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Crackdown on Christianity in China, but for what purpose?

Cross removals, lawyer roundup leave one questioning Beijing's strategies and goals
Crackdown on Christianity in China, but for what purpose?

Young Chinese worshippers attend the Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing on December 24, 2014. (Photo by Fred Dufour / AFP)

Published: July 29, 2015 03:50 AM GMT
Updated: July 28, 2015 04:58 PM GMT

The Chinese Communist Party appears to be gearing up for a major crackdown on Christianity. The cross-removal program in Zhejiang, one of the key Christian provinces in China, has been quietly expanded into other provinces, as reported recently by ucanews.com.

But in China, it is always important to recognize that any crackdowns should be seen through the prism of the broader policy context, as crackdowns across the country are many and deep.

The reality prompts the question: what is the party's endgame here? Renewal or just survival?

There seems little doubt that the clear anti-Christian view of the Zhejiang party secretary Xia Baolong is backed by CCP supremo, Xi Jinping. Xia has noted that cities in the province have “too many crosses on their skyline”. The party boss Xi Jinping previously had Xia's job in Zhejiang from 2002-2007 so there is there is no suggestion that Xi does not "get" Zhejiang.

From the point of view of the party, it is odd to behave this way when a key plank of its program — building up the role of private enterprise — requires the engagement of civil society and the trust of a people that has all too often seen the Communist government default to authoritarianism. At its annual congress in 2013, the party declared it would push forward with a fresh phase of economic reforms.

Catholic and Christian business networks have been keys to Zhejiang's outsized success as one of China's entrepreneurial hubs. It is no coincidence that Wenzhou city in Zhejiang, known as the Jerusalem of the East, is central to this development. In the West, Christian networks have long been an integral part of business networks.

But it seems increasingly clear that the party sees the Christian churches as one of the essential threats to its continuing tight grip on power. Like its imperial predecessors, the party always has seen religions as potential destabilizers.

Large networks of any kind are threatening, as an alternative to the party and a way, potentially, of organizing across the country against the government. This was the key threat of the Falungong movement, which was ruthlessly crushed by Jiang Zemin and his successor, Hu Jintao.

As The Economist magazine suggested earlier this month, Christians are the second most popular organization in China outside the ruling Communist Party, which now counts about 90 million people as members. Christians could in fact already be the biggest.

Last year, Fenggang Yang, China-born professor of sociology and director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at the U.S.-based Purdue University, declared that there were already at least 100 million Christians in China, based on 2010 research by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Yang said there were 58 million Protestants in China then, and on top of this, 15-20 million Catholics. According to his predictions, China would have around 160 million Protestants by 2025. This would mean that China could be ahead even of the United States, which had about 159 million Protestants in 2010.

Yang extrapolated that China's total Christian population, including Catholics, would be more than 247 million by 2030 and thus become the largest Christian congregation in the world.

Renewed pressure

Unlike Falungong, Christianity is not a home-grown threat. It is a “foreign” one. The party, which sees no irony in its own Marxist-Leninist ideology being of European parentage, has decreed that there should be a “sinicization” of Christianity.

While clinging to Leninism, particularly as its organizing and control mechanisms, the Chinese Communist Party talks of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” At a recent meeting of the party’s United Front Work Department — which supervises all things religious — Xi Jinping with his sinicization comment was effectively calling for a “Christianity with Chinese characteristics.” That does not bode well for any further softening of relations with the Vatican.

There are crackdowns occurring in all the sectors high on Beijing's worry list. Most recently, there has been the still-continuing roundup of human rights lawyers — some 230 so far and still counting, all brought in for “questioning”. None have been allowed to see their own lawyers, giving lie to Xi’s s other reform promise: to improve the country's implausible legal system, a pledge made at last October's party congress.

There has been renewed pressure on the Muslim Uighur population of Xinjiang. And increasing areas of the far-flung resource-rich northwestern province are off limits to foreign media.

In Tibet, the temperature is rising as well. Last week's death in custody of Lama Delek Rinpoche, his subsequent early cremation by Chinese authorities and the confiscation of his ashes have seen worldwide protests.

Lurking over everything is the new National Security Law that came into effect on July 1. The legislation is largely untested but wide-ranging and includes a section that specifically targets religious groups. Greeted with dismay by many inside and outside China, it appears to be accompanied by a slow but deliberate increase in oppression — more lawyers, Protestants and Catholics called to police stations and interrogated.

An added wrinkle, and something to watch as China’s Xi Jinping chapter continues to unfold, is the unknown, and indeed unable to be counted, number of Christians who are also party members. Many of them have risen significantly in party ranks, particularly at the country and township level. 

In March, renowned China watcher David Shambaugh, political science professor Washington DC’s George Washington University, predicted the end of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Despite appearances, China’s political system is badly broken, and nobody knows it better than the Communist Party itself. China's strongman leader, Xi Jinping, is hoping that a crackdown on dissent and corruption will shore up the party's rule,” Shambaugh wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

“He is determined to avoid becoming the Mikhail Gorbachev of China, presiding over the party’s collapse. But instead of being the antithesis of Mr Gorbachev, Mr Xi may well wind up having the same effect. His despotism is severely stressing China’s system and society — and bringing it closer to a breaking point.”

Since then, professional China commentators and amateurs alike have been making dark predictions about the coming collapse of the party.

Not yet, I would venture to say. But the fresh sense of paranoia in the upper reaches of party leadership indicates that those at the very center of the organization are more concerned than they have been ready to admit for quite some time.

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