It is no surprise that China under President Xi Jinping is becoming increasing hostile to freedom of religion.
However, recent cases show some of the main tactics the government is employing to control and suppress Christianity in China. This includes forcing independent churches to join religious organizations supervised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), suppressing the transmission of religious knowledge to the next generation, isolating Chinese Christians from the broader global community of practitioners, detaining Christians that criticize the government, and banning the sale of the Bible.
Rather than viewing these violations of freedom of religion as localized attempts to stifle potential political threats, it is arguably more fruitful to view the tactics of repression employed in these cases as part of a larger project of weakening faith systems that can challenge the CCP’s monopoly on ideology and Xi Jinping’s unique position as the ultimate arbiter of the Party’s ideology and “faith.”
Targeting Independent Churches and Their Followers
On August 7 of this year, Rights Defense Network learned that nine people involved in the congregation at the Golden Lamp Church in Linfen in Shanxi province had been taken away by police. This includes the pastor Wang Xiaoguang and preacher Yang Rongli.
A month before this, many personnel from the community’s social stability maintenance apparatus were engaged in investigating the church, finding out who its core members are. This indicated that the sudden detention of the church leadership was planned well in advance.
According to one church member who spoke with Radio Free Asia, the Golden Lamp Church repeatedly refused officials’ demands for the church to come under the control of the “Three-Self Patriotic Church,” the official Chinese Protestant church that is overseen by the CCP’s United Front Work Department. Yang Rongli had already been sentenced to seven years in prison in 2009, and the church building was torn down in 2018. The government has also withheld pensions and medical insurance payments to church leaders as a means to coerce them into cooperating.
As of this writing, it appeared that the nine members of the church are still in custody and presumed to be under interrogation, although their exact legal status is unclear. China Aid, an NGO that focuses on religious freedom in China, has found other instances in which the government has forced house churches to enter the Three-Self Church.
According to Rights Defense Network, on July 7, Zhao Weikai, 35, a practitioner at the Taiyuan Xuncheng Reformed Church, was criminally detained, and on July 20 he was arrested on the charge of “illegally possessing materials the that advocate terrorism or extremism.” His family’s arrest notice said that his arrest was approved by the Wenshui County Procuratorate and carried out by the Wenshui County Public Security Bureau, and that he is being held at the Fangshan County Detention Center.
Zhao had studied at (now imprisoned) pastor Wang Yi’s Huaxia Theological Seminary. Zhao and his wife have three children, and to avoid “brainwashing,” he had refused to send his children to state schools, and instead home schooled them – a matter that religious affairs officials, education committee officials, and national security police forced him to “talk about.”
Earlier this year, on May 17, Zhao and his wife Li Xin were summoned by police on the charge of “religious fraud.” Zhao’s cell phones and other belongings were taken away in a raid by a dozen police officers. Li was released but Zhao was given 15 days of administrative detention. The Xuncheng Reformed Church had been frequently harassed by authorities.
Meanwhile, five other members of the Xuncheng Reformed Church were detained on July 28 on the charge of “illegally crossing the border,” ostensibly because they went to a religious conference called “KL2020 Gospel and Culture” in Malaysia in January 2020. The event was organized by the influential Indonesian pastor Stephen Tong, and was attended by prominent pastors including Tim Keller and D.A. Carson. The five apparently returned to China legally and without problems but were only investigated now.
China Aid has reported that Christian practitioners in other regions of the country who listened to online sermons last year from the “KL2020 Gospel and Culture” conference were questioned by local religious affairs authorities and national security police. Under the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, the government’s religious affairs departments are required to conduct oversight on religious activities involving foreign entities.
On August 1, officials in the Xishen township of Pingchang county in Sichuan province raided the home of Cheng Xiangqi, a member of the persecuted Early Rain Church, the church founded by Wang Yi. The officials pinned him on the ground and stepped on his head before taking him away, according to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch. They also injected him with an unknown substance.
On July 15, Cheng was also taken away and given 15 days of administrative detention. It is believed that this was related to a poem he wrote and shared among friends on WeChat, which called for the CCP to repent.
Surveilling the communications of religious believers on WeChat and limiting their ability to share their faith online is another means of control in China.
According to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch and China Aid, four employees from the Shenzhen Tree of Life Company Ltd, whose company made devices that broadcast audio versions of the Bible, were sentenced at the Shenzhen Bao’an District Court on the charge of “illegal business operations.” Fu Xuanjuan, the owner of the company, was sentenced to six years and fined 200,000 renminbi, Deng Tianyong sentenced to three years and fined 50,000 RMB, Feng Qunhao sentenced to two years and six months and fined 30,000 RMB, and Han Li was sentenced to one year and three months and fined 10,000 RMB.
The criminalization of “unauthorized” Bible sales is not an isolated incident. Duihua, a NGO specializing in criminal justice research, has found on court websites in China 11 court judgments involving 54 defendants who were convicted for illegally selling Christian books and/or audio Bibles since the ban on the sales of Bibles online came into force in April of 2018.
It’s important to stress that these tactics are not unique to Christianity: the Chinese govrnment has imposed similarly extensive restrictions against Tibetan Buddhism and Islam. According to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy’s annual report, the Chinese government has ramped up its control over Tibetan Buddhism, by equating any expressions of loyalty to the Dalai Lama with “inciting subversion.”
For example, Tibetan musicians Khando Tseten and Tsego were convicted of “inciting state subversion” and “sharing state secrets” for a song praising the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, the government has subjected Tibetan nuns and monks to a compulsory political campaign consisting of workshops to ensure that these religious figures are “politically reliable” and “dependable during critical moments.”
In the Uyghur region, merely having any history of prayer or reading the Quran or other religious materials has been a criterion for arbitrary detention or processing through the criminal justice system. A recent report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project found at least 1,046 cases of imams who had been detained since 2014. Restrictions on Islam are not just applied to Xinjiang, but to Hui Muslims in Ningxia, and even to Hui in Hainan as well.
All of these restrictions and limitations on religion, of course, violate freedom of religion in international human rights law.
But some may ask, China has never really respected freedom of religion – so what’s new?
“Our Hearts Are Restless Until They Rest in Xi”
Arguably, there has been a significant change in the Xi Jinping era. Sinologists such as Ian Johnson have shown that there was a resurgence of religion in the “Reform and Opening” era (1978-2013), with many people newly interested in traditional Chinese beliefs, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other practices. And despite restrictions, there was some space for religious practice, especially if people did not cross the “red lines” by challenging the CCP or organizing throughout the country. In some places, there was a degree of laissez faire in how religion was monitored, especially if the religious practice seemed to contribute to social harmony.
But the limitations on religious freedom in China in Xi Jinping’s “New Era” are arguably no longer primarily about the government limiting threats to its power on a case-by-case basis.
In 2016, Xi outlined a more hardline vision for the “management” of religion in a major speech on religious affairs. Xi called on the government to manage religion according to the law, to “guide” the faith-believing masses to love the country and support the CCP and socialism. He called for the “Sinicization” of religious practice while resolutely guarding against foreigners using religion to carry out infiltration. Xi also called for party members to be steadfast Marxist atheists, among other important points.
Xi’s vision for greater control has been subsequently codified in a series of new regulations, such as the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs and the Measures for the Administration of Religious Personnel, which states that religious personnel must:
love the country, uphold the CCP’s leadership, uphold the socialist system, abide by the Constitution, laws, regulations and statutes, practice the socialist core values, support China’s religious principle of independence and self-determination, support China’s policy of Sinification of religion, support national unification, ethnic solidarity, and religious harmony and social stability.
But, ironically, Xi’s stress on party members being “steadfast Marxist atheists” does not necessarily mean that party members and the broader society should not have faith.
In his speeches, Xi Jinping frequently talks of the importance of “belief” and “faith” (信仰, xinyang, the same term used for religious faith), but he is referring to faith in “Marxism,” whose precise modern interpretations Xi Jinping oversees. It is no wonder that Study Times, an official journal of the Central Party School, boldly stated that Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, a term that has been added to the Chinese Constitution, represents a form of 21st century Marxism.
In other words, people must have faith in Marxism, according to Xi, and, conveniently for him, this faith is basically indistinguishable from Xi Jinping Thought, according to the CCP.
Thus, the new restrictions on Christian faith and the corralling of practitioners into venues where official ideology is prized above all else, should arguably be viewed as a means of slowly and deliberately ensuring that other religious faiths – competitor faiths, if you will, along with their own worldviews, ideologies, and sacred texts – have no means to expand. Instead of expansion through vibrant evangelization, competitor faiths like Christianity are being forced to be co-opted and slowly replaced by the CCP’s official faith, with Xi Jinping as the ultimate arbiter of its specific values, morals, ethics, and societal goals.