Religious Freedom in China

by Patrick Nohrden

Note: Since this article was written in 2004, world political and financial situations have changed. Some things never change.

If you watched the 2004 Presidential Debates in America, you may have noticed that President Bush and John Kerry both brought up their religious beliefs. This scores well in America. The President scored some points with his comments on how he puts trust in his faith in God. Senator Kerry did likewise when he wrapped up the debate by saying that he was a good Catholic.
Although the presidential debates made headlines in China, they are just the reason why the Chinese are rarely treated to live television coverage. Both Bush and Kerry told us that they were guided by their Christian faith. Heaven forbid if a Chinese policymaker should ever make such a claim. If he did, you can certainly bet that he would no longer be a policymaker. Likely, he would find himself the target of a corruption investigation and incarcerated, executed, or “missing” within a few months.
Despite your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, nobody can dispute two absolute facts regarding the American political system: it was founded on the principles of a Judeo-Christian belief system, and it allows the free exercise of everyone’s religious beliefs. China is officially atheist. Nevertheless, it purports to allow religious freedom. But notice the difference between the American law, imbedded in the first part of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the Chinese law. The American law says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This implies absolute freedom of religion.
According to Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of china, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.” It further states that the “State protects normal religious activities,” and “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.”[1] The question of what is a “normal” religious activity is not answered in the Constitution. Unfortunately, that question is left to the Party-controlled courts. It is easy to say that Catholicism is not “normal,” as there are only four million Catholics in China, a country that has nearly 1.4 billion people. Or stated another way, a religion practiced by less than three-tenths of one percent (0.28%) of the population is not “normal.” There are more Protestants than Catholics—ten million in fact. But even at ten million, Protestants make up about seven-tenths of one percent (0.71%) of the population.[2] Based upon these numbers, courts in China may construe the religious practices of Christians to be abnormal.
That actual numbers are more like this: approximately 8 percent of the population is Buddhist, approximately 1.6 percent is Muslim, and an estimated 0.4 percent belongs to the official Patriotic Catholic Church. An estimated 0.4 to 0.8 percent belong to the unofficial Vatican-affiliated Catholic Church (Roman Catholic), an estimated 0.8 percent to 1.2 percent are registered Protestants, and perhaps 2.4 to 6.5 percent worship in-house churches that are independent of Government control.[3]
Article 36 also prohibits foreign domination of religious bodies and religious affairs within China. In other words, if you are going to have a church in China, it has to be managed by Chinese, and only Chinese can say what is taught or preached in that Church. That lets the Catholics out. As everybody knows, the Catholic Church is really the Roman Catholic Church, which is governed through a hierarchy, the top of which is the Pope seated at the Vatican. Therefore, in order to celebrate mass in China, a Chinese priest must renounce any ties to the Vatican and to the Pope. There is such a thing as the Chinese Catholic Church, which is actually known as the Patriotic Catholic Church. It is a religious organization that was created in China under the watchful eye of the Chinese Religious Affairs Bureau to give Catholics a place to worship. All of the priests have renounced ties to the Vatican. All the priests have passed an examination to test their knowledge of Marxism and Chinese Socialism.
There is an official Protestant Church in China, as well. It is called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches of China. Established by the state, the purpose of the so-called Three-Self Church, according to Jiang Zemin, the recently retired leader of China, is because religions should be “actively made compliant to the socialist society.” He also stated in a September 1999 speech that “[Communist] Party members of all ethnic groups must have a firm faith in socialism and communism, cannot believe in religion, cannot take part in or organize religious activities, and cannot take part in feudal superstitious activities.” Of course, unless a Chinese citizen is a member of the Communist Party, he cannot hold public office of participate in the management of state-operated industry.
I am a Catholic. I am not a good Catholic, because I do not attend mass and I do not take the sacraments. What makes me a Catholic is the fact that I am a Christian, and I believe the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The things that distinguish a Catholic from other Christians are that we believe that the Pope is the leader of the Church, we believe that Christ was born of an immaculate conception (meaning that his mother, Mary, was without original sin), and that Mary ascended to Heaven without having to die first. Apart from these basic differences, we are not much different from a Baptist or a Methodist. It is usually the first of these differences that causes the most alarm in our Protestant brethren. I will not discuss the merits of these beliefs in this writing, as such a discussion would bear no fruit. The point is that under Chinese law, I cannot practice my Catholicism. For that matter, under Chinese law, a Catholic priest cannot practice his Catholicism, because he is not allowed to be Catholic. He must first disavow any allegiance to the Pope, because the Pope is not Chinese.
If a religion is practicing in China without being “registered,” then it is considered an “evil cult.” To be registered, a church must be a member of the Three-Self organization, or declare itself to be Chinese Catholic. Furthermore, a church must conduct its activities in accordance with Chinese law and subject its activities to the scrutiny of the Religious Affairs Bureau. That means avoiding certain prohibited practices, such as allowing young people under eighteen to attend worship services, holding night-time gatherings, receiving foreign Christians, and preaching from the book of Revelation.[4] To register, a religious organization must provide a list of its leaders and members, including not only their names but their addresses, as well. Furthermore, not any church may register, as it is often left to the discretion of the Religious Affairs Bureau as to whether a church is qualified to register.
China is a member of the United Nations. Not only that, it holds one of the prestigious seats on the UN Security Council as a Charter Member, giving it veto power of all UN Security Council resolutions along with the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and the United States. But the UN Charter states that one of the purposes of the UN is “To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”[5] Notwithstanding the wording of the United Nations Charter and China’s seat as a charter member of the UN Security Council, in 1997, China closed down 1,200 churches and temples in Zhejiang Province alone, and all of this was predominately in the area of Wenzhou, which has a historically high concentration of Catholics.[6] Another 400 were destroyed or closed in 2003.[7]
Despite the religious freedoms of modern democracies, without a basic founding in our religions, despite adherence to the principles of our Judeo-Christian ethics, there would never have been the United States of America. Freedom of religious practices is the cornerstone of American society. We may disagree about whose religion is the right religion, but we openly tolerate the building of mosques next to churches and synagogues. And our government will never say who could perform the rites and rituals of those various religions.
I speak of Catholicism in China, not because I am Catholic, but because it is the mainstream religion that is least tolerated in China. A Catholic in China, whether priest, holy, or lay, has two choices. He or she is either a member of the Patriotic Catholic Church, the government-sponsored church, or a member of the “underground” Catholic Church, a Roman Catholic. Most Catholics in China are therefore “underground.” According to the American-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, every “underground” bishop in China is either in prison, under house arrest, under surveillance, or in hiding.[8] Unfortunately, the Chinese government intensifies its persecution of religious clerics who are more noticeable and are the least “Chinese” in their beliefs and practices. Roman Catholics easily fit into these parameters.
The official persecution of Catholics is so pervasive that even the State of Kentucky tried to do something about it. Kentucky, which is only about ten percent Catholic, rightfully recognized the persecution of Catholics as a symptom of the general denial of religious freedom prevalent in China. In a 1997 piece of state legislation by a Special Session of the Kentucky legislature (97 SS BR 34), Kentucky recognized that the People’s Republic of China was engaged in a “campaign of brutal repression and persecution of those professing faith in Jesus Christ.” Citing numerous incidences where Christians, mostly Catholic priests, were jailed, sentenced to education-through-labor camps, placed under strict surveillance, held incommunicado, and ordered by the state to refrain from administering Christian rites, the Kentucky legislature proposed that the United States take away China’s favored nation status and that severe restrictions be placed on trade with China.
Muslims are likewise persecuted and watched. If you are a Muslim, it states so on your national identification. China is particularly concerned about its Muslim population, because there are more Muslims than Christians. In fact, of the fifty-five so-called nationalities of China, ten of them are Muslim. The largest of those are is the Hui, to which my wife belongs. But the Huis are not a true nationality, as the term really applies to any person of Chinese origin who is Muslim. Granted, many Huis trace their Muslim identity to family roots and do not practice Islam; they are nevertheless singled out by the state and tagged as Muslims on their ID, not unlike the red “J” that was stamped on the passports of Jewish Austrians before and during the Second World War.
It does not matter whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or anything else. What should matter is that in China, people cannot practice their religion as they choose. Many who do are sentenced to prison or to education-through- labor camps. These prisons and labor camps produce much of the cheap merchandise that we buy in America.
Even my Chinese wife was disappointed that we did not get to see the American presidential debate on live on television. The Chinese are aware that in the west we have political debate, something that they look at with a sort of bemusement, hardly able to contemplate the consequences of such a pervasive attitude. Many Chinese are fascinated with the fact that we get to choose, that we get to hear what our candidates have to offer. They asked me who I voted for, not really because they wanted to know my politics, but they somehow seemed to want to at least touch our political system in some way. They cannot be a part of it except vicariously through an American who happens to be in China.
Later, we saw bits and pieces of the debate on the news, but we did not see everything. We certainly did not hear any part of President Bush’s remarks on his faith in God and the pleasure that he takes in praying. Nor did we hear any of John Kerry’s closing remarks where he attributes his moral conscience to his Catholic upbringing. If we did, then China would be required to decry both of the candidates as evil.
Before the debates, China had been conditioning its people for many months to accept Kerry as a friend of China and a peaceful world and had portrayed Bush as a war-mongering puppet of western imperialism. With the last debate in which Kerry relied so heavily on his Catholic values, the Chinese media stopped talking about Senator Kerry. I guess it is hard to portray Kerry as good if he were Catholic? Who will Communist China endorse next? Ralph Nader?

End Notes:

1. Cited from “Freedom of Religious Belief in China,” a white paper published by the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, October 1997, Beijing.
2. Id.
3. U.S. State Dept. 2000 Human Rights Report on China.
4. Way of Life Literature’s Fundamental Baptist Information Service, 2001.
5. UN Charter, Article 1, Section 3.
6. U.S. State Dept. 2000 Human Rights Report on China.
7. U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, May 2004.
8. World Mission Magazine, “Soft Sell, Hard Line,” Feb. 2004.

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