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SCIO briefing on China's protection of the freedom of religious belief

White Paper

The State Council Information Office of China issued a white paper titled "China's Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief" on Tuesday.

China.org.cnUpdated: April 6, 2018

The State Council Information Office of China (SCIO) releases a white paper titled "China's Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief" in Beijing on April 3, 2018. [Photo/China SCIO]


What are the considerations behind the publishing of the white paper? Thank you.

Chen Zongrong:

Our first white paper on freedom of religious belief was released in October 1997, and now, over 20 years have passed. The 1997 white paper gave a comprehensive introduction to China's respect for and protection of freedom of religious belief with a large number of facts, including full and accurate data, and thus served as an authoritative source of information for the international community to know about China's religions and religious policies.

China has undergone fast and considerable changes over the past 20 years in its economic and social development and religious situation. The five main religions in China have also undergone great changes, and as I mentioned, are turning from a pursuit of quantity to a pursuit of quality. Therefore, we think it is necessary to publish another white paper to introduce the development and changes of religions in China over the past 20 years, especially to introduce the protection of freedom of religious belief, promotion of harmonious religious relationships, and self-improvement of the five main religions in recent years, and also, to elaborate some of our viewpoints. 

Publishing the white paper also shows that the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government attach great importance to protecting and promoting human rights, and that it has the sincere wish to advocate dialogue and oppose confrontation in the field of international human rights.

Thank you. 


My question is about the potential deal with the Vatican. There has been a lot of discussions regarding the deal over the appointment of bishops. I want to know if that's likely to be signed and released any time soon. If it isn't, what is the largest obstacle at the moment to reach such a deal? Thank you.

Chen Zongrong:

My colleague Ms. Xiao will answer this question.

Xiao Hong:

China and the Vatican have maintained contact and the two sides have actively engaged in profound discussions about certain issues. China has always been sincere in wanting to improve relations with the Vatican and has continued to make efforts. We are willing to work in the same direction with the Vatican in pushing forward constructive dialogue to improve relations with the Vatican.

People's Daily:

There have been some concern that China has been tightening its religious policy after the conference on religion in 2016. What is your response? Are there any changes in China's policy toward religion?

Chen Zongrong:

As I said earlier, the National Work Conference on Religion in 2016 is an important event on religious affairs 15 years after the 2001 meeting. While addressing the conference, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, put forward a series of new thoughts and requirements. After the conference, we have heard some concerns questioning if China is tightening its religious policy. I would like to take this opportunity to make my points in the following two aspects.

First, China's religious policy is stable and consistent. Since the reform and opening up in 1978 when China resumed to implement its policy of freedom of religious belief, China's religious policy has been sticking to some core values as well as basic values, ideas, and principles, which is to protect people's freedom of religious belief and safeguard their rights to freedom of religious belief. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has been following this basic policy of protecting the people's rights to freedom of religious belief. The country has also included it into the Constitution, which can be seen in the 36th article. This core value, basic principle and the basic policy have been stable and consistent.

Second, China's religious policy as well as laws and regulations regarding to religious affairs is also gradually improving and innovating, which is exemplified by Xi's important speech during the 2016 conference and the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs. The revision of policies and laws regarding religious affairs is to meet new situations and address new problems. We should protect, regulate, guide and serve religious development but never aim to control it. Moreover, we should uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and work to ensure that the five major religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism) can better adapt themselves to the socialist society.

We also aim to build a positive and healthy religious relation. The five major religions are already working in harmony, but some new situations and problems occurred under certain international and domestic contexts. 

It also mentioned that the rule of law shall be enhanced in addressing religious affairs. The newly-revised Regulations on Religious Affairs have included many parts to protect people's rights to freedom of religious belief and the lawful rights and interests of the religious circles. For example, it stipulates that governments of all levels should provide public services for religious circles including making road links, electricity, water, radio and TV broadcasting available for religious sites. 

The regulation also said that religious workers enjoy social security benefits like old-age insurance and healthcare insurance equal to other Chinese citizens. They can also enjoy subsistence allowances (if eligible).

The regulation stipulated that religious sites and institutions can obtain legal person status. In the past, the lawful rights and interests of religious sites was not well-protected and were sometimes infringed because their property could not be registered under their names without a legal person status. 

The construction of religious sites is also included into the master plan of land use in urban and rural areas. This move makes sure that the construction of religious sites will be considered during preliminary planning of land use and that religious believers can have adequate space for religious activities.

Therefore, China's religious policy is not only stable and consistent, but also keeps adjusting for new practices and requirements. In explaining its religious policies, the CPC Central Committee and the Chinese government are more explicit in attitude, more powerful in its measures, and more adapted to requirements of the new era.

Thank you.

Second German Television (ZDF):

Is it to be expected that there will be a solution on the negotiations between the Vatican and Chinese government to be more concrete on who's going to decide on the bishops and what's going to happen with the so-called "underground church"? 

Chen Zongrong:

Please let Ms. Xiao Hong answer this question for you.

Xiao Hong:

It seems that everyone is very concerned about Sino-Vatican relations. I can understand that your attention actually represents the concern of the broader audience behind you. I also thank you very much for your attention to Chinese religions and Sino-Vatican relations. However, regarding these specific aspects of the content of Sino-Vatican relations, I have nothing to add. But as you are a reporter from a German television station, I can tell you something about the exchanges between China and Germany. In 2016, we conducted a dialogue on different religions and civilizations with the German Christian community. The results were very good. We have reached an agreement that we will continue to hold such dialogues, the next of which will be in Shanghai in May this year, and we welcome you to attend. Thank you.

China News Service:

According to the white paper, there are nearly 200 million religious citizens in China, which is a great increase from the 100 million people in the 1997 white paper. Why and how did this happen? Thank you.

Chen Zongrong:

The figure of 100 million people in the 1997 white paper was actually from the estimates by the late Premier Zhou Enlai when he met with Pakistani and Indonesian Islamic delegations in the 1950s. He said at the time that there were several tens of millions of religious followers in China, and if they added those who held beliefs in their hearts instead of going to temples, all of them could make up almost 100 million people. From that time until the publication of the white paper in 1997, we all cited the saying of Premier Zhou. I want to explain two points on this issue:

First, the statement itself is an estimated statistic. It is an approximate figure. At that time, China's total population was more than 600 million. From the 1950s to the present, the total population of China has more than doubled. With more than 1.3 billion people, the population has grown substantially. For various reasons, after so many years of development, coupled with population growth, it is natural for the number of religious believers to grow.

Second, especially after reform and opening up was implemented, China has restored its policy of freedom of religion. As the breadth and depth of opening up to the outside world have been enlarging, all religions have had some growth respectively. It is very natural. Therefore, to still use the saying from the 1950s is not in line with the development in reality. Now the number of nearly 200 million people in the white paper is the number offered by the five major religions in China, which conducted statistics on their own, while we had data from the academic research institutions, statistical agencies, and sample surveys. The number was agreed on and recognized by various parties after we compared data from the two main sources (religions' own math and civil survey data). The nearly 200 million people are the number of religious followers who basically often go to religious sites and participate in religious activities.

That's all for this question. Thank you.

The Wall Street Journal:

I would like to add to the question regarding the relations between China and the Vatican. Currently, many experts have pointed out that the opportunity to solve the problem is in the hands of the Chinese side, and the Vatican is waiting for the final confirmation to be made by the Chinese side. So, why hasn't the Chinese side made a final confirmation about the settlement of the issue? And what is the reason? Thanks.

Chen Zongrong:

Ms. Xiao has been asked twice about the issue of China-Vatican relations. Here, I would like to explain it again, aiming to answer the question you have just raised.

To improve China-Vatican relations is the common aim of both sides. From the government perspective, we always maintain a sincere hope to improve bilateral relations, and the Chinese government has made specific efforts in this regard. Presently, China and the Vatican have an effective channel for dialogue, and all the issues will be negotiated and discussed through this channel.

So, here we also hope that the Vatican will be able to work together with the Chinese government to further improve bilateral relations. And this is also the point I want to stress about China-Vatican relations. Thanks.

Hong Kong Wen Wei Po:

The behavior of some Buddhists who obtain wealth by unfair means has generated negative influence. I'm wondering what measures you have taken to address the situation of the commercialization of Buddhism and Taoism. Thank you.

Chen Zongrong:

The commercialization of Buddhism and Taoism is an issue which attracts wide attention. The increasing commercialization is reflected in the following four aspects:

First, accumulating money by investing in construction of large-scale open air religious statues and temples. Second, contracting Buddhist and Taoist temples to the capital market and even planning to list them in the stock market. Third, conducting religious services in places other than Buddhist or Taoist temples in order to make money by collecting admission tickets and alms, establishing boxes of merits, and conducting unregulated activities like burning incense and freeing captive animals. Fourth, some Buddhist monks and Taoist priests have a loose sense in discipline and chase after fame and wealth under the influence of commercialization. They try to gain money through any possible means.

Criticized by the whole of society, these commercialized activities also hurt the development of religions. First, they damage the legitimate interests of Buddhism and Taoism by drawing in believers who offer alms to false monks and priests or those who make money from the temples. Second, they taint the image of the religions, because seeking fame and fortune goes against religious ethics. Third, they hinder the sound development of the religions. If such activities continue, the religions will lose believers and eventually imperil their existence and development. Therefore, to answer the calls of the religious circles as well as the whole of society, the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chinese government have attached great importance to tackling the commercialization of Buddhism and Taoism. 

We have taken the following measures. First, the State Administration of Religious Affairs has released several documents jointly with other central departments, specifying the limits of commercialization and defining wrongdoings. Second, we have stepped up supervision. We have supervised the investigation of major cases and exposed them to the public. Also, we have cooperated with related departments to carry out inspections and ordered the violators to rectify offenses. Third, we have carried out dedicated initiatives to deal with illegal activities. For example, we have intensified efforts to tackle illegal Buddhist statues. As we know, there are many substandard Buddhist statues built without approval. They are not in accordance with religious rites and only built to make money. We have dealt with the issue of illegal merit boxes established in non-religious places. Fourth, we have published the information of Buddhist and Taoist temples on the internet. Meanwhile, registered temples will put up a sign, enabling the public to differentiate them from fake ones. We have guided believers and followers to conduct religious practices in a proper way and develop a healthy atmosphere for practicing. All those efforts have to some extent curbed the commercialization trend. However, there is still a long way to go to entirely curtail such activities, but hopefully with the cooperation of society as a whole, and media as well, we can get this work done. Thank you.


According to the plan on deepening reform of Party and state institutions released by the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee administrates religious affairs. I would like to ask why such reforms have been made. What kind of influence will this have on the freedom of religious belief and religious activities of citizens after the reform? Thank you.

Chen Zongrong:

I am attending today's press conference as former vice administrator of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. The State Administration for Religious Affairs has been incorporated into the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee. We are in a process of adjustment. Officials at the director level and above from the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee, the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council assembled on the morning of April 1 to announce the formation of the new department. The integration of the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council into the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee and the formation of the new leadership of the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee mark the formation of the new department. My original title has expired, and the new title has yet to be announced. That's the reason I am attending the press conference as former vice administrator of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

According to the institutional reform plan, the State Administration for Religious Affairs was incorporated into the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee, which demonstrates the strengthening of the Party's centralized, unified leadership over religious work. The aim is to fully implement the Party's basic policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, and coordinate the United Front and religious resources. The reform will actively guide religions to adapt to China's socialist society. These words I just said are quoted from the plan on deepening reform of Party and state institutions. They are also the purpose and significance of the reform. I think this reform can produce the following benefits:

The reform is conducive to optimizing the institutional mechanisms for religious work, raising the level of religious work, and increasing the work force in religious work. Before the integration, the domain of the functions of the United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee overlapped with that of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. The reform will help streamline the regulatory system and better coordinate the strengths of the two. With an optimized institutional mechanism, improved governance level, and strengthened workforce of religious work, we will be able to better safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the religious community, guarantee citizens' freedom of religious belief, standardize the management of religious affairs, and promote social and religious harmony. Therefore, the reform will only benefit religious work without affecting it.

For the Communist Party of China, advocating atheism and guaranteeing freedom of religious belief are both part of the Party's claims and work requirements. The CPC advocates atheism and advocates the promotion of atheism, but it does not mean that the freedom of religious belief of citizens cannot be guaranteed, nor does it mean that citizens' freedom of religious belief cannot be respected. The relationship between the CPC and the religious community is solidarity and cooperation on politics and mutual respect of beliefs. No matter how the religious institutions change, the CPC's policy of guaranteeing freedom of religious belief will not change. I think the reform will be more and more beneficial to religious work, and better protect the freedom of religious belief of the citizens. Thanks.

Xi Yanchun:

We moved from talking about the white paper to the China-Vatican relationship to institutional reforms. Do you have any questions about the white paper?

Hong Kong Cable Television:

The white paper has a newly added part that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation. The religious circles will make efforts to expound doctrine to conform to China's situation and times. If there are conflicts between the newly added part and doctrine, what will you do? Catholic community encourages the running of its religious work in a democratic manner. How is this done?

Chen Zongrong:

What do you mean by the conflicts you just mentioned?

Hong Kong Cable Television:

There is the explanation of being Chinese. However, many religions have their own explanation on principles. For example, Catholicism has its own doctrine for electing new bishops. What will be done in case of conflicts? 

Chen Zongrong:

Religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, which is a policy first presented by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Central United Front Work Conference in 2015. It was further stressed at the national religious work conference in 2016 and later included in Party documents as a basic policy of the Party on religious work. Why do we specify that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation? It is the rule every religion follows that religions are adapted to context. All religions, without exception, follow this rule. If not, the religion can't live or develop. I think numerous examples have demonstrated this, whether in China or in the rest of the world.

The Party was not the first to propose that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation. Before President Xi presented this, the Catholic community had expressed that Christianity must be Chinese in orientation and made positive contributions. I was in charge of the Christian work before. The Christians held a workshop on Christianity for a Chinese context in Shanghai sometime before 2015, which produced great results. Therefore, the policy follows the objective law of religious development in line with development of the times. It has received enthusiastic response and support in religious circles. Jointly or on their own, they have hosted series of seminars and forums to explore the connotation and direction of being Chinese, with the goal of solving issues including the one you mentioned just now.

I would like to point out that we uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, but this will not change the basic religious doctrine and can never conflict with it, because the policy cannot change the core religious doctrine, manner or system. On the premise that all of these core elements remain the same, the policy provides guidance to religions in adapting to the Chinese context politically, socially and culturally. In the political field, religious circles will be provided guidance to support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and socialist system. These are the prerequisite for building up our country with secular people and realizing the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. In the social field, religious circles will be provided guidance to follow and serve society and fulfill responsibilities to the society. Religions are organic parts of society, so they should serve the society and be in harmony. In the cultural field, the expression of religious thought, manner, architectural style and art should be Chinese. I think no religion is exactly the same in different countries, regions and ethnicities. They all have their own characters. This is the case in the three worldwide religions of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Therefore, the policy is an effective measure to provide better guidance for the adaptation of religions to a socialist society, and it is widely accepted and there is little opposition.

In addition, you mentioned that Catholic community encourages the running of its religious work in a democratic manner. This is an important aspect of Catholicism being Chinese. However, it is the tradition of Catholicism historically. It does not change the core doctrine and system, but opposes the practice of "only one man's words count," making democratic decisions through the collective. I think this is also the tradition of Catholicism in other countries and throughout its history.

This is my answer, thank you! 

China Radio International (CRI): 

Revised regulations on religious affairs went into effect in February this year. Why was the old document revised, and what are the features of the new one? Thank you.

Chen Zongrong:

The revised regulations on religious affairs were released on Sept. 7 last year. The original document was released on Nov. 30, 2004.

Since March 1, 2005 when the old regulations went in to effect, great changes have taken place in China's religious conditions as well as its international and domestic environments in over a decade. But the document was no longer in keeping with the changing situation and failed to solve new problems. For example, it didn't address online religious affairs, legal-entity status of a religious community based on its religious venue or other new issues.

In addition, since the 18th CPC National Congress, the CPC Central Committee has attached greater importance to work related to religious affairs and made new requirements based on new situations and tasks. Those new requirements and duties needed to be included in the regulations to align them with the will of our country. 

What's more, China has been advancing law-based governance, which requires sound lawmaking in all fields. Thus, the old regulations, which had some defects, needed to be revised.

The revised document has three distinct features. First, it better reflects the principle of protecting citizens' right to freedom of religious belief in accordance with law. For example, as I mentioned just now, it stipulates that governments at all levels should provide public services for religious groups and include the construction of religious sites into general plans for land utilization, as well as plans for urban and rural development. The list of such examples is long, and today I don't have time to talk more about them. You can refer to the document for more information. 

Second, the revisions better reflect the principle of promoting religious harmony as well as maintaining national security, social stability and ethnic unity. Some people in certain regions are making use of religion to undermine ethnic unity, social stability and national security. In this context, the revised document offers better approaches to promoting religious harmony. For example, it has made clear that religious affairs should be managed in compliance with the principles of "protecting the legal, stopping the illegal, containing the extreme, resisting infiltration and combating crimes." This means that we will resolutely protect legality, and take tough measures to punish those activities that undermine social stability and ethnic unity.

Third, the new regulations better reflect the principle of promoting law-based government administration and building a rule of law government. Advancing law-based governance in all fields requires building a government and a society based on the rule of law. In managing religious affairs, we also should observe the law, and must not act beyond the law and its regulations. The revised document has prescribed more appropriate measures and legal procedures in this regard, and clearly defined functions, duties, obligations and powers for relevant government institutions in managing religious affairs. 

Therefore, the revised regulations can protect a wider range of legal religious activities with more intensive efforts and stop illegal activities through more targeted and effective measures. I think this is the most prominent feature.

Phoenix Satellite Television:

My question is for Mr. Chen. We have noted the issue that for various reasons, there are some underground churches and family churches in China, and many analysts describe them as a gray elephant in Chinese religion. However, we actually haven't seen any related information in this white paper. We would like to ask about how the Chinese government considers this issue. Is there any related information? How will the issue be addressed in the future? Thanks.

Chen Zongrong:

I need to make one point clear here. There are neither underground churches nor family churches in China. My understanding is that, the family churches you spoke of refer to the venues for religious activities privately set up by the Christian churches. From this perspective, the number is not small indeed, because it is related to the characteristics of Christianity itself. 

Regarding the venues for religious activities privately set up by the Christian churches, the measures we have taken is to use the influence of a church to guide a number of nearby venues for religious activities. In this way, we can provide effective religious services and religious guidance for the people who gather in these venues to live a religious life, and thus to meet their reasonable needs for religion.

Second, Article 35 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs amended this time has made one point clear over the question of: if presently there are no conditions for the establishment of venues for religious activities while religious believers have a need for a religious life? Here is the solution. Religious believers can select representatives who will apply to the religious affairs department of the people's government at the county level for the establishment of a temporary venue for religious activities, therefore to meet these religious believers' need for a venue to live a religious life.

The Regulations also make it clear that local religious groups, such as the China Christian Council and the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, provide all possible services for religious believers who gather in the temporary venues for religious activities.

Lianhe Zaobao:

My question is regarding the appointment of bishops. Some Catholics feel their freedom of religious belief is being hampered because the government won't allow the Pope to appoint bishops in China. What's your opinion on this view? Why does the Chinese government think that it should have the right to appoint bishops? Thank you.

Chen Zongrong:

China's Constitution has clear stipulations in this regard. China's religious organizations and affairs are not subject to any foreign domination. This means no foreign entities should interfere in China's religious affairs by any means. Chinese religious circles adhere to the principle of independence and self-management of religious affairs. I can't agree with the view you just mentioned. The freedom of religious belief is not hampered in the religious activities of Catholics in China.

Thank you.

Xi Yanchun:

Thank you all. This is the end of the press conference. 

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