Law and Religion in China

Religious Context Analysis

China has a population of approximately 1.3 billion. According to a 2007 survey, 31.4 percent of citizens ages 16 and older are religious believers. However, China does not recognize a wide range of religions, religious practices or groups.There are only five state-sanctioned religions in China: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism. There are estimated to be 100 million Buddhists in China, and up to 50 million Muslims. The number of Catholics in China is estimated to be around 12 million, while the Protestant population is somewhere between 70 and 90 million. Finally, Taoism is estimated to make up around 1 percent of the adult population of China. 

China’s current framework toward religion is best described as restrictive. According to Wang Zuo’an, the new head of The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), “The starting point and stopping point of work on religion is to unite and mobilize, to the greatest degree, the religious masses’ zeal, to build socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”  Policy regarding religion is usually adopted to further state economic and social goals rather than to promote religious freedom.

The 2005 State Council Regulation on Religious Affairs (RRA) provides some legal protection and benefits for religious groups that register with the government. This Regulation makes no mention of the five official religions, making it theoretically possible for other religions to register and attain “official” status as well (although no additional religions have been recognized to date). However this benefit comes with strings attached that impose governmental regulation and oversight, which can amount to political adjustments in doctrine and practice. Nonetheless, such protection largely prevents harassment from national and local government officials. unregistered groups and other religions are vulnerable to being labeled cults or superstitions, which are subject to official intervention and even criminal punishment. Also, there are no public criteria for determining or procedures for challenging such a label. 

Constitutional Provisions and Statues on Religion

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for freedom of religious belief within the framework of PRC state sovereignty. The Constitution text provides:
  • Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.
  • 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. 
However, the PRC Constitution is not a document that can challenge laws promulgated by the National People’s Congress.  Freedom of religious belief must fit within existing laws and other statutory bounds set by the NPC, as well as the regulations promulgated by the State Council under the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
The National People’s Congress is directly involved with regulating religion through legislation. However, NPC legislation on religion is not as common as is administrative regulation through the State Council. According to Chinese law, while all citizens enjoy the right to freedom of religious belief they must also carry out duties prescribed by law. In China, all individuals and organizations, including all religions, must safeguard the people’s interests, the sanctity of the law, ethnic unity and unification of the nation. The Chinese Government requires religions to conduct their activities within the sphere prescribed by law and adapt to social and cultural progress.
However, individual interference with religion is forbidden and, in some instances, criminalized. As regarding private parties, many of China’s laws promulgated by the NPC disallow discrimination regarding education and employment based on religion. Also, China’s criminal law clearly stipulates penalties for state officials’ unlawful infringement of citizens’ right to freedom of religious belief. Article 251 of the Criminal Law provides: “State personnel who unlawfully deprive citizens of their freedom of religious belief and infringe upon the customs and habits of minority ethnic groups, when the circumstances are serious, are to be sentenced to not more than two years of fixed-term imprisonment or criminal detention.” 
From The People’s Republic of China: Law and Religion Framework Overview (2012), noted omitted.
[For information about National and Provincial and lower-level religious policy, please click the links below:]