by visiting religious figures would require a bureaucratic permissions process that would dissuade most visitors.”

[…] Previously there has been broad tolerance for foreigners preaching to foreigners, provided they are officially licensed and ensure no Chinese citizens attend services. Some Christian groups are less scrupulous about this than others, and missionaries continue to operate illegally in China, Thum said.

The new regulations could further tighten grey areas around foreign religious practice, issuing strict new requirements for applying to hold services, including describing the primary religious texts used, listing the nationality and visa status of all attendees, and obtaining a permit to use the building for such activities.

[…] While specific punishments are not listed in the new proposal, there is a suggestion they could be severe, with talk of invoking “counter espionage” laws and other state security regulations against infractors. [Source]

The Mormon Church might be particularly impacted by the new regulations. The Mormon Church first arrived in China in 1853, and has operated quietly in the PRC since 1986, on the condition that it only serve foreign believers. In April, when the church announced that it would seek to open a temple in Shanghai, Shanghai’s religious affairs bureau was quick to shoot down the plan: “Foreigners are not allowed to establish religious organizations or areas of religious activity within China’s borders[…] the news that the American Mormon Church announced that it is building a temple came only from the American side.” A recent set of regulations also targeted foreign teachers, some of whom have illegally acted as covert missionaries while teaching in China.

While overseeing a long-running crackdown on predominately Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang that has been described as a “genocide,” Xi Jinping has also focused on eliminating “foreign influence” in Muslim communities across the country. As Chinese officials claim that the “Arabization” of Islam might affect national security, a nationwide campaign to “Sinicize” the religion by making it “more commercial, patriotic and Chinese” has seen mosque domes removed and scholars arrested across the country. Similar campaigns to “Sinicize” Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism were launched in 2014 and 2016, respectively. State media tabloid Global Times linked China’s draft rules to recent attacks in Europe and argued that foreign religion and terror are intimately linked:

Some European countries, especially France, have suffered from terrorist attacks committed by religious extremists in recent months. For example, there was the beheading of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher who had showed his students caricatures of prophet Muhammad.

China has always remained on high alert for infiltration of foreign forces using religion and insisted on independent principles in managing its religious affairs, analysts said.

[…] “These rules are not in conflict with the protection of religious freedom. Only by stopping those with other purposes from using religion, can people better enjoy religious freedom in China. Giving up administration would only end the harmonious religious situation in China and give way to religious extremist forces,” Zhu said. [Source]

Pope Francis this week recognized Uyghurs as a “persecuted peoples,” but only after the renewal of a secret agreement with Beijing on the appointment of new bishops. For decades now, China’s 10-12 million Catholics have been split between Chinese-recognized clergy and their “unofficial” Vatican-appointed rivals. The deal was an attempt to resolve that impasse, according to Vatican insiders. At America Magazine, a prominent Jesuit publication, Gerard O’Connell wrote about the continued difficulties that the Catholic Church and practicing Catholics have faced in China since the extension of the deal:

From the Vatican’s perspective, the major achievement was the acceptance by Beijing that the Bishop of Rome, the pope, has the final say in the appointment of bishops in China. Chinese authorities had rejected this authority before as an interference in the internal affairs of the country. For its part Beijing got the Vatican to accept the process of “the democratic election” of candidates to be bishops, something not envisaged in canon law. For Francis, however, that concession was less of a problem, given his knowledge of the history of the involvement of Spanish and Portuguese monarchs in the appointment of bishops in Latin America in past centuries.

[…] Today, there are around 100 Catholic bishops in mainland China; many are very old, but all are now united with the pope because of the agreement. Some 30 of them belong to the underground church and refuse to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, so they are not recognized by the authorities in Beijing. The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.

[…] There are other matters that the Vatican will want to address before approaching the question of diplomatic relations. It cannot overlook the unresolved questions as to the whereabouts of two elderly bishops and whether they are still alive. Another important issue is the need to resolve in a dignified manner the situation of the bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daquin, who was taken away on the day of his episcopal ordination on July 7, 2012 and has been deprived of his freedom and pastoral ministry ever since. [Source]

Even secular events with “Western” backgrounds can spark controversy. At Harbin Institute of Technology, a dorm manager found herself in the middle of an online firestorm after preparing to distribute chocolates to students on Thanksgiving. “Today is Western Thanksgiving Day. I want to express my gratitude for the support you have extended[…] I will be giving out some chocolates[…] First come, first served,” she wrote in a group chat. A nationalist student took a screenshot and then berated her online. At CNN, Mimi Lau reported on the school’s statement on the controversy, and online commentators disdain for the student and the administration:

“The school does not promote (celebrations) of Western holidays with religious connotations and strictly prohibits religious activities on campus,” the [school’s] statement added.

“When foreigners celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival or (Lunar New Year), we call it a ‘cultural export,'” wrote another Weibo user. “When it’s the other way around, why is it ‘worshiping foreign things and fawning on foreign countries’?”

Yet another Weibo user asked sarcastically: “The Gregorian calendar also has religious connotations, shall we boycott it too?” [Source]


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