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