The new legal provisions on religious affairs issued by China last November are to come into effect on March 1. In most circles, this document has been received with guarded optimism, as a sign of progress towards a broader religious tolerance.
The document appears to be part of a larger trend towards a more balanced approach to religious beliefs: official directives distributed to party cadres in the past few months show that the central government, while underlining the need to enhance atheist propaganda, does not wish to see religious believers coerced into becoming non-believers, and ostensibly regards religious leaders as a possible positive source of social stability.
Indeed, during a high level meeting held in Zhongnanhai on February 1 by Jia Qinglin (the fourth most powerful leader in the Chinese nomenclature) with China's top religious leaders, he expressed general support for religious activity in the country, stressing that religious morality and culture do benefit social development, and that the past year had seen positive progress in the religious domain.
These overtures not withstanding, a careful scrutiny of the letter of the law shows that the progress, so far, has only been partial, and that the remaining loopholes are many, leaving the door open to arbitrary interpretation and implementation of the new provisions.
Five years in the making, these are just new regulations, and still not the hoped for Law on Religion. And in spite of the length of this document many of its 48 articles contain vague terms that can make it far too easy to carry out arbitrary decisions. For example, from Article 3 onwards, the regulations state that only normal religious activities are protected, leaving the party as the sole arbiter of what constitutes normality. Elsewhere, we can read that religious schools can only be established when they have a rational setup, again giving no details of who, and how, will determine what this might be.
Even a perfunctory look at the new regulations shows that they suffer from the deficiencies of all other legal documents produced under a one party system, one where there is no careful debate by legislators on how to perfect the letter of the law, and make it watertight.
Thus, in spite of what has been interpreted as a new wind of openness, what is apparent, and worrying, is that once again the Chinese central government has drafted a document not to protect, but to regulate all religious activities. The few protections that are guaranteed will only be extended to those religious venues, personnel and activities that have been sanctioned by the state leaving all others who fall outside this category open to suppression.
In fact, the vagueness of much of this document is such that anybody could find oneself on the wrong side of the law. Even though China's legal reform efforts are rightly being applauded, its laws and regulations are still riddled with clauses that guarantee that the Communist Party has ample scope for arbitrary interpretation. In this case, the new regulations broad definitions make it easy to ban, close down, or hinder any religious group that has arisen the suspicion of the authorities. In the case of China's ethnic minorities, for example, little or no protection is guaranteed.
Even under the new provisions, religious affairs in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia or Tibet are perceived as matters concerning national security, the fight against separatism and anti-state activity, thus confirming that religious policies in these areas go hand in hand with the states overall goals of assimilation of all minorities.
Here, the least expression of dissent, whether spurred by religious devotion or by the attempt of asserting ones identity, is met with the full spectrum of the repressive apparatus of a police state.
Also, the new provisions leave untouched all the regulations that have been used in the past to persecute, and drive underground, groups defined as evil cults (like Falun Gong) or practices deemed superstitious. Even for approved religions, though, invasive controls are still in place: outlawing such harmless activities as singing religious hymns in a park, or in a private house.
Individual worship remains limited, as are individual or family religious pilgrimages abroad without proper authorization.
Regardless of these moot points, religious practitioners were pleased to notice that the new regulations do not mention the five recognized religions - namely Catholicism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Islam and Taoism - which has renewed the hopes of other religious denominations, such as the Orthodox Church and the Methodists, that will finally be able to apply for recognition.
While internal party documents state that administrative powers must not be used to suppress religion, the party still distrusts what religion might become: the same documents draw a clear difference between religious issues that may arise from a contradiction among the people, and those that can become a problem of opposition, or a challenge to the party.
In spite of a few innovations, then, this latest set of provisions to manage China's growing religious sentiment reproduces that curious contradiction of a communist, secular state taking it upon itself to regulate and perform over the highest spiritual matters.
It is a state of affairs that has in the past seen communist cadres supervising the profoundly esoteric selection of Living Buddhas among Tibetan children, or deciding who could be ordained to the higher hierarchies of the Catholic Church. It is indeed an interesting paradox that, in China, the separation between state and church is still far from being achieved. Not only is government interference into religious affairs sanctioned by all the legal documents, but the very idea of greater independence for spiritual leaders and their institutions is still seen with undisguised suspicion.
By perpetuating a managerial approach to religion, China not only falls short of guaranteeing genuine freedom of religious belief, but above all it reproduces its outdated notion of spiritual belief as insulated from the larger social and political aspirations of its people.
Nicolas Becquelin is the Hong Kong research director for Human Rights in China.