ucanews.com reporters, Hong KongUpdated: July 18, 2016 11:52 AM GMT
The Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church in Taiyuan Diocese, Shanxi province, during an event celebrating the Year of Mercy on May 3, 2016. Observers say the Communist Party’s ideals of "sinicization" are more than about blending Chinese cultural elements into religion. (Photo supplied)
Chinese authorities have cranked up their propaganda machine regarding the "sinicization" of religion. Efforts to increase the influence of the ruling Communist Party in Han-Chinese society are clear in a campaign thought be aimed at the Catholic Church even as talks with the Vatican continue about a historic deal over the appointment of bishops.
The Party's main print mouthpiece, the People's Daily, published three articles on July 10, reiterating the importance of sinicization and asking religious groups to "resist control from a foreign version of the same religion."
Roman Catholicism is seen as "foreign" by the Party while Catholics in China themselves are not.
The theme of sinicization, a term aimed primarily at Christianity and Islam, has been pushed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping since May 2015. He spoke then at the Central United Front Work Conference and the term was enshrined in Party propaganda program at the Religious Work Conference, its first in 15 years, in April this year.
The articles in the People's Daily came out before Reuters published an investigative report on July 14 regarding an accord between China and the Holy See that church analysts say the Vatican is aiming to achieve this year. ucanews.com has tracked the meetings between senior Vatican and Chinese officials that have increased in frequency this year.
Some sources have claimed that the accord will be kept secret — not publicly announced and only for private exchanges between the Holy See and Chinese authorities — until a deal is finally reached. However, whether this will apply remains unclear.
The deal, long sought after by the Vatican — but with efforts escalated under Pope Francis over the past two years — would be for Beijing to accept some 20 bishop candidates that the Vatican has appointed in recent years, including some appointed during Pope Francis' reign. In exchange, the Holy See will pardon all eight illicit appointments made without Papal approval in Beijing.
Church sources confidentially reported to ucanews.com that a similar deal in 2009 had developed but was never finalized.
Chinese observers said that the eight illicit bishops, who were ordained under the "independent church" principle, are an example of the sinicization of the China Church.
The People's Daily articles in Chinese were authored by Mou Zhongjian, Ye Xiaowen and Zhuo Xinping, all experts on religious issues.
Ye argued that China's approach should be neither completely open nor completely closed. Before a position is finalized, a more basic issue needs to be addressed — examining the role of religion in society.
"We must remember that when we are dealing with religious belief, we cannot use administrative force," he said. "To consolidate the socialist regime and maintain social harmony, we must manage religion well… Certain anti-Chinese forces still use religion to subvert, Westernize and split China."
Mou stressed that sinicization means the assimilation of several Chinese traditions. One tradition recommends "religions to follow the lead of the regime and not interfere in politics." Observers have pointed out that by contrast the policy of sinicization seeks to limit, if not entirely eliminate, foreign influence.
Mou explained that sinicization was essential because it is based on historical experience, which is an implied reference to Christianity's colonial heritage. He also talked about "the spirit of charity, forgiveness and a mid-way approach" as the basis for sinicization, which leads to pluralism and tolerance.
Zhuo called for reducing the heat on the subject of religion in China. By encouraging Chinese authorities to adopt an approach that that "de-sensitizes on the subject of religion," Zhou recommended that authorities abandon their biases on the subject.
By allowing religions to exist normally in society, Zhou also stressed that local religions should "resist control from a foreign version of the same religion."
Experts fail to speak for religious groups
Observers have noted that these articles are the first time that official propaganda has mentioned "foreign religion of the same origin," an apparent reference of the Vatican. But it is certainly not the first time Chinese authorities have told the Vatican to keep its hands off Catholics in China.
Last October, just days before the second round of China-Vatican negotiations, a state-run newspaper for religious issues also implied that Xi is seeking to minimize foreign influence on Chinese institutions, saying that "there is no need for certain groups and individuals outside China to worry" about the management of religion in the country.
Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher at the Hong Kong Diocese's Holy Spirit Study Centre, thinks Zhuo's words on resisting foreign control and insisting on an independent church are directed at the Catholic Church. It showed Zhou's "extreme left" ideology, Lam added.
While all three articles focused on how to supervise religious groups, Lam told ucanews.com that Zhuo, as director of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "failed to pay any attention to the interests of religious groups." He was also alarmed that Zhuo blended sinicization with a Marxist view.
"They are influential experts but their stance has a very negative impact," Lam said.
Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Xi's full speech at the closed-door conference in April is yet to come out. The three articles could shed some light on his speech since the three authors, given their seniority, must have read it, he said.
Mou and Zhuo were invited to deliver lectures to the then Chinese President Hu Jintao and other politburo members in a study session in 2007 while Ye was former director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs 1995-2009.
Ying thought the articles did not offer any new insights into the religious environment and "it would be strange if they didn't say something very conservative."