A winter of darkness for religions in China

A winter of darkness for religions in China

by Bernardo Cervellera

A summit on religions is planned for later this year to discuss new norms and restrictions governing their activities. The property of religions and their use of internet will also be under scrutiny. This “sinofication” of faiths at all costs threatens to empty communities of their religious and dogmatic content, transforming them into NGOs and puppets in the hands of those in power. The difficulties of dialogue with the Vatican. The CPC wants to eliminate anything that could damage its monopoly of power amid fears it could end up like the Soviet CP. The syndrome of the “USSR style collapse ” and that of “suicide” by eliminating religions, is the only value system holding Chinese society together.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The Ministry of Religious Affairs (more precisely: the State Administration for Religious Affairs, SARA), has announced on its website that it is preparing a national summit on religions, which will discuss the revision of norms governing the control of faiths. Many Christians interviewed by AsiaNews fear that this will only further plunge the life of communities into darkness as they struggle against a swelling tide of increasingly severe restrictions.

SARA deputy director, Chen Zhongrong, said that the summit will discuss the “intensive” formation of local religious leaders. Moreover, President Xi Jinping is set to attend the meeting.

The date has not yet been officially announced; some say that it will happen later this year. However, preparatory meetings have been taking place for some time now. So far this year, Yu Zhengsheng, Politburo member and previously Xi Jinping’s successor as Shanghai party secretary, has made several visits to representatives of the five official religions (Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Protestant, Catholic).

In January, he traveled to Baoding, where there is a strong presence of the unofficial Catholic community. He also chaired a meeting of the Commission for Religious Affairs of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Sequestered property and Internet

What is far from clear is the topics of the summit. In an interview with Wenweipo (a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong), SARA’s director, Wang Zuoan, said that the time is now ripe for a comprehensive review of the norms governing religions and that agenda topics would include property rights and the use of internet.

The issue of property rights is the source of a bitter dispute between the different religious communities and SARA. Many properties – buildings, hospitals, schools, land – expropriated under Mao Zedong to be used “for the people”, under a law passed by Deng Xiaoping should have been returned to their respective owners. Instead, SARA members and offices liberally use these properties for their own purposes, even registering them as personal property. According to Chinese law, property to the value of an estimated 13 billion euros should be restored to the Catholic Church.

Over the years the government has expropriated houses to build hotels and buildings at the time of the Olympics and seized farmland and villages to grant to the land for industrial use. The complaints of the injured parties have never been upheld. Church environments fear that the new regulations could simply ‘clean the slate’ of any claims heretofore made by bishops and communities.

There is also a fear that restrictions on the use of Internet will be increased, mirroring what is already taking place throughout Chinese society in recent months as is seen in the arrest and conviction of dozens of bloggers and journalists. These include Gao Yu, guilty of having published a list of everything that has been prohibited on the internet in the name of “security”.
Among Catholics, there are those who suspect that the death of Fr. Wei (Yu) Heping, who was very active on the internet, is due to a conflict with the authorities, even though they continue to say that the priest “committed suicide”.
“Sinofication” a form of repression

So far Xi Jinping has hardly ever spoken of religions, but in May he met with the United Front (the representatives of all social organizations outside the Communist Party). In his speech he insisted on the “sinofication” of religions and that they must strengthen their independence from foreign influence. In short, he said, this is the only way they will survive in China.

As for the Catholics, if this “sinofication” means inculturation, namely an entering into dialogue with Chinese culture, then this has been happening since the time of Matteo Ricci and his followers, such as Paul Xu Guangxi (1562-1633), a national hero and scientist, as well as great Catholic. The “sinofication” had a positive outcome and led to the first Vatican delegate in China, the great Celso Costantini (1876-1958) who pushed for the ordination of the first Chinese bishops. He proposed a curriculum in seminaries that integrated theology with traditional culture. He also suggested construction of churches that were more responsive to the architectural style prevalent at the time in the Empire.

Unfortunately, the “sinofication” referred to by Xi seems somewhat different. Last May 29, the United Front website published an explanation of the term used by Xi Jinping. It says that the term is first of political, namely to support the government of the Chinese Communist Party and socialism and obey the laws of the State. Secondly, it is nationalistic, meaning that religions must act in the best interests of the Chinese nation and the Chinese people. Thirdly, it is ideological in so far as religious activities must be guided by socialist values ​​and be imbued with traditional Chinese values. The Bible must be interpreted so as to promote what is good for social development.

The scope of this type of “sinofication” is even clearer in light of the statements published in the China Nation Post on April 21. The text underlines that in order to become more “Chinese” Christianity must try to be useful to the society into which it is inserted. It must give up its claims to “superiority” and not be exclusivist, rather it must coexist with other religions. It must interpret Sacred Scriptures in the light of traditional Chinese culture. The newspaper warns that if this adaptation to becoming Chinese – this “sinofication” – does not take place, the foreign religion cannot survive and will be erased.

Agreement can be reached on some aspects of this “sinofication”: the witness of Christians always bring “benefits” to society. The Chinese Church has long been at the service of families, the poor, immigrants, the handicapped, the sick. In the same way it has long been committed to the dialogue between Chinese faith and culture.

The problem arises when this inculturation is not part of the Christian identity but imposed from the outside, according to a measure established by the political power. In this case – as several Chinese Christian intellectuals point out – there is the risk of reducing the Christian faith to a by-product of socialist doctrine, transforming churches into charitable organizations or NGOs, while pastors and leaders become simple bureaucrats in the Party. Apparatus

In fact, this “sinofication” mask an attempted power grab on religions. On November 30, in an article published by the “Global Times”, Zhu Weiqun, president of the Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs of the CPCP said that reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism is a matter for the Communist Party and that Beijing will determine who will succeed the Dalai Lama.

In January, new rules were introduced for Muslims in Xinjiang, banning women from wearing the burqa and young people from growing a beard. Often universities rectors forcibly ban students from fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Last year Christmas Parties and Christmas ceremonies were banned from universities and schools. While in Zhejiang thousands of crosses were torn down from bell towers and churches so as not ruin the skyline of capital-communist modernity with Chinese characteristics.

The Party and the China-Vatican dialogue

The Party’s drive to have total and absolute dominion over religions is also evident from the themes of the dialogue between the Vatican and China. From information that has arrived from China it would seem that Beijing’s proposal is limited to complete recognition by the Holy See for all official bishops (even illegitimate and excommunicated bishops), without any mention of the unofficial bishops and those in prison; Vatican approval of the government recognized Council of Bishops, which excludes underground bishops; approval of the competency of this Council (and not the Pope) in the appointment of new candidates to the episcopacy who will be “democratically” elected (in short according to the suggestions of the Patriotic Association). The Holy See must approve the Council’s appointment and has a weak veto only in “severe” cases, which must be justified if used. If the Holy See’s justifications are considered “insufficient”, the Council of Bishops may decide to proceed anyway.

The Vatican’s requests for the liberation of imprisoned bishops and the recognition of underground bishops have been completely ignored. A few days after the meeting between the Holy See and the Chinese delegations in Beijing last October (October11-16), official Catholic bishops and leaders in the provinces of Guizhou and Shandong officers were made attend a study session on the “sinofication of religions and Christianity,” in which the above criteria and control over episcopal ordinations were reiterated.

Obviously, you need a large dose of humor to call this respect for religious freedom. In fact we see a widespread penetration of ideology and of party control in the most intimate depths of faith, dogmas, beliefs, to disfigure the face of the religion, leaving only an empty shell, a puppet in the Party’s hands.

Moreover, it is now clear to many that the sinofication, the new regulations, the increased controls have only one purpose: to preserve the monopoly of power of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and remove or crush any person who might challenge it or its very existence.

The syndrome of a” USSR style collapse ”

For years, the CPC has been suffering from a syndrome of “the Soviet style collapse “, for fear of ending up like the Communist Party in Russia. Xi Jinping has often spoke about this, warning against any “revisionism” and any criticism of the Party’s history.

China has always looked with fear upon the end of the Soviet empire. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the CPC blamed the collapse on Solidarnosc, Poland and Pope John Paul II. And so since then Beijing has reinforced repression against free trade unions, against attempts of regional autonomy, against the Catholic religion and religions in general.

After the Tiananmen massacre, the CPC tried to justify its use of force by granting economic well-being to society. But the world that has emerged is full of huge economic imbalances, pollution, injustice, violence, corruption and now the support of the population has shrunk. For this is an ongoing struggle against any person who would throw a shadow on the power of the Party intellectuals, bloggers, journalists, lawyers, human rights and … religions.
The fear of religious communities is even more acute because adhesion to a faith has even penetrated Party members, so much so that a few months ago a ban on members practicing any form of religion was issued.
Conversions and return to the practice of the faith is spreading like “weeds” in Chinese society to the point of quietly overturning government statistics. In fact, according to Beijing there are only 100 million faithful belonging to the five official religions in China. But already in 2007 some professors at the Shanghai Normal University published a survey in China Daily which showed that the number of believers is around 300 million and more.

The real tragedy in all of this, is that in addition to its obsessive fear of a “USSR style collapse”, Beijing is also suffering from a “suicidal” tendency, given that in its attempt to eliminate or stifle religions – and in particular the Christian communities – the Party is in reality erasing the only means by which it could give real meaning and cohesion to the Chinese society, which is currently prostrated by decades of materialism, individualism, suspicion, conflict and existential emptiness.

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One comment on “A winter of darkness for religions in China

  1. For China’s Communist Party, Jesus is a political enemy, which is why it wants to crush Christians


    A Protestant clergyman explains Beijing’s campaign of persecution against Christians. “The government sees Christianity as an independent political group. Indeed, its organization meets the definition of modern civil society, and is an autonomous society entity independent of the state. The Christian church is an intermediary for a self-governing, plural and open social space.” Likewise, “The Holy Cross and the architecture of the church are expressions of the church’s physical presence in the public space, and symbols of social power.”

    Wenzhou (AsiaNews) – For China’s Communist regime, “Christianity as an independent political group” and deems believers “a threat to the security of the regime”; yet, its crackdown has seemingly lessened. The reality however is different, this according to a Protestant clergyman (anonymous for security reasons). For him, Beijing’s policy of sinizing religion hides a desire to muzzle believers.

    Cao Yaxue interviewed the clergyman on 23 November for ChinaChange, a website that monitors Christian rights in China. Its latest update on arrests and releases was posted in the second week of December 2015. What follows are excerpts from the interview.

    Yaxue Cao (YC): Paster L, I interviewed you in late July at the height of the Chinese government’s cross-removal campaign. The campaign of demolishing churches and removing crosses had lasted a year and half by then, and several large churches were destroyed. One estimate had it that up to 1,500 crosses were dismantled across Zhejiang Province. But since August and September, there hasn’t been much news about cross removals. Has it stopped?

    Pastor L: It has for the time being, but the suppression has not, and is very much ongoing. Since August and September, the authorities have changed their strategies and methods. They are accusing journalists who simply reported facts of “divulging state secrets,” and charging pastors and evangelists with leaking intelligence. That is a first. In Wenzhou, at least twenty clergy members, church workers, and legal counsel have been placed under secret detention for over two months by now. [. . .]

    It’s been confirmed that some of them have been placed under secret and solitary detention where detainees face high risk of torture and maltreatment. All of them could face severe jail terms.

    In early November, several of them in secret detention sent letters to their relatives almost simultaneously to dismiss their lawyers, including lawyer Zhang Kai who had been the counsel for several churches. This is rather strange: a lawyer who has been known for using legal tools to help church communities in Wenzhou would reject help from lawyers after being secretly detained. In his letter, Zhang Kai said nothing at all about his circumstances, inviting speculation that the letter was produced under duress. Such things are common in China.

    On November 11, Lucheng District authorities in Wenzhou posted three documents in Xialing Church, announcing the pending demolition of two church buildings, each four stories with a total area of 2,907 square meters (about 31,290 square feet), on November 16. This is the very church where lawyer Zhang Kai and his assistants had been stationed and were arrested. But as of today, the demolition team hasn’t shown up.

    Right now, church communities in Zhejiang Province are experiencing a sense of defeat not seen over the last 30 years or so. The churches have underestimated the cruelty of the government. They thought the crackdown would come to an end after the Sanjiang Cathedral was demolished. But that has proven to be wishful thinking.

    YC: It all started as a campaign to demolish illegal buildings and clean up the city’s appearance, but what really happened looked more like a masked war against Christians. What’s the real motivation?

    Pastor L: It was a carefully thought-out plan to legitimize their demolition of churches and crosses, in the name of regulating illegal buildings. The goal was to minimize negative reaction by the public. By treating religious issues with non-religious methods, the government hoped to conceal its intent to weaken Christianity.

    It’s true that some churches in Wenzhou, and across the province, have built more than they were permitted to. That’s due to the flaws of religious policies and excessive administrative restrictions. Because the procedures for church construction approval are extremely cumbersome, local governments, out of tolerance for religious groups, have allowed churches to unofficially “construct more and report less,” and sometimes you can even see local officials giving speeches during a church’s inauguration ceremony. Take Sanjiang Cathedral for example. In 2013, the expansion of it was proposed, and promoted, by none other than the Wenzhou municipal government as an architectural landmark that would forge the image of a modern, pluralistic, and tolerant city.

    But the cross removal campaign must be understood in the context of the Xi Jinping government’s tightening control of ideology. The authorities see Christianity as something outside their authoritarian sphere, and an imperialist legacy that identifies more with Western values. Indeed, it is one of five categories of citizens whom the government deems a threat to the security of the regime, along with rights lawyers, dissidents, Internet opinion leaders, and disadvantaged social groups.

    The government sees Christianity as an independent political group. Indeed, its organization meets the definition of modern civil society, and is an autonomous society entity independent of the state. The Christian church is an intermediary for a self-governing, plural and open social space. The Holy Cross and the architecture of the church are expressions of the church’s physical presence in the public space, and symbols of social power.

    Suspicious of religious organizations, the government does not tolerate the scope and influence of the church and regards it as a threat to its security. An internal meeting in Zhejiang Province in early 2014 required that “cadres in charge of ethnic and religious affairs must grasp the political matter behind the cross and resolutely resist infiltration.”

    In Wenzhou one rumor is that, while visiting Wenzhou in September 2013, the provincial CCP Secretary Xia Baolong was greatly displeased by what he saw: the large, brightly-lit cross of the Sanjiang Cathedral by the Ou River. “This is brazen! Whose domain is this, the Communist Party’s or the Christians’?”

    [. . .]

    YC: Again, why Wenzhou?

    Pastor L: Because Christianity is thriving in the area, with 15% of the population Christian. That’s over one million people, according to official statistics. In towns and the countryside, churches are numerous and crosses conspicuous. Wenzhou has been called “China’s Jerusalem” and the authorities don’t like it. And more, Wenzhou has influenced, over the past 30 years, the expansion of churches in China.

    YC: Can you elaborate on the last point?

    Pastor Pastor L: Starting in the mid-1980s, troves of Wenzhouers left home to do business across the country. Christians among them would hold regular gatherings in the cities they lived. Volunteers and clergymen, mostly from house churches, began to establish, propagate, and sponsor house churches in large cities and rural areas, providing financial support, equipping their altars, and holding regular evangelical meetings. As churches in Wenzhou matured, they also organized Bible study groups to equip church leaders and staff across the country with biblical knowledge and church management skills.

    Wenzhou Christians inside and outside China worked together, evangelizing in the country. There are more than 10,000 volunteer evangelists in Wenzhou; there are several hundred of them in European countries and in the U.S.; several thousand evangelists serve churches in large cities in China; and there are many evangelists from Wenzhou in both officially sanctioned churches and house churches in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, and other cities. Since the 2000s, Wenzhou has gradually established two dozen or so bible and theology sessions, training hundreds of new grassroots evangelists each year.

    YC: As a non-Christian who observes society and politics in China, two things struck me about the Chinese government’s behavior: one is that it challenges a very large sector of solid middle class people in the wealthiest province on the east coast; the other is that it treats the state-sanctioned churches no differently than the underground house churches. I feel that the state of Christianity in Wenzhou must have troubled the government a great deal for them to act with such reckless abandon.

    Pastor L: The state-sanctioned churches are not always obedient in Wenzhou. The church’s’ belief system is rather self-contained, impervious to government control. In this, any authoritarian government would perceive potential resistance to its control. In China, the central government has been increasingly unhappy about the ambiguous interaction between local governments and churches, convinced that its authority has been weakened and the manipulation through the so-called United Front Work hasn’t worked well. Indeed the UFW’s usefulness is so limited that the government doesn’t mind the loss by destroying its connection with state-sanctioned churches.

    YC: What loss? Can you elaborate on that?

    Pastor L: The registered churches have always believed that their religious activities are approved by the government, and, because of it, they have done things almost free of concern. For example, they organized summer camps for college students. They held large-scale evangelist services. In townships and villages, sometimes they came out with Christmas programs on streets. The church workers didn’t limit their work to Wenzhou. [. . .]

    But as this cross removal campaign unfolded, they suddenly realized that registration with the government does not guarantee that they’ll be spared, and a lot more crosses have been removed from government-sanctioned churches than from house churches. They realized that, as registered churches, they are retaliated against even worse when they refuse to adopt the government’s unreasonable policies. On the part of the government, they feel the registered churches have betrayed them and therefore should be suppressed even harder. The will of the Party must prevail. Consequently the government loses everyone. Disappointed church leaders have condemned the government. Grassroots Christians are angry but not surprised. They say, if the Communist Party showed tolerance, then it wouldn’t be the Communist Party.

    YC: While the cross demolition was taking place and over the following months, I regularly saw slogans like “sinicizing Christianity” and the “five entries and five transformations.” This month a purportedly international academic symposium was held in Beijing called “The Path to Sinicizing Christianity,” attended by representatives of the Party’s United Front Work Department, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, proxies like China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and a number of universities. What is the sinicization of Christianity? Is this is a new idea?

    Pastor L: The official-led and directed campaign of “sinicizing Christianity” is in essence the politicization of Christianity—it’s forcing Christianity to “go communist,” or undergo a “socialist transformation.” The intent is to reform and remold Christianity into a Party-dominated tool that can be used in its service. A proponent of the “sinicization of Christianity” theory, official scholar Zhuo Xinping, laid it out straight: “Christianity in China needs to emphasize sinicization politically; it must acknowledge and endorse our basic political system and its policies.”

    At this conference in Beijing, “sinicizing Christianity” might mean different things for different parties, but the core, tacit presupposition of the meeting was that Christianity is a latent, potential political competitor with the Party. This already warps Christians’ own understanding of their identity as God’s people. It has absolutely nothing to do with what went on during the late Qing and Republican eras, in which grassroots Christians, as an organic part of their missionary work, experimented with and developed various forms of localizing and adapting Christian teachings to China.

    When Nestorian Christianity entered China during the Tang dynasty, it integrated too much into Chinese culture, to the extent that the transmission of Christian teachings was stopped, in the end going away entirely. If Christianity neglects its ecumenical and theological tradition, all sorts of “abnormal” variations fused with Chinese folk traditions are apt to proliferate. The example of Hong Xiuquan’s “Taiping heavenly kingdom” is a familiar example. If the Church, on the other hand, overly attaches itself to state power, emphasizing nationalistic will, then secular powers are apt to sweep in and try to commandeer it. Nazi Germany’s instrumentalization of Lutheranism led to great tragedy. Many clerics in the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe were later found to have been recruited as informants for the Communist Party, and when the archives were opened they were too ashamed to show their faces in public. In China, Christianity should draw a lesson from these cases and on no account let itself become a mistress of the Communist Party.

    The authorities are now engaged in a series of actions in churches. In Pingyang, Wenzhou, the local authorities are on Sundays sending administrative personnel to churches to monitor the activities, ensuring that churches don’t discuss the cross demolitions or talk negatively about government policies. Some places plan to set up offices inside churches, but they haven’t succeeded. In other places the government has set up their own propaganda noticeboards on church properties, and made a big fuss of them in state media. In 2015, Zhejiang officials started to roll out the “five entries and five transformations”.

    The “five entries” consists of: “government policies and statutes enter the church; health care activities enter the church; popular science and culture enter the church, assisting and helping the poor enters the church, and harmonious construction enters the church.” It’s all about controlling the church’s social activities, ensuring that they’re toeing the Party’s line. The “five transformations” refers to “localizing religion, standardizing management, indigenizing theology, making finances public, and co-opting the Christian teachings.” With these, they intend to control the church by controlling the teaching, management, and finance.

    But their scheme has not worked. The “five entries and five transformations” campaign hasn’t progressed smoothly at all, and church groups have been quite critical and put up very stiff resistance.

    [. . .]

    YC: We all know that, because its power is unchallenged and unchecked, the way the Communist Party uses power is brazen and brutal. Whether Christians resist or not, I predict that the Party will carry out its will – of that I have little doubt.

    Pastor L: In China, diktats are issued from the top straight down, and the apparatus moves following the will of the top leaders. Local officials, if they want to keep their job, have to join the competition to suppress Christians, and they are rewarded by the number of crosses they remove. There are local officials who say: We don’t want to be the Number One, but we don’t want to be the last one either. The Public Security Bureau chief in Wenzhou and the Party Secretary in Yongjia have been promoted for their hardline approaches during the cross-removal campaign.

    In order to complete their objectives, secret police began threatening church leaders. They have arbitrarily detained people, showing no regard for proper legal procedures. In the Wenzhou area, hundreds have been summoned, detained, threatened, or criminally detained. In Pingyang, Wenzhou, 14 members of the Salvation Church were beaten and injured. The government has also persecuted families and relatives, and targeted businesses owned by Christians. Wenzhou has become a testing ground for Party officials to fulfil their political ambitions and test their ideology and brinksmanship.

    Doubtless, Wenzhou is facing the same cataclysm it did in 1958. Back then, it was declared a “religion-free area,” it became an outpost in a projected war with Taiwan, and religion was suppressed. Today the government is once again targeting Wenzhou. Information about cross removal campaign online is censored immediately. Discriminatory measures are taken against Christian civil servants. The government has also investigated grassroots Party members to find out who the Christians are, and it has organized sessions to study the Party’s Mass Line rhetoric and Marxist religious views. All signs indicate that this is a determined political campaign and another catastrophe for Christians.

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