China's years of worshipping dangerously

Xi Jinping's new religious rules and bureaucracy should be far more concerning to Chinese Catholics than any Vatican-Beijing deal
China's years of worshipping dangerously

A Catholic worshipper holds a cross during an Ash Wednesday Mass at Beijing's government-sanctioned South Cathedral on Feb. 14. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

The feedback UCAN has had from China's religious community about the decision by President Xi Jinping to abolish term limits for the presidency (and vice-presidency) has been universally troubled.

Xi is now widely referred to as "emperor for life" after the National People's Congress, which ended on March 21, abolished pesky presidential term limits. It was he who convened and headlined a rare top-level party "work" conference on religion in Beijing in May 2016 that set the ball rolling on a fresh focus on religious repression in China.

In case there was any doubt about the intentions of Communist Party leaders to focus on "western" religions, six of the top seven Chinese leaders at the time — members of the elite Politburo Standing Committee — were present.

The conference was the beginning of a process by the officially atheist party to once more strengthen controls over religion. Last year, it reiterated via new rules that none of its 90 million members are officially allowed to belong to an organized religion.

However, the truth is more complex. Many party members are practicing Christians and Muslims. Those are the two "western" religions, though China has split Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism, which along with Islam, Buddhism and Daoism are the five officially tolerated religions in China

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With little fanfare but plenty of preamble, the Communist Party's new religious regulations officially came into law on Feb. 1 amid much conjecture as to how Christianity and Islam will fare during the second term of the nation's increasingly powerful leader Xi Jinping as party general secretary — a title he was handed at the party's 19th Congress last October.

Since then, we have seen a large Protestant church demolished and more crosses removed in Henan province, while Beijing has made it clear it will use generally unused and obscure property laws to rein in churches, particularly those that have chosen to remain outside the official sector. Underground and "house" church services have been stopped in some places at certain times in both Catholic and Protestant churches,

Now that it appears clear Xi intends to try and hang on to power even longer, it looks like there will be little respite for Christianity and Islam unless it's strictly within the confines of the state bodies that have been created to control the practice of these religions.

To take this even further, on March 21, the Communist Party unveiled the last piece of its complete overhaul of China's bureaucracy, which has seen the merging of dozens of ministries and commissions, highlighting the primacy of the party over the shadow government of the state.

This is a reversal of structures put in place by Deng Xiaoping and has been widely seen by long-time China watchers as "two steps backwards."

Part of the overhaul was the beefing up of the already powerful United Front Work Department (UFWD), the party's peddler of influence overseas that has also had effective policy oversight of internal religious and ethnic affairs and which Xi has referred to as the party's "magic weapon."

The UFWD will now have full operational control over religion and ethnic affairs with the dissolution of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which had been reported as being the subject of a "restructure" for some months.

The UFWD now controls state-run Catholic and Protestant churches, Chinese Islam and Buddhist and Daoist organizations as well as the Chinese Bishops' Conference

This may, perhaps, give the Vatican pause for thought, but it has always been clear that the mooted deal between Beijing and the Vatican is, from Beijing's point of view, part and parcel of getting more control over the part of the church — the so-called underground church — not already controlled by Beijing.

Since China's reform and opening up, the Communist Party has a poor to middling track record in dealing with Christians, but what cannot be denied is that Catholic and Protestant denominations are in the Middle Kingdom to stay.

Various estimates put the number of Christian worshippers at between 50 million and 100 million, but Catholic numbers, according to Anthony Lam Sui-ki of Hong Kong's Holy Spirit Study Centre, have dropped from about 12 million a decade ago to as low as nine million. Lam also noted that China has something of a storied history of Christian surges and purges.

The Communist Party's fear, or rather intense ambivalence, toward religion is also nothing new. Authoritarian states have either tended to ban or co-opt religion to protect or burnish their power throughout history.

The metaphor of a "cage" has been used over decades by both Chinese officials and observers to describe how freedoms are perceived and exercised in communist China.

For instance, on a day-to-day level in mainland China, there are actually fewer rules and less of a nanny state than in many western nations. Often control is implied — there are police stations every couple of blocks in downtown Beijing where I used to live. One can do more but one knows where the edges of the cage are.

With its tougher new rules and the lurking constant presence of the UFWD over religion in China, the parameters of the cage in which Chinese can worship are now clearer, as is the implicit warning to those who want to stay out of it.

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