Last week, Bitter Winter published the first English translation of the Chinese Communist Party’s new “Administrative Measures for Religious clergy,” set to come into effect on May 1.
First among the measures is the establishment of a comprehensive national database to record and track the state-authorized clergy of the five authorized religions (Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism). Any dissenting member of the clergy not registered in this database will be in immediate violation of the law. As Nina Shea observes, in order to register in the first place, clergy will have to demonstrate that they “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and support the socialist system.” Their loyalty to the CCP will then be periodically assessed in a manner similar to the country’s broader social-credit system.
These measures are further evidence of the CCP leadership’s eagerness to avoid the tactical mistakes made by the Soviet Union last century. The Chinese Communists aren’t trying to extirpate every last trace of theism, thereby inviting the undivided opposition of religious believers and institutions (as the Soviets did with regard to John Paul II’s Vatican). Instead, they’re attempting to enervate religious opposition to the regime by taming and co-opting domestic religious belief, turning it into another thoroughfare for the regime’s agenda of social control. For this reason, Chairman Xi has prioritized the “sinicization” of religion in China, all but mandating the prominent presence of his own likeness in every house of worship.
The tactical approach that the CCP has taken toward the Roman Catholic Church is particularly instructive of how party policy on religion differs from that of Communist regimes past (and even present if one considers the Kims in North Korea). Instead of trying to drive the Catholic Church out of China altogether, the CCP seeks to increase its own influence over the Vatican. (They’ve taken exactly the same approach toward many other things like American sports leagues, international institutions, and even capitalism itself.)
On September 22, 2018, the CCP signed an agreement with the Vatican — the text of which is still secret — according to which the two parties agreed to “cooperate” in the selection of Chinese bishops. In practice, this has basically meant that the Chinese have presented their approved candidates to the pope, who then officially approves them, almost as a formality. The whole affair reflects very poorly on Pope Francis and the Vatican hierarchy. The hope was to allow Chinese Catholics worshipping underground to come out of hiding and live out their faith in public; but this “liberation” has been purchased at the price of ceding all control over Chinese Catholicism to a militantly atheist cabal of genocidal communists.
The naïveté of the Vatican in agreeing to such an arrangement has been exposed to the fullest extent by these new “administrative measures”: Article 16 says that bishops in China will be democratically elected through the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and consecrated by the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference. No reference at all is made to the pope or the Vatican, who’ve been completely excised from the process. The CCP has cemented its sole control over Chinese Catholicism with the formal backing of the Catholic Church itself (the 2018 deal was renewed last year), leaving Chinese Catholic dissenters from the Party without even the formal backing of their own church.
In other words, this isn’t your grandfather’s evil empire. The CCP are smarter, defter, and more economically dominant than the Bolsheviks ever were. And right now, they’re succeeding at drafting Catholicism, along with the other major religions of the world, into the service of Marxism, something that even Marx himself didn’t think was possible.
As China’s only serious geopolitical rival, the United States also happens to be the most religious country in the developed world and the only country that sees religious liberty as the first and most precious jewel in its constitutional crown. If any nation on Earth with geopolitical heft is to take serious offense at China’s war on religious freedom, it’s likely to be the U.S. And yet there appears to be no appetite among the American public for a full-scale geostrategic conflict with China. Policy proposals for a new Marshall Plan to compete with the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative aren’t forthcoming in our public conversations. Worse than that, the U.S. hasn’t even been able to muster the collective will to offer American visas to Hong Kongers. The Cold War consciousness that underpinned our enmity toward the Soviets last century is simply not an animating force today, even though Communist China arguably poses an an even greater challenge to the free world than the Soviets did.
The most likely explanation for this has to do with the CCP’s signature tactic, as discussed above: They prefer to co-opt and manipulate people and forces instead of destroying them. During the last few decades, they’ve done precisely this with respect to free trade and global capitalism. Chinese producers have gotten their hooks deep into American consumers and have made the Party an indispensable part of the American (and world) economy. The CCP is deeply involved in our daily lives as consumers in a way that the Soviets never were. By making American consumers their economic vassals, the Chinese have neutered any appetite for full-scale geopolitical conflict among America’s governing elite, who are terribly aware of what a policy of decoupling would likely mean for their own electoral prospects. If voters are offered freedom from economic complicity in Communist atrocities in exchange for higher prices, are we sure they’d take the high road? One really has to wonder whether or not the first Cold War would have ended the way it did if the Soviets held sway over prices in the American marketplace.
The Chinese Communists haven’t tried to destroy capitalism. They’ve prioritized state ownership of the mind and soul over state ownership of the means of production, and they’ve been more than happy to use capitalism to achieve that end. We in the free world were convinced after the fall of the Soviet Union that economic and political freedom were necessarily joined at the hip. We therefore sought the liberalization of the global economy in the earnest belief that political freedom would follow. It never occurred to us that the Communists of the future might not be interested in nationalizing railroads or post offices but in nationalizing childhood, love, death, sex, and Jesus Christ — and in using the almighty dollar to do so. We never considered the possibility that the 21st century could turn out to be the hideous lovechild of Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping.
Well, to borrow a phrase from Solzhenitsyn, the great truth has now dawned, especially for religious Americans. We in the free world have made the Chinese Communist Party the most powerful producer and consumer in a global capitalist economy. In one of human history’s cruelest ironies and most perfidious paradoxes, Xi Jinping now bestrides the world as a Marxist robber-baron, a creature whose existence has eluded our categories of political thought for the last 200 years. With every new revelation of the CCP’s crackdown on religious believers, religious Americans are faced afresh with the fact that even an innocuous trip to Walmart might amount to an in-kind contribution to the massacre of the holy innocents; that the money we spend on our household goods is going into the pockets of latter-day Neros and Diocletians.
It’s been said that, with respect to China, Americans will have to choose between free trade and free markets, since China’s policy is to make markets unfree. It’s even more true that, with respect to China, religious Americans will have to choose between free trade and religious liberty, because as of right now, American believers are unwittingly funding the martyrdom of their co-religionists. Christianity (and most of the world’s great faiths) looks upon the faithful as an indivisible, supranational body. For this reason, religious Americans must lead the charge to decouple from China economically. They know that short-term national economic interests of the United States are worth nothing more than ash and sand when compared with the integrity and communion of the faithful. If American believers persist in their acquiescence to China’s hold over the American consumer in spite of this knowledge, they shouldn’t be surprised to be greeted with a stunning flash of celestial light the next time they’re on their way to Costco, and with a voice crying out, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”