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16 September 2013

CHINA: When will five-fold state-backed religious monopoly end?

By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18

The official monopoly over all religious activity by communities of the five state-backed religious headquarter bodies is gradually being eroded, Forum 18 News Service notes. In a system established by China's communist rulers in the 1950s, only Buddhist, Catholic (independent of the Vatican), Daoist, Islamic and Protestant Christian groups under these headquarter bodies can gain legal status. Russian Orthodox and Jewish leaders have pushed for state recognition for their communities, that have restricted approval to function. Seventh-day Adventist, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormons) and Baha'i communities might be next. More difficult perhaps for the Chinese authorities would be allowing independent home-grown Protestant churches or mosques to gain legal status, or Catholic churches which owe allegiance to the Pope. Even more difficult still would be allowing religious communities to function openly without any kind of legal status, as is their right under China's international human rights commitments.

15 May 2013

CHINA: Tight state controls on religious education

By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18

China does not allow religious communities to run schools for children, even though regulations do not forbid the provision of religious education to minors. Nor is religious education provided in state schools. For students beyond school age, only state-approved religious groups affiliated with China's five state-backed monopoly faiths are allowed to apply to set up institutions for the study of their faith or training of clergy, Forum 18 News Service notes. Restrictions are especially tight in Tibet and Xinjiang. The state limits the number of such institutions and their size. Establishing new colleges is cumbersome and long drawn out, even when successful. Their curricula must include "politics" and "patriotic" education, as defined by the state. The state also discourages religious activity on general university campuses. These restrictions reflect the authoritarian state's desire to control religious groups, including by intervening in the training of their leaders and the level of education of their members.

7 February 2013

CHINA: Should religious freedom be a "core interest"?

By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18

Why does the Chinese state adopt measures that result in freedom of religion and belief violations? A fundamental explanation might be found among the Chinese leadership's concept of the country's "core interests", such as territorial integrity and social stability. Religious freedom might significantly improve if the Chinese state changes its view of the relationship between its "core interests" and religious freedom. Indeed, the Chinese leadership should seriously consider designating and implementing the protection of freedom of religion and belief as one of its core interests. Doing so will do more to bolster the state's stability and legitimacy than the use of violent force against unarmed civilians. It will require much courage and determination for the new Chinese leadership to accept this reality and take positive measures to respond to the situation. But a failure to do so may result in significant negative political consequences for the Chinese state.

26 November 2012

CHINA: Weibo and advancing freedom of religion or belief

By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18

Popular Chinese microblog Weibo has been used by people to express religious beliefs and to voice criticisms, for example of some local government actions. Indeed, the government may be using Weibo to monitor the behaviour of local authorities. Freedom of religion or belief has been a popular topic, Forum 18 News Service notes, as seen in discussions about connections between the Constitution and religious freedom. A Peking University scholar wrote: "Without religious freedom, there can't be a real Constitution!" But there seem to be different levels of interest in discussing religious freedom from Weibo users of different beliefs. And criticisms of the state, especially of central political leaders, are limited and indirect. There is no indication that Weibo has been used to mobilise collective action to address specific religious freedom violations. But there is a freedom to express beliefs on Weibo that would have been unthinkable in China not very long ago.

12 September 2012

CHINA: The marketisation of religious sites

By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18

In July 2012, reports surfaced that the managers of a major Buddhist sanctuary on the coast of eastern China's Zhejiang Province were preparing to list the site on the Shanghai stock market to raise capital. In recent years, the state managers of other Buddhist sites in China have either placed those sites on the stock market or are planning to do so. Thus far, the opposition to these efforts has been made on moral grounds. These arguments mask fundamental social and institutional factors that created this problem. One of the intermediary factors is the limited number of religious sites available in China. The fundamental factor, however, is the inability of religious groups to control religious resources. In other words, this is an issue of property rights. In order to prevent greater social discontent, the state must address the issue of religious shortage adequately, which involves taking the first step to allow religious groups to assume genuine control over religious sites.

12 July 2012

CHINA: Changing climate for religious NGOs?

By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18

Religious non-governmental organisations (RNGOs) in China face many challenges. They mainly support people such as migrant workers and their families, orphans, and victims of natural disasters, Forum 18 News Service notes. The government encourages this, but also places many restrictions on NGOs gaining legal registration. It also bans RNGOs from overtly religious activity, such as the Theological Education Society raided in June 2012. This has led many groups engaged in charitable activity - like those associated with illegal Protestant house churches - either to not seek registration, or to register as commercial organisations. Despite these challenges, RNGO leaders remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

21 May 2012

CHINA: The media, popular opinion and religious freedom

By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18

The links between violations of freedom of religion or belief in China and state media policies and practices need to be analysed, Forum 18 News Service notes. It is difficult to demonstrate a causal linkage, not least due to a lack of reliable information. But the available evidence suggests a link between the state media's encouragement of popular indifference or hostility towards religious matters and the state's repression of religious freedom. Self-censorship in the Chinese media reflects the cautious attitude displayed by state officials. This makes it very difficult for people in China to obtain reliable information on and form their own opinions about religious people, groups and ideas that the state is hostile to. These include the Falun Gong spiritual movement and Shouwang Protestant Church in the capital Beijing. Reform of the media is a requirement for real and lasting improvements in Chinese religious freedom to take place.

20 March 2012

CHINA: A post-Communist managerial state and freedom of religion or belief

By Magda Hornemann, Forum 18

Violations of freedom of religion or belief in China have continued, yet religious communities of all kinds have been growing rapidly. The Chinese Communist Party's attitude toward religion – and so towards the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief - has reflected the views of Chinese political elites from the 19th century onwards that religion is "superstition" and a barrier to modernisation, Forum 18 News Service notes. This has led to a political approach that could be characterised as "managerial", which allows the state to retain the will and power to control religious communities. The managerial approach in today's China is more practical and flexible than the ideologically-oriented approach of the Cultural Revolution. It leaves room for religious believers and communities to manoeuvre and even grow. Indeed, there is evidence of influences from religious believers among Communist Party officials. The long-term impact this may have on freedom of religion or belief and related human rights remains to be seen. But the future of religious freedom in China is not necessarily bleak.

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