China's Long Lag in Religious Liberty

Reports Show Continued Repression

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WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 19, 2005 ( China’s long-standing restrictions on religious liberty came under fire from U.S. President George Bush during his trip to Asia this week. In a speech Wednesday in Kyoto, Bush said that the people of China had “legitimate” demands for more freedom of speech and religion, the Financial Times reported that same day.

Holding up Japan and Taiwan as examples of free and open societies, the U.S. president said the Chinese want “more freedom to express themselves, to worship without state control and to print Bibles and other sacred texts without fear of punishment.”

In the lead-up to Bush’s visit, two U.S. government reports drew attention to the lack of liberty in China. The first, published Oct. 11, came from the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Under legislation facilitating China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, Congress established the commission in 2000 to monitor human rights and the rule of law in that country.

The commission’s 2005 annual report found “no improvement overall in human rights conditions in China over the past year, and increased government restrictions on Chinese citizens who worship in state-controlled venues or write for state-controlled publications.”

The report noted, “Citizens who challenge state controls on religion, speech, or assembly continue to face severe government repression.” The commission described the political system as “authoritarian” and controlled by the Communist Party. The party dictates the selection of both legislative and executive positions.

The annual report noted that after several scandals due to wrongful convictions, the government permitted public criticism of the judicial system. Yet, the government “continues to use administrative procedures and vaguely worded criminal laws to detain Chinese citizens arbitrarily for exercising their rights to freedom of religion, speech and assembly.”


The U.S. commission also observed that Chinese authorities launched a campaign in 2005 to implement the new Regulations on Religious Affairs. This campaign has led to a tightening of controls over religious practice, particularly in ethnic and rural areas, “violating the guarantee of freedom of religious belief found in the new Regulation.”

Conditions for Buddhist believers in Tibet have not improved either. The Communist Party “demands that Tibetan Buddhists promote patriotism toward China and repudiate the Dalai Lama, the religion’s spiritual leader,” the report states.

Repression also continues against Catholics. The commission calculated that Chinese authorities are detaining more than 40 unregistered clergy and have taken measures to tighten control of registered clergy and seminaries. Moreover, despite its stated desire to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the Chinese government has not altered its long-standing position that, as a precondition to negotiations, the Vatican must renounce a papal role in the selection of bishops and break relations with Taiwan.

Muslims are also under strict government control, particularly those belonging to the Uighur minority. All mosques must register with the state-run China Islamic Association. Their imams must be licensed by the state before they can practice, and must regularly attend “patriotic education” sessions.

Protestants haven’t been spared either. The U.S. report observed that Chinese authorities continued their campaign of repression, begun in 2002. “Hundreds of unregistered Protestants associated with house churches have been intimidated, beaten or imprisoned,” the report lamented.

Far from candid

On Nov. 9 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a series of findings and recommendations in a report titled, “Policy Focus on China.” The document is based on an official visit made by USCIRF members in August.

The USCIRF representatives were able to visit China after several years of diplomatic effort by the U.S. government. They met with senior Chinese officials, as well as academics, lawyers, U.N. officials, as well as representatives of government-sanctioned Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Islamic and Protestant organizations.

The visit was not without its problems. The report noted that due to the constant presence of Chinese government officials, the discussions “were often far from candid.” Officials were present at all meetings, including those with religious leaders and others who were not part of the government.

At one meeting, the report explained, the Catholic bishop from Shenyang, affiliated with the government- approved Catholic Patriotic Association, responded to a USCIRF question stating that he was aware of the harassment and arrest of neighboring Bishop Wei Jingyi, who was associated with the unregistered Catholic Church. The Chinese officials present at the meeting did not allow the remarks to be translated and immediately ended the bishop’s presentation.

USCIRF Chair Michael Cromartie, when releasing the report, commented: “The commission continues to find that the Chinese government systematically violates the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, contravening both the Chinese Constitution and international human rights norms.” So far, Cromartie noted, economic freedom, as some had hoped, has not led to more political freedom or human rights protections.

In the report the USCIRF observed that believers registered with one of the five patriotic religious associations do benefit from a “zone of toleration” that protects some religious practice and property. And Chinese officials stated that they have considered allowing Orthodox Christians, Jews, Mormons and Bahais to gain official recognition.

Even so, the officially recognized groups operate under strict controls. The government oversees such matters as selecting church leaders, the printing of materials, and the building or renovating of religious venues.

The registered groups have also accepted restrictions on what doctrines and traditions can be conveyed and taught. The USCIRF report tells of Christian leaders having to refrain from teachings involving the second coming of Jesus, divine healing, the practice of fasting, and the virgin birth. These doctrines or practices are considered by the government to be superstitious or contrary to Communist Party social policies.

In addition, the teaching of Catholic moral norms on such subjects as abortion, contraceptives and divorce “is forcefully suppressed as contradicting official Communist Party policy,” the report noted.

Lack of constraints

Exacerbating the situation is the lack of an independent media and an independent juridical system. These factors, the USCIRF explained, contribute to the absence of effective constraints on political power, and the difficulty of obtaining redress for victims of human rights violations.

Even though there have been some recent legal and judicial reforms, improvements continue to be hindered by corruption and the lack of accountability of officials. In addition, the government uses vague “state secrets” provisions to arrest and detain religious leaders, along with journalists and others who criticize or embarrass authorities.

Too often, “the law is used as a tool to repress dissidents, religious believers and others seeking to exercise the rights and freedoms protected by the Chinese Constitution and international norms,” says the USCIRF.

Its report commented on the new Regulations on Religious Affairs, which were heralded as a “paradigm shift” in the protection of religious freedom in China. “It is the Commission’s position that the new regulations do not adequately protect the rights and security of religious believers and are not fully consistent with international human rights norms,” the USCIRF states.

In fact, the new regulations extend the government’s control over a
lmost all religious activity and establish fines and punishment for “unregistered” religious activity. China’s economy might be booming, but freedom is still a scarce commodity.

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