Property of religious organizations in the People’s Republic of China

Источник: Liubov Afonina. Property of religious organizations in the People’s Republic of China //Review of Religion and Chinese Society. Volume 2, Issue 2, 2015 pp. 241-253.


The political system of the People,s Republic of China (prc) differs fundamentally from Western democracies because of the dominant role of the Communist Party of China (cpc) in what is claimed to be a multi-party system. The cpc directs the political development of the country. The religious policy of the prc is also determined by the ruling cpc, whose leadership role is established by the constitution of the country.

Like all communist parties, the cpc is an atheist fraternity that looks upon religion as a backward, unscientific and temporary phenomenon. Nevertheless, the existence of religion in Communist China was permitted from the very beginning. The regulation of the religious sphere in China may be characterized as a joint venture between party and state. The cpc determines the ideological direction of the nation while the government of the prc administratively realizes the set course. In China, however, the religious associations that came into being after the formation of the prc also play a role in administering the state’s policy toward religion.

When the CPC came to power, it proclaimed freedom of religious belief to be the basis of its policy toward religion. This freedom found its legal embodiment in the Common Program of the Chinese People,s Political Consultative Conference in 1949 (the first prototype of the constitution of the new China), in the Constitutions of the prc in 1954, 1975, and 1978, and in the present Constitution of the prc (adopted in 1982), Article 36. In fact, however, the policy of freedom of religious belief in China is used as an instrument for the control of religions through the application of various control mechanisms dependent on changes in the political establishment.

Western countries usually understand freedom of religion as the right to confess and practice a religion independent of the dominant and defining role of the state, but the Chinese understanding of religious freedom differs from this model. From the perspective of China’s leaders, freedom of religion exists in China only within the boundaries set by the party-state: religious activity is regulated and the rules for its exercise are laid down. In my opinion, religious policy throughout the history of the PRC has not been consistent; rather, it is a policy of searching for the best methods of regulating the religious sphere.

From the moment of the formation of the PRC to the present day, religious regulation, by which we mean the way in which the state participates in the legitimate presence of religious communities in the life of the country, has been immutably carried out under the slogan of freedom of religious belief. However, the approaches and methods of this regulation have undergone important changes dependent on political conditions within the country.

An important indicator of the tenor of state regulation in the religious sphere is the regulation of the law in relation to religious property and its enforcement. Religious property is property intended for and used in a variety of religious activities: worship, prayer, and religious gatherings, as well as other religious rituals and ceremonies; religious veneration (pilgrimages); professional religious education; and other religious activity. It is subdivided into two categories: (1) immovable property used for religious purposes (buildings and premises and the land on which they stand); and (2) movable property used for religious purposes (items of the internal decor of sacred buildings and premises, or items used for worship and other religious aims).

Throughout the history of the PRC the system of property relations has undergone serious changes, which may be grouped into five basic phases: the “new democracy” (1949-1952); the “construction of socialism” (1953-1978); the diversification of forms of property and the setting up of a multilayered economy (1979-1997); the perfection of the multilayered system and the large-scale corporatization of the state sector (1998-2006); and a level increase in the development of property legislation (from 2007). A study of changes in the status of religious property in particular allows us to deepen our understanding of China,s policy toward religion and to trace its transformation over time. To analyze these changes, it is necessary to look consistently at the development of relations between the state and religions.

Against the wider backdrop of the five phases in the history of property relations in the prc outlined above, it is possible to demarcate six stages in the development of policy toward religious property in particular. As a rule, the transformations marking these stages took place upon the adoption by party- state organizations of a landmark document. Among these documents are the Agrarian Reform Law of 1950; the “Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966”; Document No. 19 of 1982, “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on Religious Questions during the Period of Socialism in China”; Document No. 6 of 1991, “Instructions on Certain Issues of the Further Fulfillment of Religious Work”; Document No. 145 of 1994, “On the Regulation of Objects of Religious Activity”; and finally the “Regulations on Religious Affairs” of 2005. The following section contains descriptions of each stage and of the content of religious policy at that moment.

Stages in the History of China^s Policy toward Religious Property

Stage 1: The New Democracy and the Start of the Construction of Socialism

The nationalization of the property of the bourgeoisie in 1949 did not completely liquidate the multilayered character of the “new democratic society of the transitional period.” Five sectors were preserved in the economy: the state, cooperative, small goods, private capitalist, and state capitalist sectors. Furthermore, in the first years of the prc’s existence, religious organizations functioned within the framework of the old order, and the property belonging to them served religious aims.

The Agrarian Reform Law of the prc was passed in 1950. Although it was primarily aimed at the liquidation of the old system of feudal tenure, it affected the interests of religious organizations (Yue 2001). Thus, Article 3 provided permit for the alienation of land belonging to familial holy sites, temples, monasteries, churches, schools, and religious communities. However, the article included a provision for organizations economically dependent on that land: “In relation to schools, orphanages, old people’s homes, hospitals, and other institutions that obtain their income from the aforementioned land, the local peoples, governments must decide the problem of the source of their financing” (Gorbunova 2008:114-115).

The greatest decline was suffered by Buddhist and Daoist monasteries that lost plots of land, while a number of their superiors were subject to persecution as major landowners (Gorbunova 2008:115-116). The Agrarian Reform Law, however, contained an exception regarding property owned by mosques that “with the agreement of the local Muslim population can be retained by them either fully or partially.” The land and property of religious organizations in the Muslim regions of the prc was practically unaffected by the changes with the aim of avoiding social unrest among the Muslim ethnic minorities (Kuznetsov 2002:61).

In March 1951, the Central Committee of the CPC published “Directions for the Movement to the Active Enactment of Religious Renewal,” which required all party organizations to unite believers in order “to develop and strengthen an anti-imperialist united front with religious circles.” Control over the religious population in China was strengthened because of the danger that world religions could become a channel for the infiltration of the enemy’s ideas and the destabilization of society during the Korean War (Leung 2005:13-14).

Within the framework of religious renewal, the country’s leadership pursued the path of creating for the five main religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism) common national patriotic religious associations with representational offices at the provincial, city, and rural level. Membership in these associations was obligatory for the communities and believers. They became the sole possible form of legal existence for believers in China. The patriotic religious associations were called upon by the state to carry out their work in close cooperation with government bodies.

During the construction of the new state, the Communist government could not allow the direct suppression of dissent, as the social conditions essential for this had not yet been formed. Therefore the party-state chose to propagate the idea of a “united front” by forming special organizations designed to control ideologically hostile groups and use them for the purposes of the new regime.

In the religious sphere, these organizational structures were patriotic religious associations that were to exist at all levels of government and control the religious masses until the religious worldview disappeared from Chinese society. At the same time, individual party ideologues such as Li Weihan (the head of the United Front Department from 1948 to 1964) advanced proposals concerning the need for long-term relations with religious groups, since much time would pass before the socialist masses would be liberated from the religious worldview.

Influenced by calls to set up the united front, religious activists began to come forward to build a new China and to secure the independence of China’s religious communities from foreign influence. Thus there was released into the religious sphere the Three-Self Movement 三自),featuring selfgovernance, self-support, and self-propagation. This concept was aimed at banning all forms of foreign participation in the activity of China’s religious communities; the results ran the gamut from the refusal of financial aid right up to the renunciation of Western traditions in Christianity and the creation of a uniquely Chinese theology (Luo 2004:65-69).

The Chinese government aimed to strengthen and defend its power by establishing a new political order that would exclude any foreign influence. Thus foreign religious missions were expelled from China (Leung 2005:12) while the property that belonged to them was transferred into state hands, as per the recent State Administrative Council “Decree on the Registration of Cultural, Educational, and Economic Institutions and Religious Associations, Functioning on Foreign Means or Donations” (December 29, 1950).

The formation of religious associations hastened the expropriation of land from religious communities. In particular, the property of Buddhist monasteries was declared to be public property. In November 1952, the Central Committee of the CPC issued the Directives of the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the CPC and the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the CPC “On the Foundation of a Buddhist Association,” which stated that the “property for temples and monasteries is declared to be public property, the monks have the right of their use, while at the same time neither the monks nor the associations have the right to dispose of monastery property. If a temple has been built on private money, then it can be regarded as private property” (Zhang 2009). For example, in the city of Anqing in Anhui province, the number of monasteries had been reduced from 871 to 234 by 1965, while the number of buildings belonging to the monasteries had dropped from 4,000 to 1,799 (Minzu zongjiao zhi 1997).

Simultaneously, in its internal directives the Central Committee of the CPC called upon all party and state organizations that dealt with the religious sphere to help religious communities in realizing the Three-Self Movement’s principle of self-support. This help could be provided in the form of aid to religious communities, which could receive payments from the sale and leasing of property. This arrangement allowed religious groups not only to receive income from property sales but also to reduce the number of taxes they had to pay. Consequently, beginning in 1956, the local directorates for the control of property rented out the property of religious communities in the cities; each month they paid a portion of the revenue to the communities in order to cover the expenses involved in the repair of churches and the salaries of personnel (Ma and Xue 2007:469).

In January 1956, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Administration for Religious Affairs under the State Council issued a circular regarding religious property that had previously belonged to foreign missions. The document stated, “In relation to the decision regarding the lot of immovable property of foreign religious missions, in principle the government should not be in favor of its nationalization, but with the development of the patriotic movement in the religious sphere this property should gradually be transferred as property of the Chinese religious communities” (Zhang 2009). Thus the property of foreign missions was transferred from the state to Chinese communities.

The local governments started to demand that Christian communities register their rights to own church buildings and pay full taxes on their property; if they refused to do so, the property would be confiscated. At the same time, the Central Committee of the cpc determined that the property of Catholic and Protestant parishes would belong to the particular communities while Muslim property would belong to the faithful. This division arose because, historically, Christian property belonged to foreign missions and was subsequently nationalized while Muslim property was accumulated during a lengthy historical period and was developed by Muslim believers themselves. As a result, the property of religious organizations was divided into several kinds already in the 1950s.

Religious policy in 1950s China may be viewed as a policy of controlled freedom. It was characterized by a moderate approach toward religious communities that were ready to cooperate and a forceful approach toward religious groups that did not want to become part of the new model (Chan 1994:13-14). Religious groups enjoyed a certain freedom if they distanced themselves from foreign religious communities and supported the Communist government. The property of religious organizations was placed under the direct or indirect control of the state. The state retained the right of ownership for immovable religious property and only transferred usage rights to religious communities, the state controlled the management of property through the system of patriotic religious associations. To sum up, the state applied different approaches to different religions.

Stage 2: The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution A new stage in the history of regulating religious relations in China began after 1957 when “leftist” moods began to predominate in internal policy. With the beginning of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), measures in the sphere of religion were essentially tightened; religious activity was reduced to a minimum, and religious personnel were sent to labor camps and other forms of forced work (Leung 2005:12-15).

With the beginning of transformations in industry, agriculture, and trade, both state property (“people’s common property”)and collective property were recognized to be truly socialist. Under the strategic impetus to increase communalization, the individual form of ownership was declared to be a “leftover from capitalism” and condemned to a slow death. Private ownership was excluded from the new social order as a form of production relations based on exploitation.

In 1958, a countrywide decree transferred power to the people’s communes. The peoples’ communes, which replaced the agricultural collectives, brought together the functions of the economic organizations and lower administrative units. The people’s commune was a self-regulating organ that enjoyed complete power not only in the sphere of agriculture, but also in the administrative sphere. Unlike the agrarian reform of 1950, this time the socialization of land included land owned by mosques (Kuznetsov 2002:65-66).

After a relatively calm period of economic rehabilitation in the early 1960s, the direction of the Great Leap Forward was continued during the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The CPC called for the liquidation of the old ideology, culture, customs, and habits and for the transformation of all realms of the superstructure that did not correspond to the economic basis of socialism. During the Cultural Revolution, all external manifestations of religious life in China disappeared, religious activity was persecuted, and religious buildings, items, and literature were destroyed. The national religious associations ceased to function completely, temples and monasteries throughout the country were closed, and religious property ceased to belong to religious groups and was appropriated for various ends without any legal justification (Sheng 2003:18).

Stage 3: The Start of the Chinese Economic Reform and the

Diversification of Forms of Property

There was a sharp turn in religious policy after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the 1978 convocation of the third plenum of the Central Committee, at which time the topic of religious freedom was raised. Economic reforms and the policy of external openness were accompanied by a revitalization of all spheres of public life, including religious life. China’s new leader Deng Xiaoping emphasized the importance of religion for the prospect of opening China to the West. Therefore, it was essential to cooperate with religious figures in establishing relations with foreign countries. The economic reforms that unfolded at the end of the 1970s were accompanied by the appearance of individual and group economic activity.

The resolution of the issue of religious property was complex, since by that time almost all immovable religious property throughout the country had been occupied and used for various nonreligious needs. The return of that property to the religious communities presupposed the need to seek out a compromise and to relocate the organizations that currently occupied the religious property to other premises. In each concrete case, the decision to return religious property depended on the local authorities. The situation was complicated by two factors. First, it was impossible to transfer the appropriate legal right to property in the absence of any right to the property held by the new organizations. Second, it was difficult to find evidence that the buildings had been owned by religious communities before the period of uncertainty.

In July 1980, the State Council of the prc adopted normative Document No. 188, “Report on the Implementation of Policy on Real Estate of Religious Organizations.” Document No. 188 contained what were in essence revolutionary proposals:

The complete restoration of immovable property rights of the religious associations to the property they owned previously. If it was impossible to return the immovable property, the religious associations were to be paid a financial sum equivalent to the cost of the property.

The return to religious associations rent payments for the immovable property previously rented out. Furthermore, the cost of property repairs, upkeep, and taxes was to be deducted.

The return to the appropriate religious associations of the Christian churches, Buddhist temples, Daoist temples, and other premises belonging to them, occupied and used during the period of the Cultural Revolution, for the subsequent use of citizens. If the religious associations had no need of these buildings and premises, then the organizations occupying them or private individuals must pay rent to the religious associations; if the premises were reconstructed or pulled down, then compensation equivalent to the cost of their value would be due.

The return to the religious associations of assets frozen in the period of the Cultural Revolution or appropriated by other organizations.

Document No. 188 noted that the property of former foreign missions was to become the property of Chinese Christian communities, while Buddhist and

Daoist monasteries and property belonging to them were transferred to communal ownership (monks gained the right of use and renting). Families, ancestral temples became private property, and Muslim mosques and buildings belonging to them became the collective property of believers.

In January 1981, the “Report on Issues of Realizing Policy in the Sphere of Immovable Property of Religious Organizations” was published, containing directions on the issue of restoring property rights to Buddhist and Daoist monasteries on premises previously belonging to them. The Supreme People’s Court of the prc and the Administration for Religious Affairs under the State Council determined that the buildings of Buddhist and Daoist monasteries and temples could be rebuilt with public donations. The monasteries were granted the status of public property while individual investments in those properties entailed private ownership of them. The monasteries were placed under the management of Buddhist and Daoist organizations, which were given the right of use without the right of sale, down payment, or donation of immovable property objects.

Under the provisions of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Protection of Cultural Relics, adopted in 1982, religious buildings came under the protection of the state (Article 2). In April of 1983, the State Council of the prc confirmed the report presented by the Administration for Religious Affairs, a move that classified one hundred and forty-two Buddhist and twenty- one Daoist temples in regions occupied by Han Chinese as sacred buildings (Ma and Xue 2007:470). The country’s authorities at an official level recognized the necessity of opening and permitting such a large (by Chinese standards of the time) number of religious objects.

From 1979 to 1982, the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the CPC carried out a detailed study of the problems of religions in the prc. As a result of the research, on March 31, 1982, the Central Committee published a directive known as Document No. 19, “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on Religious Questions during the Period of Socialism in China.” Document No. 19 determined the starting point for the policy of religious freedom undertaken by the CPC at the beginning of the period of reforms. It contained directions on opening the “objects of religious activity”[1] and the protection of religious property, which was recognized to be an important factor in the normalization of religious life.

On the issue of the restoration of objects of religious activity, Document No. 19 gave priority to those with cultural and historical value. The state recognized the need to restore them in the locations where many believers lived, especially the national minorities. According to the document, for the construction and restoration of objects of religious activity it was essential to receive permission from the peoples’ governments.

The first of the Catholic cathedrals to be opened in the 1980s were St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai and St. Joseph Cathedral in Tianjin. In the same year, churches in Inner Mongolia, Shenyang, Jinan, Wuhan, Chengdu, and other cities were opened. In 1982, the famous Catholic monastery in Sheshan was opened (He 2006: 69).

In some regions, believers used their own resources to restore churches. The local governments also allocated funds for the restoration of religious objects. For example, in 1982, in the city of Liuzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the government decreed that the building of the Catholic church there be freed up and allocated money for repair work, while the local Department for Religious Affairs allocated funding for the repair of the bell tower.

The first Protestant parish to resume its activity did so in Ningbo in April 1979. Then in September 1979 three churches were opened in Shanghai. And from October 1979 communities began to be opened in Beijing, Tianjin, Shenyang, Nanjing, Chongqing, Hanzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, and other cities (He 2006:262-263).

From the beginning of the 1980s, mosques too started to be opened. These processes took place under the watchful control of the authorities (Kuznetsov 2002:150). State funding was also allocated for the repair and construction of mosques. For example, in 1988 in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, local government funds and money collected by the Muslim community helped open more than two thousand mosques, which is three hundred more than existed in 1965. By 1990, in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region there were about twenty-one thousand religious objects in operation.

The return of property belonging to the Buddhist communities was also complex. Over forty thousand Buddhist temples were restored throughout the country from 1980 to 1989. During these years, 140 million yuan were allocated by the government for the repair and restoration of temples (He 2006:76-79).

The local authorities often had to deal with the problem of where to relocate the organizations that occupied religious buildings. For example, in 1981 in the city of Liuzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the factories located in the monastery of Xilaisi were relocated outside the monastery walls. The Department for Property Affairs in the city government then allocated funding for repair work (He 2006:76-79).

After a decade of chaos within the country, no Daoist monasteries were left active. But in the 1980s, the state began to restore their activities. An important event was the opening of the Baiyunguan monastery in Beijing in November 1984.

In accordance with the Administration for Religious Affairs under the State Council,s Document No. 178 (1981) entitled “Rules for the Management of Buddhist and Daoist Temples in the Regions Inhabited by the Han People,” the temples that had been opened were to be managed by the monks under the control of the Departments for Religious Affairs of the Peoples’ Governments. The organization responsible for the management of the community was to be approved by the appropriate government office. All of the temple’s income was declared to be collective property that would be used for the maintenance of the monks’ lives, the repair and upkeep of the buildings, and other needs.

Before the formation of the PRC, it was possible for Buddhist and Daoist temples to receive income from renting their land and premises. Now, in order to realize the principle of self-support, the monks have begun to undertake socially useful labor: agriculture, the planting of forests, manual crafts in their own workshops, and so on.

Thus, in the first half of the 1980s, a number of basic documents in the sphere of religious policy were developed and adopted that demonstrated a clear departure from Cultural Revolution-era policies. As a result, in the 1980s a number of important objects of religious activity were restored and returned. Property belonging to religious communities was partially returned, while organizations that occupied temples moved to other buildings For example, by 1986 only about two thousand Catholic churches were opened throughout the country (Lam 1997:59), whereas by the end of 1989 more than forty thousand Buddhist temples had been restored (He 2006:59).

In 1986, the property rights of public organizations, including religious organizations, were inscribed in civil law for the first time in the history of the PRC. Article 77 of the Civil Code of the PRC states: “The lawful property of public organizations, including religious organizations, shall be protected by law” (Xu 2015). However, practical implementation of the legislation was rendered difficult by organizational chaos and disorder in the property deeds, which were a result of both the Cultural Revolution and the arbitrary actions of officials at the local level who freely interpreted and applied the laws.

Under the conditions of the restoration of religions and their infrastructures there were many things that were unclear. Everywhere there arose disputes between religious groups and various nonreligious organizations. The greatest number of conflicts were tied to the problem of distributing tourism profits between religious organizations and parks. Throughout the country tense relations arose between monasteries and departments responsible for the preservation of cultural heritage (Xu 2015).

After the period of “maximum liberalism” from 1987 to 1989, the Chinese authorities repeatedly asked themselves several questions: What exactly is religion? What are the consequences of its presence in the new socialist society? How is this sphere of public life to be correctly regulated? At this historical stage, many internal political and external factors prompted the state to dilute to a certain degree the freedoms of religious groups and to increase the guiding and controlling role of the state in the religious sphere. In the conditions of external political ambiguity and internal political instability in some regions of the country, the state aimed to control, as much as possible, all aspects of a not quite familiar phenomenon.

Stage 4: The Beginning of the 1990s

As a result of permitting a certain renewal of religious life, however, the authorities encountered an unexpected religious revival among the masses. Toward the end of the 1980s, the state authorities decided that it was necessary to limit the avalanche-like spread of religious influence among the population. Goals were put in place to limit development in the religious domain.

The beginning of the new decade coincided with the strengthening of control over religious groups. In 1991, an internal directive—Document No. 6— was released, giving the Instructions of the Central Committee of the cpc and the State Council on certain issues of the further fulfillment of religious work. Document No. 6 interpreted the content of Document No. 19 for the new public and political conditions and challenges that had taken shape. To a certain extent, Document No. 6 replaced Document No. 19.

Compared with Document No. 19, the general tone of Document No. 6 was distinctly left-oriented. It described in detail the problems that the religious sphere had brought to the party. It paid more attention to the activity of illegal religious groups that functioned underground outside of religious associations, and which the state viewed as extremist activity. However, the document also noted the problems that had been encountered by religious groups.

Within the implementation of the policy of freedom of conscience there exist many problems connected with the infringement of the citizens’ right to freedom of religious belief, infringement of the legal rights of temples and monasteries, interference in the normal religious activity of religious associations, unresolved issues of the return of immovable property of churches and monasteries during a lengthy period of time.

The resolution of the religious property issue was once more put on the agenda with a renewed tone for officials at all levels engaged in religious work, whose number had significantly increased since the document’s appearance. At the local level, the issue of the property of religious communities was resolved in various ways. For example, in 1991 the government of

Anhui province made the decision to dispose of the material burden in equal portions between the Ministry of Finances of the province, the government, and the organization occupying the premises.

Stage 5: The Advance of the Multi-Layered Economy in the 1990s The limiting of religious activity was expressed in regulation aimed at defining the framework for the functioning of religious communities. A layer of normative documents and directives regulating religious activity was formed. From the mid-1990s onward, the legislative regulation of the religious sphere became an important component of state policy. The administrative method of resolving problems in the religious sphere that had previously been used was gradually replaced by the method of legislative regulation.

The first step on the way to the legislative processing of state-church relations was the development and publication of two landmark documents produced by the State Council in 1994, including Document No. 145 on the regulation of objects of religious activity. This document established the obligatory registration of objects of religious activity and mandated that the registration would be confirmed and extended annually. Through the system of registration, the government gained the opportunity to control the activity of religious communities with respect to the registered objects, their finances, the make-up of the parish, religious education, clergy, the publication of religious printed matter, and so on. The document established that the income and property of religious communities could be disposed of only by a specially formed regulatory office of the community. No other persons or organizations could lay claim to the use of immovable property or dispose of it. According to Document No. 145, religious activity beyond the confines of approved objects was declared to be illegal.

On April 21, 1994, the Administration for Religious Affairs under the State Council prepared a document entitled “An Explanation of Certain Points in the Provision for Management of Objects of Religious Activity.” The document defined an object of religious activity as a public place for the carrying out of religious activity by citizens who are believers. The property of the objects of religious activity (i.e., the property of the religious communities attached to these objects) is the property used and managed by them, along with equipment, cultural monuments, religious items, ventures belonging to the community, and so on. On the basis of the document, the income of the object of religious activity comes from the sale of entrance tickets, from religious activity, and from participation in production and commercial activity.

Stage 6: Modern Times

From 2005, the basic document regulating the religious sphere in the prc was “Regulation on Religious Affairs.” Chapter 5 was wholly devoted to religious property. Article 30 states that the law affords protection to land, buildings, structures, and other property legally belonging to and used by religious associations and communities. Article 31 establishes that the premises belonging to religious associations and the land used are to be registered in the departments of land control and property affairs administrations of the peoples, governments, and that they are to receive certificates affirming the right to property or the right of use. When the rights of religious associations and communities to the use of land are confirmed or changed, the departments of land control ought to ask the opinion of the departments for religious affairs of the peoples’ governments.

In accordance with Article 32, the premises used by religious communities and the buildings and other structures related to the life of religious ministers cannot be transferred, pledged, or used as a means of investment. Article 33 regulates the procedure for tearing down buildings in the context of city planning and provides for the possibility of compensation for buildings torn down.

Property of Communities of Believing Ethnic Minorities

It would be remiss not to touch upon the property of communities relating to the religions of ethnic minorities. These religious communities also possess their own legally documented property. Moreover, those religious movements that enjoy official status at the local level also receive subsidies from the authorities for the construction and repair of buildings as well as salaries for their ministers. Let us examine the situation with respect to the property of the Orthodox Church in China.

After the reforms had begun, the following church buildings were restored and built at the state’s expense: Protection of the Theotokos Church of Harbin (1986), St. Innocent of Irkutsk Church of Labdarin (Inner Mongolia) (1990), St. Nicholas Church of Yining (Xinjiang) (2000), and St. Nicholas Church of Urumqi (1986).

Of particular interest is the case of the Protection of the Theotokos Church of Harbin. In 1986, the property rights of the church’s community, headed by the priest Gregory Zhu Shipu, were restored. After Father Gregory’s death in 2000, the community was left without a formal rector, and the church property, including the territory of the Orthodox cemetery, was placed under the responsibility of the Directorate of Religious Affairs of the city of Harbin. This situation lasted until a new head of the community appeared. At the beginning of 2015, a new certificate for the registration of the object of religious activity was received, and the object was transferred to the community after Deacon Alexander Yu Shi was ordained as its new head.

Contemporary Problems with the Property of Religious Organizations

The first problem in the matter of religious property rights is the absence of a precise definition. The Civil Code of the prc (Article 77) and the prc Law on material rights state that property which in accordance with the legislation falls under the ownership of public organizations (including religious ones) is protected by law. A number of questions arise in connection with this.

First, there is no definition of religious ownership as the subject of law in these legal acts. A definition is to be found only in the “Regulation on Religious Affairs,” which defines religious property as land legally used by religious associations and communities and as buildings, edifices, and other similar property that legally belongs to religious associations and communities. However, the “Regulation on Religious Affairs” belongs to the category of administrative and legal norms adopted by the State Council. Their status is lower than that of state laws, but higher than the regional and local norms and regulations. The definition given in the document also raises some questions, as religious ownership cannot be limited merely to what is owned by religious associations.

Second, is ownership of religious sites that are not registered as public organizations protected by law?

Third, there is no precise understanding of what happens to buildings and land without the relevant certificate of property rights.

There is a problem in defining the subject of law with regard to religious ownership. Let us take the example of the situation in Beijing. The right of ownership to the buildings of Protestant churches belongs to the Assembly of Protestant Associations of Beijing and the Catholic churches belong to the Catholic diocese. The right of ownership of Muslim mosques is either listed under the name of the Beijing Muslim Association or is not documented at all; many mosques have only certificates of registration as an object of religious activity. The Buddhist and Daoist temples and monasteries belong to city associations. Registered objects for religious purposes do not enjoy the right of ownership of the property they occupy and can only use and dispose of it (Feng 2013).

Since the formation of the prc, the subject of law with regard to religious property has not received due unification. One of the fundamental problems of regulating religious property is the abundance of forms of property: property of religious associations, property of communities, public property, state property, collective property, and private property (Ma and Xue 2007:469-472).

There are also different forms of ownership in various religions. In Buddhism, the two types of ownership are public ownership and monks’ private property. Often these two types of ownership exist within one monastery. Property formally belonging to the religious associations is actually under the ownership of the temple community. It has turned out historically that so-called public property is in fact owned by the monastery aristocracy. In religious circles, the convention is to regard public property as belonging to Buddha. However, this is a hidden form of private property, a form of collective possession by a group of monks. Muslim property is for the most part presented as immovable property. The mosques are the collective property of the faithful because the majority of mosques were built using donations provided by the faithful. In the official Christian churches represented in China, religious property formally attached to the religious organizations is at the complete disposal of the religious communities (Huaduo 2006).

In the 1980s the head of the Chinese Buddhist Association, Zhao Puchu, expressed his concern over the public property (state property) of temples in an article entitled “On the Question of the Peculiarities, Functions, and Temple Attributes.” The document states: “The temples are objects of religious activity, this being not only their main peculiarity but also their basic function. Upon abandoning the basic function of an object of religious activity, the other functions of the temple also lose their meaning and can no longer express their public usefulness.”

State ownership of objects of religious activity (being part of the state control of religious organizations) contradicts the declared principle of the separation of state and religion; moreover, it requires the state to properly maintain the buildings and premises, finance their upkeep, and so on. The fact that property belongs to religious associations may infringe upon the will of those people who have made donations to concrete monasteries or temples. Moreover, the religious associations are organizations that are delineated by hierarchy and territory. In effect, the property rights to the objects of religious activity are registered in the name of local religious organizations, state offices in control of property, institutions of culture, and even monks and private individuals. Besides, many objects of religious activity have no registration, particularly in remote rural areas.

The issue of religious property in China is quite delicate, while the policy and methods applied in practice are very chaotic. The judicial means of protecting this type of property are poorly understood (Sun 1991). There are also conflicts between religious organizations and state departments for cultural heritage over who owns religious property. Officials believe that because it was mainly the state that allocated money for the building of temples and monasteries, the property rights ought to remain with the state. Monks and religious figures, by contrast, believe that church property is the product of the labor of monks and the donations of the faithful.

Thus, the basic parameter for defining the ownership of religious property in China is financing: by whose means were the buildings and structures built and the necessary land acquired? It is obvious that this principle is far from perfect. Whatever the origin of the means, they are most often presented as donations. The number of donors may be unlimited and often indeterminate. They may be foreigners or foreign organizations. A donation is an act of free will and not an investment in a share of property. It is possible that the solution would be to attach the property rights for immovable religious property to concrete religious communities registered as public organizations.

At present, the issue of defining the right to immovable religious property does not enjoy judicial clarity. Although the Law of the prc on Material Rights came into effect in 2007, it did nothing to clarify this problem. However, the adoption of this law demonstrates a progressive movement toward developing civil legislation in China, a fact that suggests both an understanding of existing problems and a willingness to resolve them.

The registration of religious property is also a chaotic phenomenon. Immovable religious property in fact can be registered either to local religious associations or to state organizations in charge of property, cultural monuments, culture, forested areas, tourism, and so on. The property of monks and private individuals is another issue to be dealt with. A certain proportion of religious immovable property has no registration whatsoever, especially in rural localities.

Chaos surrounding the ownership of religious property gives rise to cases of its appropriation. The Departments for Cultural Monuments, on the pretext that the temples are either public or state property, refuse to return temples to the associated communities. Many churches have become part of cultural ensembles or forest parks, or objects of tourism.

A good example of this is Fayuan, a famous Buddhist temple in Beijing. The temple is a monument of cultural heritage, and formally the government has handed over the main buildings of the complex to the Buddhists. However, to this day a number of organizations still occupy the premises. Some land is leased to residents by government departments for property, some of which have secretly claimed the right of ownership to themselves;

this has resulted in great damage to monuments through the repair work carried out on that land.

The absence of registration with respect to many objects of religious purpose has led to the impossibility of registering their immovable property. At present, the registration of an object of religious purpose is a multi-stage, arduous procedure, and as a result some communities are forced to carry out religious activities that are considered illegal. Difficulties are often caused by the unwillingness of patriotic religious organizations to be the guarantors of newly created communities, since these organizations are required to approve the petition of the community before the property may be transferred to the Administration for Religious Affairs.

If a temple, monastery, mosque, or other structure becomes part of a religious association, its personnel become official ministers who receive a salary from the state. Buildings are also constructed and maintained with state support. Legislation requiring the state financing of religious activities is one of the reasons for the unwillingness to register all communities that wish to register. As a result, many religious groups function underground (Homer 2010). The granting of the status of “monument” to religious objects, which is provided for in the prc,s law on the preservation of monuments of culture, makes their use for religious purposes more difficult.

The return of religious property occurred throughout the entire reform period. The greatest difficulties in this process are created by the party’s huge bureaucratic apparatus. Within the sphere of religious policy, there are numerous organs of power whose precise functional obligations are unclear. Furthermore, issues of religious property also involve officials in other policy spheres, such as those responsible for the preservation of monuments of culture, tourism, property, town planning, and so on.

Recently, a number of precedents have been set that highlight the vulnerable position of religious property. Due to the unstable political situation in China and in the world, the year 2014 is noteworthy for the intensification of control over adherents of Christianity. Changes in the regime’s mood were expressed above all in its attitude toward religious objects. The clearest testimony to the government’s struggle against the spread of Christianity was the campaign in the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province where there is the largest concentration of Christians in China. Under the pretext of combating illegal construction, the authorities issued directives to tear down churches and to remove crosses from church buildings.

According to data collected by China Aid, an international noncommercial organization for the defense of human rights, more than four hundred churches became victims of the campaign to demolish crosses in Zhejiang. Thirty-five

Protestant and Catholic churches were destroyed from the end of 2013 to the end of 2014. The intensification of the campaign has led to the arrest of pastors on charges of spreading cults and organizing mass disorder. Previously, the churches of official associations had not experienced such difficulties.

Of interest is the demolition of the officially registered church in Nanle County in Henan province. A dispute over property between the church and local authorities that lasted for many years led to the church’s pastor Zhang Shaojie being accused of organizing public disorder, for which he was sentenced to ten years in prison. Pastor Zhang is the former head of the local Protestant association and a member of the People’s Political Consultative Conferences. The sentence handed down to the pastor was the most severe punishment imposed on a religious figure since the time of the Cultural Revolution.

Pastor Zhang’s situation highlights the state’s fears that subversive political influence and fund-raising will occur under the guise of religious teachings. Zhang’s sentencing is an example of averting the penetration of so-called “color revolution” scenarios into China—projects presumably inspired by Western governments for the overthrow of legitimate authority in Second and Third World countries in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Therefore, being aware that a need for religion in contemporary Chinese society is inevitable, and searching for ways to preserve political and social stability, the Chinese authorities have made their relationship with traditional religious currents and the fostering of their influence a priority.

Proposed Solutions of the Problem of Religious Property

In recent years, the Chinese authorities have been working on amendments to the 2005 “Regulation on Religious Affairs,” trying to take recent experiences into account. However, religious figures and researchers have been more active on this front, speaking of the need to adopt a single law on religion that would be universal for the entire country.

A completed bill was presented in June 2013 by Professor Liu Peng, a researcher at the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, at a conference organized by the noncommercial, nongovernmental Research Center at the Pushi Institute. The professor defends the position that the adoption of his drafted law on religion would allow for the resolution of most contradictions that exist in the religious sphere, including the problems of religious property.

Liu Peng’s bill proposes the free registration of religious organizations as “religious judicial entities.” This status would allow religious organizations, as subjects of civil legal relations, to independently interact with other public structures. At the same time, the bill proposes a whole series of privileges for registered religious organizations. One of the basic provisions is the abolition of taxes in relation to property, land, income from religious activity, and the sale of religious items.

The bill also resolves the pressing issue of religious objects that are cultural monuments. Liu Peng believes that religious objects that are part of the cultural heritage ought to belong to religious organizations. The bill proposes that religious objects in tourist zones should not be subject to an entrance fee. Religious organizations would decide how to make these objects accessible to citizens who are not believers.

The bill contains rational proposals that answer the basic challenges of the religious situation in modern-day China. It will not be possible in the near future to adopt all of the proposed provisions because they are radically different from the existing system. However, in the long term they may influence the development of legal regulation of the religious sphere.


The religious question in China is difficult due to historical and political conditions. The atheist Chinese government, which faces the necessity of regulating the religious sphere as an unavoidable social phenomenon, encounters certain complex problems. Chinese officials have to regulate religions while they lack practical experience of deep religious involvement and an understanding of religious sentiments and of the religious needs of believers. Because of this lack of practical understanding, authorities perceive religious feelings as something alien. Things that are not well understood often evoke fear and concern.

One may assert that the prc’s religious policy during the reform era was developed on a trial-and-error basis and involved searching for new regulatory methods when information was scarce and a profound understanding of religion could not be developed. Foreign and domestic policy factors played a greater role in political decisions than a consolidated, planned policy in the sphere of religion. The strengthening and loosening of control over religious groups at various historical stages relates to the perception of the religious problem among top government officials as socially and politically dangerous.

Throughout the history of the prc, the religious policy of the cpc has undergone powerful transformations that reflect changes in the regime’s attitude towards religion. The legal status of religious property at various stages in the development of religious policy vividly demonstrates these changes.



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[1] “Objects of religious activity” is a term in Chinese law for registered places for the conduct of religious activity, including temples, churches, monasteries, and prayer houses.

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