A 2014 file image of a Bible as seen after an underground church Christmas Eve service at an private residence in Beijing. Bibles have recently been pulled from online bookstores in China. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)
On Holy Saturday, China's communist government, deep in talks with the Vatican on a deal to appoint bishops, issued a ban on internet sales of the Bible. Four days later, it issued its first white paper on religious freedom in 21 years, only a week after hauling Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong away from his diocese for a few days during Holy Week.
A notice issued on Twitter-like Chinese site Weibo banned online bookstores, such as Tabao and Dangdang, China's equivalents of Amazon, from selling Bibles.
People searching for Bibles on these sites were greeted with the message: "Sorry! No products in this category available."
One observer noted that there is a long-standing rule that the Bible cannot be sold publicly or on the internet in China but that oversight of this rule has been allowed to slide over the years.
"It can only be sold in churches that the government permits — it looks like the government has started to take the matter seriously," the observer noted.
William Nee, a researcher for Amnesty International, told ucanews.com that the Chinese government should immediately reverse its ban on the sale of Bibles and ensure that all Christians and people of other religions can exercise their faith without government interference or intimidation.
"For a government that just yesterday claimed to be supporting religious freedom, it is ridiculous that the core book of a major world religion — the Bible — cannot be found on the major Chinese e-commerce platforms," he said.
The white paper was notable for quantifying the number of people who practiced religion at 200 million, double the 100 million in the previous paper published in 1997. It claimed 6 million are Catholics, 38 million Protestants and 20 million Muslims.
But other figures released in recent years appear to show the Chinese government is underplaying religion numbers by excluding potentially tens of millions of people practicing all denominations of Christianity outside the official state-run "churches."
The white paper described party authority over religion as being necessary for China's independence, saying that "western" religions such as Christianity "had long been controlled and utilized by colonialists and imperialists."
It also emphasized that Muslim leaders in China must keep their followers clear of extremist views.
In a rare move, Chen Zongrong, the former deputy director of the state's Religious Affairs Bureau, which is currently being subsumed by the Communist Party's feared United Front Work Department, took questions from media not only about the white paper but also about talks between the Vatican and Beijing.
Chen said he did not agree that preventing the Vatican from having full control of bishop appointments would hinder freedom of religion.
Chen said Beijing was making a concerted effort to ink a deal with the Vatican on the appointment of bishops, but a week earlier the Vatican said such a deal — not long ago tipped by senior church officials for Holy Week — was not imminent. China would select bishop candidates but the pope would have veto power — an arrangement meant to end the appointment of rival clerics.
No significant new ideas
Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told ucanews.com that there were no significant new ideas in the white paper, which basically reiterated the key points of President Xi Jinping's address at the Central United Front Work Conference and the National Conference on Religious Work in May 2016.
"As the white paper is not a policy document or a law, it is only a proclamation and a report on [the government's] position. It does not make much sense to protect religious freedom," Ying said.
Ying noted that the last white paper on freedom of religion had been 21 years ago and that since Xi came to power in late 2012, "there have been many new moves in religious policies. These are included in this white paper as a demonstration of the positions on religious works in the era of Xi and a response to the outside world which questions whether Xi is tightening restrictions on religious freedom."
Ying said Christian numbers are official numbers and it is generally believed that members of underground churches and house churches are not included.
"For Protestant churches, according to the census of households by the Academy of Social Sciences in 2008, the figure was 23.5 million, up by 14.49 million and an increase of 64.8 per cent. The number reflects the growing trend of Protestant churches," said Ying. He stressed that officials are willing to accept this growing figure.
Or Yan Yan, a project officer at the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong, said churches were facing crackdowns one by one. People under the age of 18 have also been forbidden from entering churches.
Or Yan Yan said she was said many online shopping platforms in mainland China have had to remove the Bible from their listings.
She hoped the international community would not believe this kind of "doublespeak" by the Chinese government. The white paper mentioned managing religious affairs according to the law but the so-called law in China is not to protect religious freedom of citizens but to monitor and control religions, she said.
Or Yan Yan said many regulations and laws implemented on the mainland, especially the revised regulations on religious affairs, have completely violated the protection of religious freedom declared in the context of the International Convention on Human Rights.
The white paper uses beautiful wording to describe the principle of "independence, autonomy and self-administration," she added, but noted this principle is primarily not about respecting the inculturation, autonomy and nature of the church but more about destroying the essence of the church and the principle of faith.
The white paper said religious communities would be guided to embrace and support the leadership of the Communist Party, while the Religious Affairs Bureau was recently incorporated into the United Front Work Department.
"The political mission has been designated to religions by the Communist Party and their future could only move in this direction of serving politics," Or Yan Yan said.
Father Joseph, a priest in the underground church, believed that so-called freedom of religion is "freedom under the leadership of the Communist Party" as the party has the final say on everything. He frankly noted that at least converting to Catholicism in the state-run church is not freedom.
"In China, the Catholic Church is not allowed to exist legally, as only the independent, autonomous and self-managing church is sanctioned now, but it is not the real Catholic Church," he said.
An underground mainland Catholic known as John described the white paper as "bullshit, full of lies, playing with words and a sugar-coated bombshell for tricking the Vatican and foreigners."
"Only some westerners would believe that, but those who are familiar with China's national situation will see it as a joke," he added.