Religion in China: Historical and Legal Context and Chinese-Vatican Relations

Religion in China: Historical and Legal Context and Chinese-Vatican Relations

I. Historical Background.
The historical unfolding of Chinese civilization, on the other hand, has been going
on for millenniums with minimal Western influence. This is indeed the case at least up
till the 19th century. As Judeo-Christianity played very little impact in the shaping of
Chinese history, the term “religion” likewise is perceived very differently in the Chinese
context. Whereas “religion” represents a unified body of values relating to or deriving
from Judeo-Christian thoughts, and therefore carries a special significance in Western
legal consciousness, we can hardly apply the same logic for China. There is no unified
concept of “religion” (as understood in the West) in much of the Chinese history. In preQin
China, before Confucianist ethics became the defining element of Chinese ethos,
there has been a general conception of the omnipresent “Heaven” or “Tian“ in Sinic
civilization. But the role of “Heaven” in Chinese society is more of a metaphysical
concept rather than a religious one. The idea merely signifies the absolute knowledge
that ultimately dictates the ordering of all living under the heaven (天下)。This
metaphysical conception of the absolute “Heaven” is signified with the term “Tianming
天命”, commonly known in the West as “the Mandate of Heaven”.

The rise of Confucianism in China more or less formalized this “Mandate of Heaven”
through the dual emphasis of “ancestors” and “teaching”. Please note that the Chinese
word for “ancestor” is “Zong / 宗”, and the Chinese term for “teaching” is “Jiao / 教
”。Subsequently, when Buddhism was introduced into China, the Chinese used the
phrase “teachings of the ancestor Shakyamuni” to signify the “religion” of Buddhism.
Unsurprisingly, in modernity, starting from the late 19th century, when Western
understanding of “religion“ was finally introduced in China, the term “religion” has been
translated into Chinese as the familiar phrase “Zong Jiao (宗教)” — “teachings of
ancestors”. While the appropriation of the phrase “Zong Jiao” to signify the Western
notion of “religion” is perhaps a great way to sinicize an otherwise entirely foreign
concept, the Chinese word for “religion” of course cannot carry over all these JudeoChristian
socio-political connotations that provided the substantive meaning of the term
“religion” in Western civilization. 1

1791 U.S. Bill of Rights, Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging
the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a
redress of grievances.”
1936 Constitution of the USSR, Art. 124: “In order to ensure to citizens freedom of conscience, the
church in the U.S.S.R. is separated from the state, and the
school from the church. Freedom of religious worship and
freedom of antireligious propaganda is recognized for all
1954 Constitution of the PRC, Art. 88 “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of
religious belief.”
1977 Constitution of the USSR, Art 52
“(1) Citizens of the USSR are guaranteed freedom of
conscience, that is, the right to profess or not to profess any
religion, and to conduct religious worship or atheistic
propaganda. Incitement of hostility or hatred on religious
grounds is prohibited.
(2) In the USSR, the church is separated from the state, and the
school from the church.”
1982 Constitution of the PRC, Art. 36: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom
of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or
individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe
in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who
believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects
normal religious activities. 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.
Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any
foreign domination.”

As shown from above, the USSR’s religious freedom articles remained largely the
same between their 1936 and 1977 constitution. The updated Article 36 from the 1982
PRC Constitution, however, presented something quite different from both the USSR and
the U.S. frameworks. Art. 36 of the 1982 Constitution not only protects religion from the
state and citizens ([n]o state organ, public organization or individual may compel
citizens….), but also protects citizens and the state from religion ([n]o one may make use
of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order…) In this case, the “freedom of
religious belief” is presented as a social contract rather than a natural right–that religious
activities are protected as long as those activities do not “disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.” In other words,
“freedom of religious belief” is understood as balancing the needs of both the “freedom to
practice religion” and the “freedom from religious practices”.

Finally, it is also important to consider the text of the CCP Constitution in our
adopted at the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China on
November 14, 2012)
11/16/content_27138030.htm), General Program:
… …
The Communist Party of China upholds and promotes socialist ethnic
relations based on equality, solidarity, mutual assistance and harmony,
actively trains and promotes cadres from among ethnic minorities, helps
ethnic minorities and ethnic autonomous areas with their economic,
cultural and social development, and ensures that all ethnic groups work
together for common prosperity and development. The Party strives to
fully implement its basic principle for its work related to religious affairs,
and rallies religious believers in making contributions to economic and
social development.
… …
Interestingly, religion is only mentioned in the “General Program” section of the
CCP Constitution, and the party constitution did not explicitly prohibit or allow the
practice of religious activities by its cadres. Similar to Article 36 of the 1982
Constitution, when it comes to religion, the CCP Constitution frames the role of the party
as the promoter of social “equality, solidarity, mutual assistance and harmony”, as well as
the vanguard party that “rallies religious believers in making contributions to economic
and social development.” Both the 1982 Constitution and the CCP Constitution imposes
an obligation for party and the state to maintain social harmony and development by
actively managing the relationship between religious groups and the society at
large. When it comes to religious freedom in China, the dominant discourse (especially
from the West) tend to criticize China’s apparent gap between written law and actual
practice, and many often point to the text of Chinese Constitution to highlight such
discrepancies. But if we step away from the Western legal consciousness, and understand
the “freedom of religious belief” expressed in Art.36 of the 1982 Constitution as the
state’s duty to balance the need to both protect religion from society and society from
religion, then one might able to see that many seemingly restrictive practices by the PRC
government on religion may not be in direct contradiction to its constitutional texts.
III. State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the Case of Xinjiang’s Ban of Religious
Religion in China-Historical and Legal Context
Keren Wang
CPE Working Paper 9/1 (Sept. 2014)
The State Ethnic Affairs Commission (SEAC), established in 1978 under the State
Council, is the central administrative body responsible for the implementation of the
ethnic and religious policies of the CCP. The SEAC also supervises the implementation
“regional ethnic autonomy systems and the handling of matters related to the protection
of rights and interests of ethnic minority.”2 Each provincial-level government (including
autonomous regions) also have their own State Ethnic Affairs Commission, operating
under the authority of the central SEAC.
On February 10 2014, Nur Bekri, the Chairman of the the Xinjiang Uygur
Autonomous Region announced a sweeping campaign against “religious extremism”.3
Bakri indicated that the campaign was in response to the rising terrorist threat in Xinjiang
from Uyghur separatists, and he blamed Islamic extremism as the major cause for the
radicalization of Uyghur minorities and the increase of ethnic tensions in Xinjiang.
According to the State Ethnic Affairs Commission of Xinjiang, the campaign was
implemented in accordance with the overall policy directives of Xinjiang’s Party
committee, and is designed to specially target illegal religious practices, illegal religious
propaganda materials, and the illegal online religious activities — collectively known as
“Sanfei” (or, “Three-illegals”).4
In early August, 2014, the city of Karamay in northern Xinjiang implemented a
controversial temporary ban of Islamic attires and symbols on the city’s public
transportations. Specifically, the city barred those wearing face-covering hijab, or bearing
visible Uyghur separatist “crescent-and-star” symbol, or with long beards from riding
city’s public buses. However, elderly male with long beards and elderly women wearing
scarf that does not cover the entire face are exempt from the ban. The ban is said to be
effective from August 5th to August 20, during which the city is scheduled to host a
major athletic event.5
Karamay city authority stated that the ban was implemented in
response to the autonomous region wide campaign against religious extremism.
Furthermore, the city defended its controversial ban by stressing that certain forms of
religious attires and display of separatist symbols amount to “illegal religious
propaganda” for Islamic extremism, and therefore fall outside of “normal religious
practices” that are protected by law.6

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