Government Seeks Tighter Grip as China Experiences Religious Revival

Ethnic Lisu heading to a Christian church in April in Fugong, in Yunnan Province. The Chinese government is expected to enact regulations tightening its oversight of religion in the coming days. Credit: Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
Ethnic Lisu heading to a Christian church in April in Fugong, in Yunnan Province. The Chinese government is expected to enact regulations tightening its oversight of religion in the coming days. Credit: Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

The finances of religious groups will come under greater scrutiny. Theology students who go overseas could be monitored more closely. And people who rent or provide space to illegal churches may face heavy fines.

These are among the measures expected to be adopted when the Chinese government enacts regulations tightening its oversight of religion in the coming days, the latest move by President Xi Jinping to strengthen the Communist Party’s control over society and combat foreign influences it considers subversive.

The rules, the first changes in more than a decade to regulations on religion, also include restrictions on religious schools and limits on access to foreign religious writings, including on the internet. They were expected to be adopted as early as Friday, at the end of a public comment period, though there was no immediate announcement by the government.

Religion has blossomed in China despite the Communist Party’s efforts to control and sometimes suppress it, with hundreds of millions embracing the nation’s major faiths — Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism — over the past few decades. But many Chinese worship outside the government’s official churches, mosques and temples, in unauthorized congregations that the party worries could challenge its authority.

A draft of the new regulations was published in September, several months after Mr. Xi convened a rare leadership conference on religious policy and urged the party to be on guard against foreign efforts to infiltrate China using religion.

“It could mean that if you are not part of the government church, then you won’t exist anymore,” said Xiao Yunyang, one of 24 prominent pastors and lawyers who signed a public statement last month criticizing the regulations as vague and potentially harmful.

The regulations follow the enactment of a law on nongovernmental organizations that increased financial scrutiny of civil society groups and restricted their contact with foreign organizations in a similar way, as well as an aggressive campaign to limit the visibility of churches by tearing down crosses in one eastern province where Christianity has a wide following.

But the rules on religion also pledge to protect holy sites from commercialization, allow spiritual groups to engage in charitable work and make government oversight more transparent. That suggests Mr. Xi wants closer government supervision of religious life in China but is willing to accept its existence.

“There’s been a recognition that religion can be of use, even in a socialist society,” said Thomas Dubois, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. “There is an attempt, yes, to carve out the boundaries, but to leave a particular protected space for religion.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Ian Johnson

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