Patrick Poon is a Hong Kong-based human rights researcher. Poon is an executive committee member and the convener of the China Affairs Group of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese. He is also pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Lyon in France.
Control on religious groups in China is no secret. Be it the excuse for “social stability” or “localization” of religions, the message from the Chinese government has always been clear—all religions should be completely under the control of the Chinese government, de facto the Communist Party to be more direct. There is no single day when the religious groups in China are really enjoying religious freedom in the universal and liberal sense ever since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.
From the Catholic Church to the Protestant Church, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism, all religions have to register with the officially sanctioned agencies called “patriotic associations,” with the Catholic Patriotic Association highlighted in this article. Any religious groups that refuse to register with the government are considered “illegal,” and all of their activities are thus also considered “illegal” under the Chinese law, not to mention that the other religious groups that fall outside the above-mentioned five recognized religions are simply banned in China and branded as “evil cults,” such as Falun Gong.
The enforcement of “Administrative Measures for Religious Groups” on February 1, 2020, has again reinforced the various kinds of control in numerous regulations that the Chinese government has passed over the years, including the “Regulation on Religious Affairs” which started to be enforced on February 1, 2018. The wording of all of these regulations is always very similar, with the essence to justify the control of the Chinese government over all kinds of religious affairs, including selection and appointment of religious personnel, premises to organize religious activities, publication of religious teachings, as well as connections with foreign entities. Without the blessing of the Chinese government, religious groups, including the registered and government-sanctioned groups and the non-registered “underground” communities, simply cannot practice their religious beliefs.
Although Article 36 of China’s Constitution states very clearly that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy the freedom of religious belief,” it also puts the core message from the communist regime at the end of the article as stipulating that “religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.” What does the Chinese government mean by “foreign domination”? Take the example of Catholicism, which I have been following for years. The Holy See’s appointment of bishops and the doctrine of the pope being the supreme authority of the religion are always the core issue for Sino-Vatican relations, no matter how the Chinese government and the Holy See would try to divert attention to other issues, such as the development of the Church, whenever there is an attempt to negotiate to improve their relations.
Another clause in Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution is also a reflection of the restrictions laid out in the “Administrative Measures for Religious Groups”— “no one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State.” So, what kinds of activities that would be considered “disrupting public order”? And, what behaviors would be considered “interfering with the educational system of the State”? What is written in the “Administrative Measures” and other related regulations has always included wording that activities “endangering national security” and affecting “social stability” are prohibited among religious groups and subject to criminal punishment, while it is always unclear what exactly constitutes activities “endangering national security.” In fact, any activities that are considered by the Chinese government as potentially undermining the communist regime would fall into this legal trap.
As mentioned above, Catholicism can only be legally practiced by registering with the Catholic Patriotic Association. The name of this quasi-government body speaks it all. Unless you are patriotic to the communist Chinese government, there is no way you can legally practice your religious relief. So, under such political and social reality, how could Catholics in China practice their faith in the authentic tradition of Catholicism? Likewise, this simple logic also applies to other religions in China.
Like it or not, China’s response to the international criticism of its treatment of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China is another perfect example to show how China controls ethnicity and religion with Chinese characteristics. The purpose of the internment camps, which China argues to be “vocational training” centers for the ethnic groups, is for “de-radicalization” and “de-extremification,” although a lot of concrete evidence has been made public by the media and researchers that at least over one million of Uighurs and members of other ethnic groups are detained in the camps without access to their family members.
So, is religious freedom respected in China? Unless you believe in the Chinese government’s propaganda about what “freedom of religious belief” means with Chinese characteristics, we should question why affairs like appointment of religious personnel and where to organize religious activities need government approval.