Interpreting China's conference on religious work

Some believe the meeting's purpose was to enshrine officially into law tighter controls over religion
Interpreting China's conference on religious work

Tibetan Catholics in Yunnan celebrate an outdoor Mass in this undated photo. (Photo supplied)

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
China
May 4, 2016
Chinese Christians were confused about how to interpret the results of the National Conference of Religious Work, held behind closed doors in Beijing in late April.

All but one of China's elite Politburo Standing Committee, including President Xi Jinping and his Prime Minister Li Keqiang, attended the two-day summit on April 22-23. Xi laid out his blueprint on religious management in the highest-level meeting on religious work by the party since 2001.  

The People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, dedicated three quarters of its April 24 front page to the meeting.

Chinese commentator Gu Ziming said that conference means that religion is a big problem in China.

When Xi stressed the religious officials "must insist the party’s basic direction on religious work," the word "must" means he is criticizing them for not do so, said Gu on his Wechat public account. 

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"I don’t bother to read the news. We would never stand in the same line but just cope with the government perfunctorily," said an open church priest in Taiyuan who asked not to be named. Taiyuan, a diocese in central Shanxi province, has a Catholic population of about 80,000.

"If we support the government's line wholeheartedly, it means our faith is problematic," he said, referring to the irreconcilable difference between Catholicism and the atheist Communist regime.

"It is the old tune, control will only be stricter. The government will interfere with religious affairs in the name of "the rule of law," so what kind of freedom of religious belief is left for us?" an underground bishop, who asked not to be named told ucanews.com.

The purpose of the meeting was to enshrine officially into law tighter controls over religion, the bishop who is not recognized by the government, added.

"This is the real beginning of "sinicization" of religion. Now, even religion has to come under the party," he said.

The bishop noted that China has already begun implementing the wujin, a set of state policies and laws regulating the construction of churches and character of its communities, and the wuhua, which regulates the finances of church communities and ensures that church doctrine lines up with Chinese customs.

Willy Lam Wo-lap, senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, commented that the new "wujin, wuhua" policy initiated in Zhejiang province is evidence of the aggressiveness sinicization of Christianity policy.

It is apparently an experiment in a region that has centuries of interaction with Christian organizations in the West, Lam wrote in an article for China Brief.

At the national conference, Xi discussed respecting the basic doctrine of a religion, while expressing concern that overseas organizations could infiltrate Chinese society through religious means.

The president also said it was necessary for the government to prevent ideological infringement by extremists and ensure that religious leaders are political reliable.

"The question is here. Bishop’s appointment involves the core of our Catholic faith. But the government is intruding in our internal affairs. All in all, the party will give itself priority … before respecting our faith in a limited manner," said Father Joseph Liang also from Shanxi.

 

Scrutinizing the meeting

Other commentators and Christian scholars analyzed every detail in the most important meeting on religious management since 2001.

"Relatively new in Xi’s speech was the ‘Chinese-style socialist theory of religions,’ which shows Xi’s own theory in mind. This can be seen from insisting sinicization and his interpretation of harmonious relations between religious sector and other sectors," said Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the Divinity School of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Another Chinese scholar who asked not to be named, told ucanews.com the national meeting was important in the sense that it was different in authority and scope from the 2014 meeting because Xi chaired the meeting and gave the main speech.

Attending the April meeting were officials from the Ministries of Education and Public Security, as well as provincial religious officials. These religious officials from the provinces of Guangdong, Hebei, Jiangsu and the autonomous region of Ningxia were asked to share their experiences. 

"The selection is not random. Ningxia is a region where Islam is relatively peaceful while Jiangsu has a relatively open religious policy," the scholar said.

Both scholars noted that further observation is needed as the news from the summit offered only limited information. "More details of the 2001 meeting were only revealed after five years. It takes time to know the full picture," said Ying.

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