(By Jorge Láscar [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has drawn up new legislation which could further restrict religious freedom.

On September 10 China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (国家宗教事务局, SARA) released a draft Regulation for Internet Religious Information Services (互联网宗教信息服务管理办法) for public comment.

The draft law restricts the free flow of online information on religious topics. The law would require websites to obtain from the government a special “permit for online religious information services” (互联网宗教信息服务许可证) in order to publish on the internet religious content. Religious organizations, institutions and venues that have obtained a permit would be allowed to preach and offer religious training only on their own websites and they must have a real-name registration system.

Providers of internet religious services would be banned from broadcasting live religious activities such as sermons, prayers, or baptisms, as well as displaying religious images. They would also be prohibited from inciting subversion, opposing the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), overthrowing the socialist system and promoting extremism, terrorism and separatism.

The permit would be valid for 3 years. All religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, would be affected by the new regulations.

Only organizations legally registered in the PRC, or their legal representatives and managers who are Chinese citizens residing in China, will be able to apply for permits. Organizations or individuals based outside of the PRC will not be allowed to apply for the permits. “Foreign organizations as well as foreign individuals and their organizations established in China will not be able to engage in internet religious information services” (境外组织或个人及其在境内成立的组织不得在境内从事互联网宗教信息服务), the draft law states.

The PRC has always had a complex relationship with religion.

Marxist-Leninist atheism is the official policy of the Chinese Communist Party. As soon as it seized power in 1949, the CCP established “patriotic” religious associations to control the country’s five largest religious groups: Buddhists, Daoists, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants. From 1957 to 1966, restrictive policies were implemented and the number of worshippers was forcefully reduced.

A major crackdown on religion began in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, when a campaign against the “Fours Olds” – old customs, culture, habits and ideas – was launched. Red Guards vandalized and destroyed religious buildings and artifacts, all venues of worship were closed down, and religion was banned altogether (Fenggang Yang, Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule, 2012, pp. 65-73).

After the end of the Mao era, a new policy of relative religious tolerance was initiated. At the end of 1978, the CCP under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping launched its opening up and reform policies with the purpose of modernizing the Chinese economy. GDP growth, technological development and rising living standards became the absolute priority of the government.

In 1982 the CCP issued a circular titled “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Affairs during the Socialist Period of Our Country”, commonly known as Document No. 19, which laid out the principle of guaranteeing religious freedom as long as believers loved the country, supported the CCP, and followed socialist laws (ibid., p. 50).

However, religions were still subject to restrictive regulations. Not only could the largest religious groups exist only within the government-sanctioned “patriotic” organizations, but other religions were suppressed. The most famous example is that of Falun Gong, which in 1999 was banned as an “evil cult” (ibid., p. 76).

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the CCP has once again started campaigns against the major religions. In 2016 Xi stated that Party members must act as “unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith, and bear in mind the Party’s tenets.” He urged government officials to “step up the guidance, planning, direction and supervision on religious work.”

The Communist government has launched a massive crackdown on the Muslim population of Xinjiang. According to United Nations estimates, as many as 1 million Uighurs may be held in internment and “reeducation” camps, where they are compelled to study Communist propaganda and profess allegiance to Xi Jinping. Cases of torture have also been reported.

Christians have been targeted, too. According to the Baptist Press, the Chinese government has raided and closed down churches, harassed worshippers, removed crosses and burnt Bibles. On September 9 the authorities shut down the Zion Church, one of the largest Protestant churches in the country, because it wasn’t registered with the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

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