CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 22 June 2019

Print Version    Email to Friend
Evolution of Chinese constitution 
on the freedom of religion

HONG KONG (SE): Our media carries many stories about the repression of religion in mainland China, yet the authorities in Beijing continually point to the constitution as saying that China has freedom of religious belief.

However, at the same time, we are also told that teaching religion to children under 18 is forbidden, which would seem to contradict the freedom of belief claim.

Writing for China Source, Joann Pittman points out that that since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has had four constitutions and the laws governing freedom of religion have evolved with each amendment.

Its first constitution was ratified in 1954, the second in 1975, the third in 1978 and the current one in 1985.

“Each reflects the unique political and social conditions in China at the time of ratification,” Pittman points out. “Each constitution has an article that refers to religious belief.”

In the 1954 constitution, article 88 reads, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy religious freedom.”

However, during the Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the constitution was virtually cast aside, as Mao Zedong ruled by decree.

The wording was greatly modified in the 1975 constitution to read, “Citizens enjoy freedom of speech, correspondence, the press, assembly, association, procession, demonstration and the freedom to strike, and enjoy freedom to believe in religion and freedom not to believe in religion and to propagate atheism” (Article 28).

Then, an updated version produced in 1978 simply stated, “Citizens enjoy freedom to believe in religion and freedom not to believe in religion and to propagate atheism” (Article 46).

However, in neither is mention made about the freedom to propagate religion, only to believe or not believe.

But the freedom to propagate atheism is mentioned specifically.

The current one derived from the 1985 constitution is much longer. It reads, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organisation 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” (Article 36).

The reference to influences outside of China is a significant new inclusion.

The most comprehensive one is the most recent, as on first reading it seems to protect religion from force, either to believe or not to believe, as well as protecting people from discrimination as a result of their beliefs.

However, Pittman points out that what the constitution gives with one hand, it then takes back with the other. She isolates the sticking points as the words normal, disruptive, impair and interfere.

“The state gets to define what religious activities are considered to be normal. The state gets to define what activities are considered disruptive to social order, impair the health of society and interfere with the educational system,” she points out.

While the constitution is a normal place to go to find out what the rights and duties of citizens are, in the case of China what is in the constitution does not really matter very much, as its courts do not have the power of judicial review.

“In other words, they cannot consider the constitution when deciding cases,” Pittman points out. “It is just not relevant.”

For those worried about the prohibition of teaching religion to children under 18, it is a relief to find out that the constitution does not forbid this at all. It simply is not mentioned.

However, Pittman says, “The bad news is that such a stipulation does exist in document number 19 of The Basic viewpoint and Policy on the Religious question during Our Country’s Socialist Period, which was promulgated by the State Council (or the cabinet) in 1982.”

This policy documents how religion can and cannot function in China.

The document states, “The political power in a socialist state can in no way be used to promote any one religion, nor can it be used to forbid any one religion, as long as it is only a question of normal religious beliefs and practices. At the same time, religion will not be permitted to meddle in the administrative or juridical affairs of state, nor to intervene in the schools or public education. It will be absolutely forbidden to force anyone, particularly people under 18 years of age, to become a member of a Church, to become a Buddhist monk or nun, or to go to temples or monasteries to study Buddhist scripture.”

On top of that, in 2005, in another strange twist, the State Council promulgated the Regulation on Religious Affairs.

Article two states, “Citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief. No organisation or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as religious citizens) or citizens who do not believe in any religion (hereinafter referred to as non-religious citizens).

“Religious citizens and non-religious citizens shall respect each other and co-exist in harmony, and so shall citizens who believe in different religions.”

But Article three says, “The State, in accordance with the law, protects normal religious activities, and safeguards the lawful rights and interests of religious bodies, sites for religious activities and religious citizens. Religious bodies, sites for religious activities and religious citizens shall abide by the Constitution, laws, regulations and rules, and safeguard unification of the country, unity of all nationalities and stability of society. No organisation or individual may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State, or in other activities that harm State or public interests, or citizens’ lawful rights and interests.”

While the progression in the wording at fist appears to become more free, it has in fact become more limiting, as it removes all areas of possible interpretation from the four sticking points, namely; normal, disruptive, impair and interfere.

In a democratic state, religion defines itself.

The state is considered to have no right to legislate on what people may or may not believe, and the rights of free speech and association allow the freedom for people to express their beliefs in public.

However, Pittman notes that in China, it seems that people can believe what they want, but the state reserves the right to set boundaries on the public expression of those beliefs.

 

By not describing or defining the sticking point words, the government can set the boundaries of practice arbitrarily at any point in the field.

More from this section