Religious Freedom Is Dying in China

Monks attend a celebration event for the birthday of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin at Nanshan Temple in Sanya, Hainan Province, China, in 2017. (Stringer/Reuters)
The government makes churches and mosques glorify the Communist Party above all else.

Against a backdrop of pandemic restrictions along with genocide allegations in Xinjiang, the year 2020 saw Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members vigorously preparing the populace to participate in the party’s centenary celebrations. To project the image of a unified China, government authorities pressured religious heads across the nation to evangelize about the glories of the CCP’s ideology and way of life. Churches were told to display banners with slogans of political ideology, perform the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and in general demonstrate their loyalty to the CCP above all, and only secondarily to the church.

This process is a snapshot of how religious freedom is dying in China, with authorities subordinating inner faith in God to ostentatious public displays of faith in the party. The CCP has issued rules covering every aspect of religious life, from the formation of groups to daily activities involving worship and prayer, all of which need to be approved by the communist government. For example, on February 18, 2020, the Shenyang Religious Affairs Bureau, in Liaoning Province, issued a notice to religious groups in the area specifically stressing the need to advocate Xi Jinping’s policies. On April 14, 2020, the Protestant-affiliated Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) in Fujian Province responded to pressure by calling for posters promoting core socialist values to be installed in all church venues. Clergy members were told to implant these values in the minds of believers through sermons and Sunday worship services, in order to inculcate a devotion to CCP principles in their daily lives. If the CCP encounters any form of resistance or refusal to help spread government propaganda, local authorities threaten to shut down the churches. So great is the fear that in a press release on October 1, 2020, the anniversary day of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Qingwen, senior pastor in Jinghe New City, Shaanxi Province, called on six Christian churches to adhere to the patriotic teachings of the CCP and promote the sinicization of Christianity.

And it’s not just Christians. This phenomenon of consistent indoctrination and blatant submission to communist standards is spreading across all religious groups. In Kaifeng, Henan Province, there are about 100 practicing Jews among 1,000 individuals with Jewish ancestry. Since they lack access to the Torah, they often use Christian Bibles, which are also limited and controlled in China. Given the government’s clear stance on those who do not conform to the CCP’s rules, they are constantly worried about being banished to forced labor and physical hardships.

On May 29, 2020, the Hainan Buddhist Association went a step further and conducted a training session for Buddhist monks across the province, telling them how to implement religious sinicization, adopt Xi Jinping lectures, and include the CCP’s religious regulations in their daily lives. Similarly, between August 10 and August 16, 2020, the Gansu Provincial United Front Work Department (UFWD) conducted the first round of training for Gansu Province’s main Islamic clerics and the directors of the temple-management committees at the Lanzhou Islamic Institute. UFWD stated that the training was meant for the sinicization of Islam and the promotion of the CCP’s principles, Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, and the political history, culture, and legacy of the CCP through the lens of patriotic education. According to the state-owned China National Daily News in a report dated October 13, 2020, the Hubei Provincial Islamic Association even released an outline for implementing the five-year plan for Hubei Province through adherence to the sinicization of Islam in China between 2018 and 2022, which included strengthening the political identity of Xi Jinping, propagating his works, emphasizing his regulations on religious affairs, and guiding imams to interpret scriptures according to traditional Chinese culture and the core values of the party.

While this process of widening the CCP’s reach has been going on for more than a year, on November 1, 2020, China started its seventh national census. As part of the collection of data, China did not hesitate to snoop on its own citizens and extract unauthorized information. The census takers were instructed to note religious materials and symbols in every household to ascertain if the home was being used as a private religious venue or a place for groups to gather. Residents were warned to stop hosting gatherings of any kind. In Yantai City, Shandong Province, local police even asked the census takers to report household items with images if they were found to be associated with the Falun Gong Buddhist movement. In Heze City, Shandong Province, police ordered census takers to report anyone who refused entry to their home, which could indicate it was used for hosting religious gatherings.

In addition, China keeps a close watch not only on religious minority groups but on foreigners as well. Churches attended by foreigners attract heavy scrutiny through passport checks, registration, and prevention of Chinese citizens from attending such services. The Hainan provincial public-security bureau offered rewards up to $15,300 for tips on foreigners who engaged in religious activities without permission. Authorities even installed surveillance cameras in classrooms to monitor religious teaching. Chinese online censors remove the words Christ, Jesus, Christianity, and Bible from social-media posts, replacing them with abbreviations. In many cases, Christians themselves replace these words in text in order to avoid online censors.

Chinese authorities also continue to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, the Koran, and other religious texts — basically anything that is not a CCP document. As per the government-affiliated news outlet, law-enforcement agencies are tasked with inspecting publication locations, farmers’ markets, and urban–rural junctions to look for illegal religious publications and training courses. Some employers, at the instance of local authorities, have even gone to the extent of terminating the employment of religious minorities such as Falun Gong practitioners, citing their current or previous religious affiliations as the cause for the firing.

Sometimes the CCP goes beyond restrictions on religion to outright bans. Party members and those belonging to the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from following or expressing any religious beliefs or practices. The country’s national law, in fact, bans organizations and minors from participating in most religious activities or education. Instances of custodial deaths, torture, physical abuse, arrest, detention, sentencing, and forced indoctrination in CCP ideology are not uncommon in China. Moreover, in accordance with the 2019–2024 campaign of sinicization, clergy members of all religions have been mandated to attend political-indoctrination exercises organized by the CCP, and their religious services will be under strict monitoring, with any untoward interference or outreach by any group being viewed quite seriously. Accordingly, in September 2020 the UFWD’s vice head and the State Administration for Religious Affairs’ director general declared that foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in China.

This kind of sinicization was already in the offing between January and June 2020, when authorities shut down religious venues, particularly those belonging to Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and Taoist faiths, on the pretext of COVID restrictions. Likewise, many public displays of religious symbols were also destroyed throughout China.

Despite these periodic confrontations, the Chinese efforts to sinicize different religious groups remain undeterred and continue as part of a system-wide effort to make the CCP and its value system all-pervasive in every citizen’s life. Article 5 of the new policies of the CCP emphasizes adherence of religious organizations to the leadership of the CCP and its constitution, laws, regulations, ordinances, policies, and vision of socialism. These new rules also assert the need for religious organizations to spread the narrative of the CCP and support its quest for total socialism in adherence to Chinese characteristics.

The Chinese remain free to believe privately what they wish, but they may preach and worship publicly only as the CCP dictates. While China’s religious citizens struggle to focus on leading moral lives, after 100 years the CCP’s only goals remain domination, control, self-perpetuation, and self-aggrandizement.

Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.


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