Why you should care
Worried about a growing perceived threat from organized religion, Beijing treats faith as a major enemy.
China’s ongoing battle against religion moved online last year with the removal of Bibles from the country’s biggest e-commerce platforms, such as Taobao. Critics believe the government is using the ban to rewrite the text and align it with Chinese Communist Party values. It’s the latest in a series of recent crackdowns on Christianity in the country.
“Chinese Bibles are now only available at [the government-approved Protestant] Three-Self churches,” says Ms. Liu, a Christian living in Beijing (who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of religious freedom in China). “English and bilingual Bibles can still be found on Taobao, but if you search for ‘Bible’ in Chinese, none are displayed,” she explains.
It is part of a much wider crackdown across the country and across religions. While the systematic ethnic and religious persecution of China’s Uighur population in Xinjiang has grabbed headlines globally, China is also targeting Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Jews and those who follow China’s folk religions with greater government scrutiny more now than it has in several decades. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) annual report for 2018 …
Religious freedom in China is at a 40-year low.
The report notes the introduction of China’s new Regulations on Religious Affairs, which came into effect in February last year. China’s updated legislation, the USCIRF claims, introduced a virtual ban on unauthorized religious teachings and requires religious organizations to report any online activity to authorities.
But why is China, officially atheist since the Communists took power in 1949, now taking harsher measures against religion than at any time since the end of the 1970s Cultural Revolution — when books associated with religion and spiritualism including Confucian thought, were burnt in public? For several years, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, China tried to portray itself as less repressive against religion at a time it was seeking to integrate itself in global governance bodies such as the World Trade Organization. However, experts say the country’s unease with religion has never dissipated. But under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since at least Deng Xiaoping, the country has targeted all organized opposition — including student unions and young communist groups critical of the party.
Communist parties around the world — and China’s is no different — thrive on their monopoly as the only large organized groups in the societies they govern. Religious groups, especially if they’re growing, represent a challenge to that hegemony. And religiosity in China appears to be on the rise: A Pew Research Center study from 2010 estimated that 47.8 percent Chinese nationals were affiliated with a religion, but a 2012 study by Gallup said that number had risen to 53 percent.
China’s Uighurs have been hardest hit. According to the USCIRF report, between 800,000 and 2 million Uighurs have been detained in Xinjiang since April 2017. Most are accused of vague links to extremist activities and other unspecified illegal actions. Other Muslim groups across China have also been targeted. Officials from nearby Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region visited Xinjiang to tour the detainment camps and sign cooperative anti-terrorist agreements in November 2018. A month later, authorities in Yunnan province closed three mosques, citing violation of religious education laws.
Outside of those detained in Xinjiang, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) estimates that 700 people remain in detention in China for religious-based offenses as of late 2018. Among those are 145 monks, priests or other religious leaders.
The new Regulations on Religious Affairs also paves the way for China to “Sinicize” religious thought in “a campaign that attempts not only to diminish and erase the independent practice of religion, but also the cultural and linguistic heritage of religious and ethnic communities,” according to the USCIRF. That’s how Christianity is being targeted — through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), China’s state-run Catholic institution.
The USCIRF estimates that half of China’s Catholics worship in underground churches, outside the CCPA’s influence, but in 2018 two underground bishops were replaced by CCPA bishops. A further four were arrested in an attempt to bring them in line with China’s approved take on Catholicism. Recently, several churches have been forced to replace religious images with portraits of Xi Jinping.
Protestants have not been spared either. Between half to two-thirds still worship in illegal “house churches.” The USCIRF publication claims 5,000 Protestants and 1,000 church leaders were arrested for faith-related offenses in 2018. This is in addition to the closure or demolition of thousands of churches across China. “In Henan province, local authorities required churches to remove the first commandment from the list of the Ten Commandments on the ground it placed loyalty to God above loyalty to the CCPA,” the report says.
This crackdown has been building up under Xi. In a separate report by Texas-based ChinaAid, 2017 saw 1,256 cases of religious persecution, up 66 percent from 2016. More than 650 church leaders were among the 3,700 people detained for faith-related offenses in 2017. But with the change in legislation, China has taken its levers of control over religion to the next level. And it’s not done yet.