Joel A. Nichols

Document Type



In order for China to move forward in the international community, it needs to continue to improve its standing on human rights issues. Of particular concern to many observers is the relationship between the government and religion. While foreign religious organizations and missionaries are still heavily regulated by a 1994 law, a new law respecting religious citizens and organizations within China went into effect in 2005. This new law is salutary in some respects in that it provides a much fuller delineation of the relationship between government and religion within China, and it appears more solicitous toward religious rights than previous regulations. But the new law is very vague in places and contains several provisions that could be troublesome and problematic depending on how and whether they are implemented. This paper is primarily built on a lecture given at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2005. Its premise is that international human rights laws are a useful but not sufficient benchmark by which to assess China's law. It is also important to understand the theological premises of some of the religious communities and believers for a broader measure of the efficacy and fairness of China's law. By focusing upon and using these dual lenses of law and religion, the paper offers both preliminary assessments of the 2005 law and also some possible ways forward that will further China's efforts to respect its heritage while simultaneously allowing it to better align itself with prevailing international norms regarding religious rights and obligations.