China's government meeting on religious work imminent

Meeting is seen as an 'an important window' on Xi's thoughts on management of religion
China's government meeting on religious work imminent

A woman hangs a Chinese national flag outside her home ahead of the 18th China Communist Party Congress in Beijing in this 2012 file photo. Currently, China's Communist Party appears ready to hold a long-delayed national meeting on religious work. (Photo by AFP) reporter, Hong Kong
April 22, 2016
China's Communist Party appears ready to hold a long-delayed national meeting on religious work after running a series of articles in state media to manage the surging popularity of Christianity and violent fundamentalism among Muslim Uighurs.

Calling for a continuation of "Marxist religious theory," party mouthpiece The People's Daily noted on April 21 that the Central Committee demanded fresh ideas on how to manage the country's more than 100 million believers including 6 million Catholics and 23 million Protestants.

In a sign the party was gearing up for its first major religious meeting since 2001, the article was reposted on news sites in China.

The State Administration for Religious Affairs website also carried six other articles by the United Front Work Department that oversees the religious sector in China.

In a further sign that the meeting is imminent, a website for Beijing's Haidian District said on April 20 it had inspected the venue of the "National Conference of Religious Work," in recent days.

"The sudden wave of propaganda across China might be a signal that the national meeting on religious work will take place soon," a China researcher who asked not to be named told "Those articles are old tunes. One has to observe whether the meeting might turn up something new."

The meeting would be "an important window" for observing Chinese President Xi Jinping's thoughts and direction on management of religion, agreed commentator Chung Ming-gau in Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper on April 22.

The last highest level national meeting on religious work was held in 2001 under then party leader Jiang Zemin.

The forthcoming meeting could be chaired by Xi as with the central committee’s Work Conference on United Front Work last May, said Chung.

"Whether Xi will propose a more systematic view will indicate the degree of focus on the Central Committee's religious work in the future," wrote Chung.

The party has postponed its national meeting on religious work several times since it was first rumored to be held a year ago.

Observers including the China researcher say they believe the repeated delays was due to a lack of consensus among at least eight different ministerial departments involved in overseeing religions including the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the United Front Work Department.

In a sign of the direction the party may be moving towards on managing religions, the People's Daily article noted the obligation of Chinese citizens to follow the law in realizing the common interests of the state and society in the religious sector, an echo of Xi's "rule of law" campaign.

"It would not allow a place to stand above the law, a person above the law or a religion above the law," it said.

Authorities across China have stepped up a campaign against underground Christian gatherings as Beijing continues to discuss the thorny issue of bishop ordinations with the Vatican.

"The stress of rule of law protecting the legal and suppressing the illegal could turn the underground Catholic community into 'religious extremists,' while resisting infiltration means the dream of the Vatican (signing an agreement with Beijing) still has a long way to go," said a priest in northern Hebei province who asked not to be named for security reasons.

China also faces other rising tensions between authorities managing religions.

In Zhejiang province, authorities have removed at least 1,800 church crosses causing state relations with Catholics and Protestants to worsen significantly since the campaign started in late 2013.

Muslim Uighurs say heavy-handed management by authorities in Xinjiang has been the main catalyst for recent violence in western China.

Tibetan Buddhists similarly complain their religious freedoms are again being diminished as Beijing seeks to seize control of the impending reincarnation of the 80-year-old Dalai Lama.

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