China’s revamped regulations surrounding religious activity officially took effect on February 1. This was the first update to the 2005 Regulation on Religious Affairs and stemmed from a June 2016 revision passed by the State Council, the chief administrative authority of China.
Under the new regulations, there will be harsher penalties for unsanctioned religious activity. Targeting “religious activities in schools, religious postings online, and trips overseas for religious training,” the policy builds on an already stringent regulatory structure. China only upholds constitutional protections for what the government deems “normal religious activities.”
Currently, only five religions are recognized by the state: Islam, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Buddhism. For each religion, there is an accompanying patriotic religious association representing it and “acting as liaisons between the government and practitioners of the [religion]in China.” According to David Palmer and Vincent Goosaert, authors of The Religious Question in Modern China, although such groups are nominally independent, they are essentially state-run entities under the control of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Any believer of a recognized religion must register with the government through one of these organizations.
The updated rules also delegate greater authority to provincial governments to monitor religious activity. According to Yang Fengguang, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, prior to the new regulations, “Only religious affairs administrations and some units in the United Front Work Department were responsible for unsanctioned religious groups.”
Provincial-level authorities have already faced scrutiny for using aggressive measures to regulate religious activity. An Jianlong, an Imam of the official Nanjing Islamic Association, welcomes the changes, believing that it will help regulate the “messy grassroot religious activities.” Nevertheless, Jianlong “expressed concerns over the excessive application of the rules by lower-level authorities.”
Home to a Turkic ethnic group known as Uyghurs, Xinjiang is a focal point of tensions between religious groups and local governing authorities. According to the 2010 Xinjiang Census, Uyghurs make up approximately 45 percent of the population, as opposed to the Han ethnic group, which comprises only 40 percent of the region’s population. Nationwide, Han peoples constitute 92 percent of China’s ethnic population.
Tensions escalated in the years following the July 2009 riots protesting police brutality by Uyghurs in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where 179 people died and 1,700 people were injured. In a 2012 speech to the National People’s Congress, Nur Bekri, the chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region People’s Government from 2008 to 2014, highlighted the need to stamp out “the three evil forces of separatism, extremism, and terrorism to ensure social stability.” James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University and scholar of Xinjiang history, describes the current regulatory environment for Uyghurs as one of a surveillance state, with the local government using “cutting-edge technology” to monitor and repress religious activity among the region’s natives.
The revisions may still face legal hurdles. At the nineteenth National Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping stressed the need for constitutionality review, a principle first introduced by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in a work report in 1998. Therefore, the regulations and subsequent provincial actions authorized by the regulations may face more judicial scrutiny in regards to religious freedoms, as the constitution forbids the state to “compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion.”