As China's State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) is officially absorbed into the ruling Communist Party's United Front Work Department (UFWD), its long-standing director Wang Zuoan has been formally transferred to the UFWD and promoted to deputy director. But as the new religion division of the UFWD takes shape, Wang will his retain his SARA title to prevent confusion in dealings with other nations on religious matters, China watchers have noted. Still, others suggested that Wang's move — the equivalent status of a vice-ministerial post — at least suggested continuity in a now consolidated bureaucracy overseeing religion. Under the previous structure, the UFWD set religion policy that SARA — a government rather than party body — then enforced. Bringing the two pieces together under the more senior party body underscores Beijing's renewed efforts to control religions, especially so-called western religions Christianity and Islam. Wang's reputation as SARA director among mainland Catholics was that he was tough on religious practices. Some fear his promotion, along with a fresh push to control religion by Chinese leader Xi Jinping that has already included a raft of more restrictive regulations that began operating in February and the crackdown on online Bible sales at Easter, does not augur well for religious practitioners in the People's Republic of China. Last year when the new rules around religion were announced, Wang said in the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the party, that the rules were needed because "the foreign use of religion to infiltrate [China] intensifies by the day and religious extremist thought is spreading in some areas." "Issues with religion on the internet are starting to break out ... and illegal religious gatherings in some places continue despite bans," he added. Online stores such as Taobao and Dandang have been banned from selling the Bible on the mainland and purchases are now restricted to a few officially sanctioned places such as churches. John, an underground Catholic of Hebei province, told ucanews.com that Wang is tougher than his predecessor Ye Xiaowen, whom he replaced almost nine years ago. “Tibetan Buddhists, Xinjiang Muslims and Christians are still constantly suppressed and crosses taken down. Also, Wang is obedient and will faithfully follow the central government and President Xi Jinping's policies. This has resulted in his rise in the hierachy,” he said. “These kinds of officials have trampled on our freedom of belief and climbed into high positions, faithfully implementing increasingly tight religious policies.” According to the party-run news website xinhuanet.com, Wang, 59, has a university degree and started working in September 1977 at Yixing City Arts and Crafts Ceramics Factory in Jiangsu province. In July 1983, Wang joined the research department of the Central United Front Work Department. Since then, he has been promoted regularly. He started working at SARA soon afterwards, including a stint at the religious culture press office before rising roles as editor-in-chief, divisional president and in 1998 deputy director and finally director in 2009.
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