Not much new in the new regulations on religion
by Bernardo Cervellera
Interview with Anthony Lam, an expert on the Church in China at the Holy Spirit Study Centre, a research institute of the Diocese of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Starting today, March 1, 2005, China replaces its old guidelines on religious affairs with new regulations. According to the State Council, which formulated the new rules, they will protect freedom of religion.

AsiaNews has already published two analyses of the new regulations on December 20, 2004, and January 12, 2005. To understand more their significance, we have talked to Dr Anthony Lam, an expert on the Church in China at the Holy Spirit Study Centre, a research institute of the Diocese of Hong Kong.

Dr Lam sees some improvement in the new regulations since some recourse against the abuses of the Religious Affairs Office is now available. Similarly, religious groups are now considered subjects of law entitled to ownership of land and buildings.

However, in his view, the new regulations do not go far enough. They still show Beijing's authoritarian mindset using its regulatory powers to hold back the religious renaissance currently sweeping the country.

Here is full text of the interview Dr Anthony Lam

What's truly new in these new regulations?

There is really nothing new. Every article that restricted religious freedom (such as religious activities independent of the state) still does, except for two things. First of all, there is article 6 on the legal responsibility of the Religious Affairs Office. In case of abuse, people can appeal to the Supreme Court. Secondly, religious organisations can now own real property. Until now they were not subjects of law, i.e. they had no legal existence. Till now, the state might donate land for temples or churches, but religious groups did not own it. Now instead, Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, etc, have the legal title to their land and buildings.

This is very important. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Catholic Church bought many properties. In Shanghai, for example, it owned a square kilometre in the Xujiahui area (which is now a central part of the city) whose current value is in the tens of billions of yuans (billions of dollars).

If the Church is able to prove that it is the legal owner it can at least appeal to the government demanding compensation.

There are also all the problems associated with foreign religious organisations that had properties in China and who would like to transfer ownership to local Churches . . .

This was already possible in the past. For instance, the Missions étrangères de Paris were able to transfer their properties in Shanghai to the local diocese. They did the same in Yunnan province.

Because of expropriation during the Mao era, many properties are now under someone else's ownership so the Churches are asking to be at least compensated for their past losses.

What changes do these new regulations bring to the life of religious groups?

Almost nothing. Most regulations are already in place. The main difference is that now they apply to the whole country.

Since provinces are now required to update their own regulations to conform to the new nation-wide rules, religious affairs now within a national framework.

Why does the state use its regulatory power instead of implementing a law on religion?

To keep control over the religious life. Under China's constitution, laws fall under the jurisdiction of the legislative branch, the National People's Congress (NPC). By contrast, regulatory authority is in the hands of the State Council, i.e. the government itself.

Theoretically, the NPC could defy the central government. If a law existed, NPC members could look at how the government was implementing and upholding it.

By subordinating religious affairs to the regulatory power of the executive branch of government religion is taken out of the public sphere.

If China adopted a law on religion, it could no longer control religion and would open itself to international scrutiny if its laws violated human rights. 

By using the regulatory route, it retains its control over religion and religious life.

There is an important religious renaissance underway in China. More than half of the population practices some kind of cult or religion. The new regulations do not seem to recognise this trend within Chinese society . . .

I think the government would rather stay away from religion and not talk about its place in society.

It has instead opted for an external regulatory intervention to supervise religious activities the same way it does for any other activities without judging the merit of the activities themselves.

It is one way to keep hands both on and off religion without taking sides.