Why Unregistered: An Very Brief Overview

In the “Churches in China”conference last Friday (4/11/2014), the speaker and lawyer Mr. Kai Zhang did not show up because he has a family emergency and must return to China. Mr. Zhang is a human rights lawyer who has defended many cases for persecuted churches and victims of one-child policy. Because this conference is targeted at those who have little knowledge about churches in China, I would like to take 10 minutes before the interpreter reading Mr. Zhang’s notes to give a brief (very brief) overview of religious laws in PRC. Here’s my overview.


Though the religious administrator framework in China is learned from Soviet Union, it has similarity to the state-religion relationship in traditional China. In the traditional China religious administration system, there’s the government (the Emperor), the official philosophy (Confucianism), allowed “heresy” which is under strict control (Buddhism, Daoism) and finally the illegal “Heresy” which is forbidden and the practitioner will be detained and even executed (Bailian 白莲教). In the modern Communism China, the communist party replaces emperor, Marxism and Atheism replace Confucianism, the “patriotic”groups of each religion are the allowed heresies, and the underground religious groups, are the forbidden ones. Dr. Fenggang Yang did a great job of categorizing the forbidden ones into “grey market”(e.g. house churches) and “black market” (e.g. Falungong).


How the state administers the religions? Here we need to learn something about the infrastructure of party-state. In the party-state of China, all state ministries are under the leadership of corresponding party departments. Local Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) is under the dual leadership of local Party Committee’s UFW (United Front Work, which means unites anyone who do not against Party’s reign) and State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), while the SARA is under the dual leadership of Department of States and CCP Central UFW. All local TSPM congregations are under the dual leadership of local RAB and local TSPM/CCC office, while the local TSPM/CCC office is under the dual leadership of local SARA and State TSPM/CCC.


Now let’s look at he question of “why house church unregistered” at the legal level. Let’s assume that the country is ruled by law (in most cases persecuted churches never reach the level of “law” but just persecuted by local officials) and house church can have a chance to interact with local officials, then why don’t they register?

First, look at the constitution level. The Constitution says “Citizens of PRC enjoy freedom of religious belief.”It means that you can believer whatever religion you want, but just belief – you don’t have the freedom of practicing what you believe. Then article 36 continues: “The State protects normal religious activities.” The question is: what is “normal” religious activities? Is reading Bible with friends “normal”? Is having sacraments at home “normal”? Is gathering at rented business space “normal”? Who decides whether it’s normal or not? In fact, whether it’s “normal”or not is decided by local officials, even those who have zero knowledge about Christianity.

If you were told that what you are doing is not “normal”, what can you do? Of course you want to register. Then you need to turn to Regulations on Religious Affairs to get registered. In Article 6, it says, “The establishment, alteration, or cancellation of registration, of a religious body shall be registered in accordance with the provisions of the Regulations on Registration Administration of Associations.”

“Great!” you think, “we can be registered.” But wait, it’s a system of dual-registration. Besides registering your “religious body,” you need to register the place where you gather (and you can gather in that place only) according to article 12: “Collective religious activities of religious citizens shall, in general, be held at registered sites for religious activities…”

You might tell yourself,“OK, then let’s register the site first and we will have worship only in this site.”Then you need to turn to next article which says “For the preparation for establishing a site for religious activities, an application shall be made by a religious body. …… A religious body may begin the preparatory work for establishing a site for religious activities only after the application for such establishment is approved.”

So you are in a trap of Code 22: In order to register yourself as“religious body”, you need to register your site; in order to register your site, you need to be a registered “religious body.” The design of the law enables only local TSPM has the ability as a registered religious body to register a site for religious activities. But wait, this task is not easy for TSPM as well. The local religious regulation basically forbids “establishing similar religious sites in same area.”


“Forget about religious site.” you told yourself, “let’s just register the church and assume our church never needs to meet together physically (thus, religious site is not necessary).” Then you may do so by following Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Associations. In Article 3, it list one of the prerequisites for registering a Social Association: “To become established, Social Associations must be approved by the authorized department (业务主管单位) and follow the registration procedure set out in these regulations.”

In another word, in order to be registered, you need to find an “Authorized department”in the government and under its leadership. Let’s assume that you have no idea the “leadership”means and decided to accept the leadership of a group of atheists. Then you go to government office and says, “I want an authorized department to lead my church.” They might direct you to RAB who is in charge of all religious affairs. But unfortunately, RAB will not only refuse to be your “Authorized Department,”but also report to police and detain the leaders, or persuade you to join TSPM. Shouwang church actually did submit application to local RAB and end up pastor being house arrested, believers being visited by local police together with TSPM pastor in order to persuade them leaving Shouwang Church.

So, by nature it’s a problem of “freedom of association.” A totalitarian government would not allow any spontaneous group that is out of his control, even if the members of the group are obedient lovely citizens.