The war against Chinese Christians

There is a sustained and wide-ranging programme of repression against religions which challenge the CCP’s socialist core values

Charles Parton

Whether or not history repeats, rhymes or resonates, it does contain lessons.  Yet Xi Jinping seems determined not to study them. This might be understandable when they are lessons from another imperium, the Roman empire, although Xi might like to consider the following exam question: “Compare and contrast the religious policies of Constantine and Julian the Apostate.” Constantine recognised that, with Christians, co-option worked better than coercion. Julian, a reformer and thinker, wanted to restore the values and traditions of Rome. In effect, he excoriated “historical nihilism”, Xi’s prohibition on denying the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) past. Julian and his persecution were short lived, Christianity endures. 

Yet Xi is also ignoring Chinese history. The Tang Emperor Wuzong’s attempt to destroy Buddhism in the 9th century failed. Even Christianity, which he also pulled up by the roots, came back, like seeds after a long desert drought. Deng Xiaoping, a far cannier ruler than Xi, knew that, like bamboo, you can cut religion down, but its roots are a devil to eradicate. In the 1982 Central Committee document “Basic Viewpoint on the Religious Question during our Country’s Socialist Period” the Party asserted that:

. . . religion will eventually disappear from human history . . . naturally through the long-term development of Socialism and Communism . . . that it will be fruitless and extremely harmful to use simple coercion in dealing with the people’s ideological and spiritual questions—including religious questions . . . [this] cannot be accomplished . . . even within one, two or three generations.

As Deng said, this is what the gods of communism, Marx and Engels, had predicted. For all his professions of Marxism, Xi is proving a poor adherent.

Why is he always in a hurry? The old ethnic minority policy was to swamp with Han migration, to let economic prosperity water down cultural identity and yearnings for autonomy. Over Taiwan, Xi is impatient. And with religion, Xi is not a man to wait for one generation, let alone three.

Numbers of believers are hard to pin down but, according to government white papers, the total rose from 100 million in 1997 to 200 million 20 years later. Of those, around 20 million are Muslim, 6 million Catholic, 38 million Protestant, and the rest Buddhist and Daoist. These figures exclude non-government controlled or “underground” places of worship (a misnomer, since until recently most places of worship and most worshippers have been quite open). A more likely total would be well over 300 million, with the true number of Christians between 75 and 100 million.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, although Party members, including the retired, are banned from religious practice, as is anyone under 18 years old. By present standards, there was little interference until 2014. An exception was the treatment of the Falun Gong, a quasi-religious movement which frightened the leadership because in 1999 it mobilised thousands of adherents to protest outside Zhongnanhai, the seat of government, without the CCP having any forewarning. The reaction, particularly after it became clear that many Party members were followers, was harsh. Operating largely outside the law, the “610 Office”, named after the date of establishment, June 10, began a vigorous extirpation.

The CCP began the current crackdown in Wenzhou, historically a centre of Christianity—Mao had launched his 1958 attack on Christians there. More recently, Wenzhou had become the Wuhan of the Christian virus, a superspreader, because its highly entrepreneurial citizens took their religion with them as they set up businesses across China. Crosses were taken down, churches demolished. From the “experimental zone” of Wenzhou, the experience gained was applied in other provinces where religion was most prevalent, urged on by a welter of high level meetings, central and local regulations, and the enthusiasm or ambitions of Party cadres—knights eager to rid the kingdom of turbulent priests.

It might not amount to a pogrom, but it is certainly a programme of repression, sustained and wide-ranging. The overall aim is to ensure that “underground” religions join the Party-controlled five official religious associations. Meanwhile the Party conducts physical, psychological and ideological warfare. Physical in that holding services outside “patriotic” churches is becoming difficult: many churches (and mosques) have been demolished; others have had leases revoked, electricity cut off, been closed for infringing building or safety regulations. Psychological, because worshippers have been threatened with losing pensions, social security payments, jobs, interference with private business, restricted education opportunities for children. Ideological, as the Party insists on slogans and portraits of Xi Jinping replacing religious banners and pictures of Jesus.

Controlling religious leaders is essential. Some years ago the Party kidnapped the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s second ranked leader, and appointed its own. This incongruity, of an atheist Party  ordaining matters of religion, was topped when the Dalai Lama  announced that he might not reincarnate. Outraged, the atheist CCP insisted that reincarnation must happen. The irony escapes totalitarians, for whom, like humour, it is a threat.

“Killing a chicken to scare the monkeys,” is another well-worn path. A number of pastors with high profiles or large congregations have been imprisoned. Others must undergo indoctrination because their clerical training is “insufficient”. Failure to pass exams means a prohibition on priesthood. Leaders and organisers are being further, and deliberately, tied up in cumbersome bureaucracy, the need to register their churches and congregations, to provide detailed accounts, budgets and annual reports.

The CCP understands the need to control the message. Bible sales are forbidden online and restricted elsewhere; possessing the Koran is increasingly dangerous. So far, the Bible seems to have escaped reworking, but last year a top political body called for a “comprehensive evaluation of the existing translations of religious classics” and amendments and retranslations where “content does not conform to the advancement of the times”.

If, for now, holy scriptures remain sacred, that is not so for church rites. Recently issued “Five Year Plans” for Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism (five year plans for religions thousands of years old? Sorry, God, but your word may not be eternal after all) call for “pilot” projects in the “sinification of church rites”. One hopes that they are more sensitive than a recent textbook, published by a government-run press, which aimed to teach “professional ethics and law” to the students of secondary vocational schools. There was a twist to the story in St John’s Gospel of the adulterer brought before Christ.  When the Pharisees asked if she should be stoned according to law, Jesus replied that he who was without sin should cast the first stone. The crowd melted away. So far, so orthodox for the Chinese text. But then Jesus says, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.” Whereupon he personally stones the woman to death.

At a time of economic, social and legal reform it hardly seems wise to antagonise so many believers. Militancy has not been a recent feature of religion in China. If anything, the religious have helped by filling in gaps in the social security net. So why does the Party see believers as a threat? Christianity is particularly suspect: while Islam and Tibetan Buddhism bring foreign “pollution”, they are geographically and ethnically delineated; they do not proselytise among the Han Chinese and rarely infiltrate the Party.

Perceived threats are manifold. Ideology, culture, history, foreign infiltration interweave with a paranoia, which has grown alongside the explosive increase in believer numbers, as Chinese seek a spiritual reassurance which the religion of Marxism cannot supply.

The Party is mindful of the Taiping rebellion, led by a man who saw himself as the brother of Jesus and in which perhaps 25 million perished; and of the history of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland.

Religion is an ideological threat, providing an alternative set of values to the “socialist core values” which are pushed hard by Xi and the Party. And with reason, because they buttress the CCP. The term is better understood as “values whose core is a socialism defined by the CCP”. Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity are ideological threats because they are foreign in origin. They implicitly challenge socialist core values. Worse, they explicitly challenge them, since they are seen as vehicles of foreign interference—those ubiquitous “foreign hostile forces”—a fear not entirely without justification, because universities in particular were centres of foreign proselytising. There were at least 4,000 Korean Christian missionaries according to Korean research, and many Americans. If you are paranoid and atheist, perhaps it is hard to grasp that conversion rather than subversion can be an end in itself.

Above all, religion is a menace because its institutions suggest a capability to organise (the 1999 Falun Gong incident was a scary reminder). That has to remain the prerogative of the Party: any alternative organisation might threaten CCP control over the people, something which applies just as much to civil as to religious society. Churches are explicitly banned from setting up branches outside their locality. CCP safety lies in fragmentation and control.

Documents and practice over the last six years suggest that beyond the inevitable “divide and rule”, the CCP priority is the “sinification” of religion, the centre of which according to the Five Year Plan for Christianity is the “sinification” of theological thought. A more accurate and equally ugly term might be “Partyfication”. Which brings us back to the importance of socialist core values and the leadership of the Communist Party, as the head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs made clear in the Party’s theoretical magazine in 2018. But it goes much wider, as he said, “requiring Christianity to remove the ‘binding’ of the West and to put on the clarity of China . . . making interpretations of church doctrines and rules suited to the exceptional Chinese culture.” That includes church architecture, art and music. Part of “sinification” is also the removal of foreign links.

The costs of this repression are likely to be enormous, not just in Party reputation and popularity, but also in coin. Leaving aside the costs of control in Tibet and Xinjiang, local governments elsewhere, already in financial trouble, will suffer increased debt. And debt is one of several reasons for pessimism about China’s continued prosperity.

Still, control of the money supply may keep the economy and the Party afloat.  But control of religion cannot supply what ordinary people seek from spiritual belief: trust, purpose, ritual, comfort, community, mutual help, hope in the next life, if not in this. Naturally, the CCP asserts that it can supply those things: last year it promulgated “the Implementation of Citizen Ethics in the new Era”, which declares that it will “build a solid foundation for ideals and beliefs . . . lead morality . . . [and of course] cultivate and practice the core values of socialism”.

“History shows . . .” is a phrase beloved of Xi and the Party. Indeed, and one thing history shows is that religion is irrepressible. No amount of Marxist dialectic, ideology, development or education will override that lesson. It is a mark of the fragility of the regime and of Xi Jinping’s lack of confidence that he is adopting the Julian rather than the Constantine approach.

The Xi regime is like the oak: seemingly strong and hard, it may topple in a storm. Bamboo bends and survives. The natural world and history teach the same lesson. 

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