Is it illegal to share Jesus with Children in China?
Mike’s Note: I originally published this article a year ago. I’m leaving for my next China trip today, and I thought I would republish it in honor of my trip. I hear the question often, and I think I’ve researched the best answer!
As I talk to people about China, I often hear the question, ‘I’ve heard it’s illegal to teach children under 18 about Jesus. Is this true?’ While we can’t find the source of this rumor, it is prevalent amongst Western Christians to the point that it seems like most people believe that this would be true.
I’m happy to report that after substantial research, there are no government rules or documents that we can find to substantiate the myth. There are three documents that one would look at to see if there are any prohibitions to teaching children under 18 about the Bible.
The first is article 36 of the current Chinese Constitution. It states: Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.
No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.
The state protects normal religious activities.
No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.
Many people to recite the myth to us will often say the the Chinese constitution prohibits the teaching of children under 18, but article 36 is the only article in the Chinese Constitution that the deals with religious rights in China, and clearly, there is nothing about children at all.
The second document that deals directly with religion in China is Document No. 19: The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during our Country’s Socialist Period. It was issued in March 1982 and is issued to all provincial and municipal Party committees; all Party committees of autonomous regions. It comes the closest to a prohibition and is probably where the myth came from. In the middle of the document, it states: The political power in a Socialist state can in no way be used to promote any one religion, nor can it be used to forbid any one religion, as long as it is only a question of normal religious beliefs and practices. At the same time, religion will not be permitted to meddle in the administrative or juridical affairs of state, nor to intervene in the schools or public education. It will be absolutely forbidden to force anyone, particularly people under eighteen years of age, to become a member of a church, to become a Buddhist monk or nun, or to go to temples or monasteries to study Buddhist scripture.
So does this document provide some truth to the myth? We don’t think so. Let’s look at the relevant pieces of the document, one by one: ‘Religion will not be permitted to intervene in the schools or public education.’ This certainly has a familiar feel to those of us in the United States working under the principle of the separation of church and state. The second part is just as clear cut: ‘It will be absolutely forbidden to force anyone, particularly people under eighteen years of age, to become a member of a church.’ So the question here is: Is teaching children in Sunday School ‘forcing them’ to become a member? While you could make a case, I guess, that if the children had the choice to choose if they wanted to be there, they may choose not to be there and are therefore being ‘forced,’ as those of us who have spent time in Chinese churches know that church attendance is welcomed by all members of a family. Also, the myth states that it’s prohibited to teach children under 18, which is different from it being illegal to force children to become a member of a church.
Finally, in 2005 the State Council promulgated the ‘Regulations on Religious Affairs,’ which provides further clarification on how the country was to manage religious affairs. Within these regulations, there is no mention in one direction or another about teaching children of any age. It seems like the myth of this prohibition came from the same line of thinking as Bibles are not available in China. Many times, once a myth about China gets started, even if it’s not true, people assume it is based on what they perceive China to be like.
It is our heart and our hope to clarify Western perceptions in China, believing that when the Western church knows the truth about China, we’ll best be able to engage in participation and prayer to impact China for Christ!