Tuesday, January 30, 2024

New Rules on Religion in Xinjiang: Comparing State Council and Provincial Congress Regulations

The entrance to Ihlas Supermarket in the Kashgar city center in August 2018. Various banners and posters bearing political slogans in Mandarin and Uyghur, with slogans promoting speaking Mandarin and ethnic unity. Image credit: Kubilayaxun / CC BY-SA 4.0

Near the end of 2023, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) issued new regulations on administrating religious affairs in the region. The restive province remains a source of international controversy — Western nations have decried widespread surveillance and religious repression while China has refuted these as politically motivated criticisms and pointed to its support from Muslim-majority nations to validate its policies. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) 2022 report concluded that “serious human rights violations” that may constitute crimes against humanity have been committed in the region, and the new regulations passed more than a year after that report and China’s rejection of its findings. 

The fourteenth XUAR People's Congress passed the Religious Affairs Regulation on December 22, 2023, at its seventh session. The new regulations will take effect on February 1, 2024, a week after its human rights record was examined in the United Nations Universal Periodic Review in Geneva. Xinjiang was notably a recurring issue during this review, which took place on January 23, 2024. 

The regional regulations are based in large part on the 2018 National Religious Affairs Regulation issued by the State Council. The Xinjiang regulations introduce several provisions “in consideration of [the] actual circumstances in the autonomous region.” (XJ Article 1) 

Using translations done by the China Law Translation, Dui Hua has put together a side-by-side comparison (link) of the XUAR Religious Affairs Regulations (2024), hereafter referred to as XJ regulations, and the State Council Religious Affairs Regulations (2018), hereafter SC regulations

In the XJ regulations, some provisions from the SC regulations are re-arranged and combined. They also omit details of some provisions included in the SC version by simply referring to them as “in accordance with the national laws, regulations, and rules.” 

Such regulations and rules include the Measures for Administration of Religious Venues introduced by the State Religious Affairs Bureau, which went into effect on September 1, 2023. Some of the notable differences between the XJ and SC versions are highlighted below.  

Battling Against Endangering State Security, Extremism, & Ethnic Hatred 

The stated goal of the XJ regulations is to protect citizens' freedom of religious worship and to maintain religious and social harmony. Both the XJ regulations and the SC regulations highlight the responsibility of religious groups and believers to fight criminal activities carried out in the name of religion. 

Both regulations reference the need to battle extremism (SC Article 3. XJ Article 4) and activities that might endanger state security (SC Article 4, 63, 64. XJ Article 5), especially splittism (SC Article 4, 63, 73(1). XJ Article 5, 49(2)). While both versions strongly emphasize the importance of promoting and maintaining “ethnic harmony” the XJ regulations also reference “inciting ethnic hatred” in its text (XJ Article 5, 49(2)), which is not mentioned in the SC text. 

XJ expands on the emphasis against religious extremism and includes specific behavior in Article 47: 

  • ...must not use appearances, apparel, signs, symbols, and so forth to play up religious fanaticism; 
  • [must] not coerce or force others to wear religious extremist clothing or wear religious extremist symbols or signs. 

Publishing & Personal Consumption of Religious Materials 

While SC Article 45 permits religious groups, religious schools, and churches and temples to print materials for internal use (“in accordance with relevant laws on publishing”), XJ Article 48 requires such publications to be reviewed and approved by the regional religious affairs bureau. A printing permit issued by the regional news and press department is required and distribution can only be within the approved scope.  

De-extremization propaganda paintings. Image credit People.com.cn 

SC Article 45 stipulates religious materials cannot contain content: 
  1. that undermines harmonious co-existence between religious and non-religious citizens; 
  2. that undermines the harmony between different religions or within a religion;  
  3. that discriminates against or insults religious or non-religious citizens;  
  4. that advocates religious extremism;  
  5. that contravenes the principle of religions' independence and self-governance. 
XJ Article 49 expands on this by prohibiting five more types of illegal content: 

(1) that undermines national unity, social stability, economic development, and scientific and technological progress;   
(2) that incites ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination, and undermines ethnic unity;   
(3) that promotes ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism;  
(7) that endangers social morality or the traditional culture of China; and 
(8) Other content prohibited by laws, regulations, and state provisions. 

XJ Article 50 further restricts individual consumption of contents that are deemed illegal (as defined by Article 49) on the internet or other digital formats, including mobile phones and portable data storage. The article adds that “Organizations and individuals must not illegally listen to, watch, or transmit overseas religious radio and television programs.” 

However, the XJ version omits SC Article 46 which regulates importing religious materials from overseas for personal use.  

A photo of the Urumqi bazaar taken in 2005. Image credit: 29cm via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 

Religious School Appointments & Sinicization 

The XJ regulations largely follow the SC regulations in “Chapter II: Religious Groups” (on rules for personnel appointments) and “Chapter III: Religious Schools” (on religious training), but it adds the requirement that religious schools and religious training should contribute to social harmony and Chinese culture by incorporating “Chinese characteristics.” 

XJ Article 11(3) stipulates that research on religious culture and texts should: 

“... thoroughly uncover content in religious teachings and rules that are conducive to social harmony, modern progress, and health and civilization; and make interpretations of religious teachings and rules in line with contemporary China's requirements for development and improvement, and in line with the outstanding traditional Chinese culture.” 

XJ Article 14 also asks religious schools to: 

“...follow the path of school operations with Chinese characteristics, running the school in accordance with law, advancing educational and teaching reforms, and increasing the quality of school operations.” 

Sinicization reappears in “Chapter IV: Religious Activity Sites” which regulates building, renovation, and expansion of religious sites and venues. XJ Article 26 adds that sites that are newly built or renovated, expanded, or rebuilt shall “reflect Chinese characteristics and style in areas such as their architecture, sculptures, paintings, and decorations.” 

Conduct of Religious Professionals 

While the SC regulations includes brief, generalized provisions regulating the conduct of religious professionals, including the requirement to follow relevant laws and rules and to protect their rites, the XJ regulations call on personnel to also follow orthodoxy and anti-extremism measures.  

XJ Article 38 further defines specific acts that are not permitted, including: 

  1. Making “edicts” [DH: Idhn—permission, promise], appointing religious presiding officiants, and restoring or indirectly restoring feudal privileges;  
  2. Accepting canonization, appointments, or honorary titles from overseas organizations or individuals; 
  3. Accepting instruction on engaging in religious and educational activities from overseas organizations or individuals;  
  4. Setting up private meeting places and establishing illegal religious organizations;  
  5. Conducting unauthorized “living Buddha reincarnation" activities. 

Of these, (1) is a common practice among Chinese Hui Muslims, and (5) is specific to Tibetan Buddhism.  

A roadside sign in Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, written in both Uyghur and Chinese with the phrase “I liken the party to my mother. Image credit: Kubilayaxun / CC BY-SA 4.0 

An Expansion of Past Regulations 

It is important to note that the XJ regulations are an expansion of the SC regulations. On the surface, it appears that the XJ regulations include fewer mentions of the phrase “extremism.” However, the regional version refers in places to being “in accordance with the relevant national laws and regulations,” which is a clear reference to the SC regulations. The regional regulations also made combating splittism and extremism a top priority, including allocating these responsibilities to religious schools and religious professionals. Additionally, the XUAR previously passed de-extremification regulations in 2017. 

The XJ regulations build on the SC ones to further dictate how individuals and institutions can engage with state-sanctioned religions. Beyond the restrictions and obligations outlined above, both regulations also place restrictions on adhering to specific pillars of Islam. For example, going abroad for the Hajj is permitted only when organized by a national Islamic group (in this case the Islamic Association of China), and both regulations include rules against accepting overseas funds (SC Article 57; XJ Article 45) with a few exceptions, which may impinge on the third pillar of Islam known as Zakat, or almsgiving). 

Similarly, other regions like Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region have their own religious affairs regulations. Qinghai’s went into effect on October 1, 2021 and Tibet’s a month later on November 1, 2021. The Tibetan regulations also include some provisions specific to Tibetan Buddhist tradition and beliefs, such as reincarnation. The Chinese government’s insistence on controlling all aspects of religious practice, from what materials adherents can possess to transnational processes, reflect how national security and social stability concerns drive policies that demand adherence to the state above all.   

Dui Hua has compiled a side-by-side comparison of the XJ and SC regulations and provided comments where appropriate: Comparison of XJ and SC Regulations 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

The Surprise Success in Bridging the US & China is a Dialogue on Juvenile Justice

US-China relations are thought to be all-time low since the two countries resumed engagement in the 1970s. But in one surprising area, the United State and China are benefiting from open, cordial, and productive dialogue: improving juvenile justice. 

In an article for Civic Research Insititute’s Juvenile Justice Update Winter 2024 edition, Dui Hua executive director John Kamm details the Dui Hua Foundation’s work on juvenile justice with representatives from China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC). In 2007, Kamm and a Chinese legal expert visited with San Francisco Bay Area legal practitioners. Following this, Kamm, with the MacArthur foundation, organized an official exchange between a Chinese delegation to the United States. At each stop, Chinese legal experts gave presentations on juvenile justice in China and engaged in discussions with US experts about best practices and work to be done.  

The 2008 exchange marked the beginning of Dui Hua’s cooperation with the SPC. In the 15 years since, Dui Hua has facilitated eight other programs, most recently in April 2023. In the journal, Kamm describes some of the key changes that have occurred since these exchanges began. These include: 
  • There has been a continuous drop in juvenile convictions, which have fallen by more than 50 percent since 2013, according to statistics released by the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) in 2022. 
  • In 2022, the number of juvenile convictions reached a record low, with only 27,757 juveniles tried nationwide.  
  • Following the first Dui Hua-facilitated Chinese-U.S. exchange, juvenile convictions continued to decrease year-by-year. Convictions fell below 5 percent for the first time in 2013.
  • The Chinese have incorporated restorative practices into its justice operations, reducing the number of juvenile arrests and prosecutions.  
    • Of particular significance is the wider use of conditional non-prosecution, known in the United States as diversion. In 2022, 26,161 juvenile cases were diverted. In 2013, diversion was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Law. Since 2014, the number of juveniles offered conditional non-prosecution increased eightfold. 
    • Record sealing was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Law in 2013. A total of 92,694 juveniles had their records sealed from 2020-2022. In 2022, 33,021 juvenile records were sealed, an increase from 28,163 in 2020 and 31,510 in 2021. 
Read the full article [PDF]

Thursday, January 11, 2024

From "Vineyard” to Prison: The House of Joseph

A photo of Kunshan, Suzhou, where the House of Joseph has been known to operate. Image credit: Song Sangroov / CC BY 3.0 DEED 

Dui Hua continues to uncover information on Chinese religious groups following the release of its report “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” in March 2022. Three new groups have been identified including the House of Joseph, or yuesejia (约瑟家) in Mandarin Chinese, Xinling Famen (心灵法门), and Corporate Christ (团体基督). 

The House of Joseph is an indigenous Christian group whose members are at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Founded in 1992 by Wei Zhuxiang (魏柱祥) as an offshoot of the Spirit Church, or linglingjiao (灵灵教), the House of Joseph is sometimes called “the third generation” of the True Jesus Church (真耶稣教会) from which the Spirit Church was splintered in 1986. According to Chinese government sources, Wei predicted an apocalypse in 2000 and said that conversion to the House of Joseph was the only way to salvation. He allegedly “distorted” the Bible by proclaiming himself Joseph, son of Jesus. He claimed that the holy spirit had descended on him and his wife, and the couple became the new god after they united as one. He also stated that he was reincarnated as a shepherd in the earthly world in search of “another flock of sheep.” His goal is to launch an evangelizing mission which he calls “the 6,000-Year Project of the God.”  

Unorthodox religious groups often stand accused of illegally amassing a fortune from superstitious believers through “indoctrination” and “mind control.” The House of Joseph is no exception. The church allegedly asks adherents for donations to repent their sins, and it arranges marriages for male adherents who pay a fee from 5,000-20,000 yuan. Following Wei’s unfulfilled apocalyptic prophecy in 2000, Wei started calling on believers to join settlements or communities that he termed “vineyards” and described as swathes of paradise on earth. Believers were admitted after they paid a fee of 2,000 yuan. Chinese government sources reveal that he used the money to create economic entities in garment processing, engineering construction, planting and breeding, catering services, and trading. Violators of his church rules would be ordered to fast, suspended from employment, and even dismissed from his “vineyards.” 

Wei once claimed that his church had as many as 100,000 members. However, Chinese government sources suggest that the group only has a limited reach in China, with over 1,000 devoted members mostly in Huai’an and Kunshan (in Jiangsu Province), and Shanghai. It is unclear when the Chinese government started labelling the House of Joseph an “evil cult,” but a court judgment Dui Hua uncovered states that Wei was among the 12 leading members detained amid a crackdown in 2005. In 2006, the Kunshan City People’s Court convicted Wei of fraud and sentenced him to 10 years and six months in prison. Wei was released from prison in April 2014. His wife was also sentenced in the same case, but information about the criminal punishment she received is not available. 

Footage of a baptism conducted by the True Jesus Church, which the House of Joseph is thought to have splintered from. Image credit: True Jesus Church live stream 

Re-Indicted in 2020 

Wei continued to develop his church after he was released from prison. In May 2020, Wei was re-arrested in Suqian, Jiangsu, alongside another leading member Wang Shoucai (王守财) for “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” Six months later, Wei and Wang were among the 17 House of Joseph members who were indicted for violating Article 300. The procuratorate accused them of “disseminating propaganda materials all over the country to promote the cultic ideology of the House of Joseph, collecting donations from believers, and illegally amassing a fortune” since 2017. 

Dui Hua has not been unable to find a court judgment concerning this case. However, given China’s high conviction rates and that Wei reoffended, it is highly likely that Wei received a lengthy prison sentence and is serving a second prison stint in Jiangsu. 

Suqian, Jiangsu, where the House of Joseph leader Wei was arrested after serving his prison sentence. Image credit: Invercargill City Council 

Other Convictions 

    I.    Zhang X 

Besides Wei, Dui Hua found that two other House of Joseph members were convicted prior to his re-indictment in 2020. In the first case, Wei’s nephew surnamed Zhang received a three-year suspended sentence for violating Article 300 in December 2015. Zhang, a farmer, was initially placed under residential surveillance in March 2012. That same month, he was released on bail pending further investigation. He was indicted three years later, in April 2015. The following month, he was released on bail again until the Huaiyin District People’s Court resumed the trial on September 17, 2015. 

Zhang converted to the House of Joseph in 2001 and was appointed by Wei as the head of a Kunshan-based “vineyard” in 2011 while Wei was serving his 10 years and six months’ prison sentence. The court judgment states that Zhang “actively obeyed and earnestly carried out Wei’s orders through letters and verbal messages from prison.” Wei made another prediction of cataclysm which would take place on November 16, 2011 following a nuclear war. Adherents were told that they must seek refuge from three arks (like those used by Noah in religious texts), one of which was in Tibet. Individuals would be denied refuge unless they had been baptized by the House of Joseph by September 12, 2011. Zhang disseminated Wei’s prophecy and continued to help Wei to exert indirect control of church members. 

In preparation for the impending cataclysm, Zhang sold his Jiangsu vineyards and arranged for over a thousand church members to relocate to Xinjiang and Tibet where he intended to re-establish his organizational branch. In Xinjiang, Zhang organized about 60 missionaries to conduct overseas evangelization in Iran and Thailand. Zhang ordered one of the teams to travel to Iran for a religious exchange and requested that church members print 4,000 leaflets with Farsi translations of the church doctrines. In Tibet, Zhang formed four other teams of missionaries to preach domestically. All their activities were funded directly by the House of Joseph. 

In November 2011, one of the missionaries Zhang dispatched to China’s northeast was detained. Foreseeing an imminent risk of police investigation, Zhang deleted all correspondences with the missionary and dismissed all church members who had relocated to Xinjiang and Tibet. Before Zhang was able to transfer out the church funds, police seized over 54 million yuan, 2,100 grams of gold, and an apartment owned by the church in Jiangsu.  

Zhang’s punishment was lenient  because he turned himself in and disbanded his organizational branch in 2011. During the court trial, he claimed to have recanted his religious beliefs by questioning Wei’s unfulfilled prophecy concerning the nuclear war. He also pledged to not join any cult activities. Zhang’s three-year suspended sentence ended in December 2018. 

An image of Huai’an, one of the locations where the House of Joseph has been based. Image credit: Huai’an Economic and Technological Development Zone 

    II.    Chen X 

The House of Joseph continued to operate despite suffering a major blow after Zhang shuttered his Tibet and Xinjiang organizational branches. A court judgment Dui Hua acquired indicated another Jiangsu farmer surnamed Chen was sentenced to three years in prison on October 15, 2015, also for violating Article 300. Chen organized home gatherings with 15 other members despite “knowing full well that the church had been banned by relevant authorities” since February 10, 2010.  

Unlike Zhang, Chen does not appear to have been in close contact with Wei. Chen said all the 16 church members who took part in the home gatherings were God’s descendants and possessed powers to cure sicknesses and cast out demons. The judgment made no mention of Wei’s apocalyptic prediction in 2011. Chen was accused of printing 2,000 leaflets to spread claims that he possessed healing powers and had successfully cured more than 500 patients. Chen is believed to have been released from prison on December 10, 2017, assuming that he did not receive either sentence reduction or sentence extension. 

Dui Hua has been unable to find additional information about the House of Joseph beyond what is stated in the 2020 indictment and the two aforementioned court judgments. China’s Anti-Cult Association, which disseminates propaganda about the harmful nature of evil cults, is not known to have published a single article about the church. The House of Joseph has officially been designated as harmful on the grounds that it is both fraudulent and superstitious. However, as with many of the non-violent unorthodox religious groups in China, it is unclear if this opposition to the group is meant to protect the Chinese people from harmful superstition, or if it is another way to protect the Chinese government from a grassroots group with organizational capacity.