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China's religious freedom white paper is doublespeak

While much of its aim is to appease the Vatican, most of the paper is a triumph of theory over fact

Sang Pu, Hong Kong

Sang Pu, Hong Kong

Published: April 19, 2018 10:35 AM GMT
China's religious freedom white paper is doublespeak

Altar boys during Mass on Holy Saturday at Beijing's government sanctioned South Cathedral on March 31. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

The release of the Chinese government's white paper on religious freedom is not a periodic event as it is only the second since 1997.

Given the ad hoc nature of such releases, it is fair to imagine that China is pursuing a particular political purpose in this action.

The release coincides with what some see as the last mile in reaching an agreement with the Vatican on the nomination and appointment of bishops, as well as improving Vatican-China ties.

So there is a strong argument in saying that the white paper serves at least three major purposes for the Chinese government.

Firstly, an attempt to mitigate worldwide concerns over China's treatment of different religions such as Catholicism, Protestantism Christianity, Islam in Xinjiang and Tibetan Buddhism.

Second, to reassure the Vatican and others that any power to nominate bishops remaining in Beijing's hands will do no harm to the Catholic Church or Catholics in China.

And third, to draw a line in the sand saying that all religious groups and affairs in China should always support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and not be dominated by foreign powers.

All religions in most parts of the world operate in a regulated environment. Land, religious office holders and the services provided by religions are all legally established in pluralistic democracies governed by the rule of law.

But in those jurisdictions, the rights of religious personnel and institutions are protected by ordinances guaranteed by law to protect religious freedom.

In China, defenders of the regime will point to provisions in the constitution that provide for freedom of religious belief for believers. But these are nominal freedoms.

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This white paper will do nothing to protect religious freedom in China. Religious freedom, by nature, is the freedom to embrace transcendental beliefs and values, which are beyond the secular world or political powers.

It is not consistent with a wholehearted loyalty to a particular human being, to a secular political party or government, or to a specific culture. Enshrining these will simply mean there is no religious freedom at all.

This white paper unequivocally affirms that all religions should adapt to a socialist society, support the Communist Party leadership and the socialist system and follow the "socialist road with Chinese characteristics" — namely the Sinicization of all religions.

It also affirms that all religious groups should reject any form of domination by foreign powers or any unlawful acts committed by foreign religious organizations or individuals by their trying to control Chinese religious organizations or intervening in religious affairs or seeking to remove the Chinese government.

This is the line taken by President Xi Jinping since his speech at the 2015 Party Central United Front Conference and again at the 2016 National Work Conference on Religion.

Practically speaking, this means supporting the leadership of the Communist Party and a readiness to work for the success of Xi's so-called "China Dream" — to socially adapt to and serve Chinese society as a whole.

Additionally, this entails the acceptance of Chinese characteristics in religious thought, customs, religious buildings and art.

What this exhortation really means is simply to "obey Xi Jinping" and "obey the Party" and this should take precedence over faith in God or other transcendent values.

Obviously this is fundamentally against the very notion of religious freedom.

This white paper is more or less a reinstatement of most of China's existing policies on religion.

It also contains certain unconvincing paragraphs at the beginning to show how China "respects" religious freedom by quoting Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution

The white paper also adopts a teasing technique.

It says that Protestant Christians in China have increased to 38 million (which is a substantial rise from 23 million 10 years ago), while Catholics in China still remain at 6 million.

For both, the numbers do not include underground church believers. The hidden message is to exert pressure on the Vatican to lure it into seeking a breakthrough if it wants to see a growth in the number of Catholics in China.

But all the figures are unreliable.

The 1997 white paper said there were around 100 million religious believers in China, and that this number was based on Premier Zhou Enlai's figures from the 1950s, while this present one states the number has doubled to 200 million.

Ironically, irrespective of whether these numbers are genuine or not, China concedes to the world that, after so many decades, its atheist and communist activities have not led to any meaningful achievement in trying to eliminate religion.

Besides quoting verbatim from Xi's speeches, this white paper, when compared with that of 1997, also enshrines the principles of "independence, autonomy and self-establishment."

It says these principles are a "historical choice" made by "Chinese people with religious beliefs" in the course of their striving for national independence and social progress to overcome the "shameful history" of Catholicism and Protestant Christianity as manipulated during the "humiliating" period of colonialism and imperialism which led to their being seen as "alien worship."

The meaning of these references to Catholicism and Protestant Christianity rests in this: Without the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and without contributing to the building of the "Chinese Dream" they would be seen to be providing a colonialist and imperialist plot against China. This rhetoric is far more repetitive in this present white paper compared to that of 1997.


Sang Pu, is a Hong Kong-based political commentator, lawyer and Catholic.

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