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China steps up crackdown on followers of folk religion

Authorities in a border region are forcibly relocating villagers to curb influence of 'illegal' religion

Ethnic Mien villagers in Guanxi province in China read a propaganda leaflet warning about the infiltration of illegal religions. (Photo: Weibo/Bitter Winter)

Ethnic Mien villagers in Guanxi province in China read a propaganda leaflet warning about the infiltration of illegal religions. (Photo: Weibo/Bitter Winter)

Published: May 26, 2022 03:47 AM GMT

Updated: May 27, 2022 08:49 AM GMT

Authorities in a southern region of China near Vietnam’s border have continued a crackdown on ethnic minority communities with forcible evictions and relocation, allegedly to save them from “infiltration” of a folk religion.

Beginning last October, security forces in several prefecture-level cities, including Chongzuo and Fangchenggang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, have conducted a campaign of surveillance and propaganda against a folk religion of ethnic people.

The province is home to the Mien, an ethnic Vietnamese group who speak the Hmong-Mien languages, and the Thai-speaking Zhuang.

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In recent weeks, authorities have launched a “social experiment” that has seen villagers forcibly evicted and relocated to specially designated sites and “model” settlements with tighter state control, reported Bitter Winter, a magazine covering religious liberty and human rights.

State officials claimed the project has “economic considerations" and seeks “poverty alleviation” of communities. However, some villagers disputed the claim and said the move is intended to ward off the influence of an ethnic folk religion.

Chongzuo city authorities have issued a document titled “Opinions on Strengthening the Prevention and Handling of Anti-Xie-Jiao Work in Relocation Sites for Poverty Alleviation.” It says among other things that the relocation policy is addressing a revival of “illegal” forms of religion.

However, observers say authorities fear that worshiping Nong among Mien and Zhuang people might fuel separatism in the Zhuang region against Chinese rule

Furthermore, authorities have instructed security forces to make frequent visits to villages to insist followers of folk religions do not worship Nong Zhigao, a folk hero and 11th century king who fought against both Vietnamese and Chinese forces for the independence of Zhuang. Reverence to Nong is largely tolerated in Vietnam but banned in China.

After the end of the brutal Cultural Revolution in China under Mao Zedong, local academics and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials argued that Nong was a popular hero who protected villagers and fought against the rich, so his worship should be allowed. 

However, observers say authorities fear that worshiping Nong among Mien and Zhuang people might fuel separatism in the Zhuang region against Chinese rule.

State authorities, at the behest of the CCP, are reportedly concerned that some villagers have recently converted to Christianity.

In China, Mien people mostly follow Chinese Taoism and are known by their Chinese name, Yao. The community, however, rejects the term as it literally means “savages.” Authorities have designated Yao as one of dozens of xie jiao (banned evil cults) in China.

Traditional slash-and-burn agriculture is the main livelihood for Mien people. Their folk religion and clan-based kinship system dictate their distinct culture and social practices.

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