China will complete its seventh census, begun on November 1, on December 10. New features that have prompted concern include: Residents must indicate whether they have family members in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan or if they have any family members outside of the country and those who are over sixty must indicate their state of health (Reuters, November 2, 2020).
Some have resisted answering census takers’ questions for fear of losing rights and privileges under the new Social Credit System.
But more than that, some seven million census takers go door-to-door, interviewing residents and entering information that goes directly to the government via mobile apps. Bitter Winter talked to several census takers who said they were instructed to pay particular attention to people’s religious status even though the question is not asked on the official census questionnaire.
Weaponizing the census against religious believers
The Chinese government has used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to crack down on all religious groups by closing churches, mosques, and temples, and surveilling residences to ensure that people are not gathering for a house church meeting. The census is one more way to identify and target religious groups, particularly Christians.
Bitter Winter talked to one census taker from Xiangyang City in Hubei who said that participants were told to “pay particular attention to religious materials and symbols in people’s homes”:
A census taker from Shandong’s Heze city revealed that he was ordered to report to the police anyone who doesn’t allow him inside their home and only agrees to answer questions outside their residences. The explanation was that such people are suspected of holding religious beliefs or may even be hosting unauthorized gatherings.Jiang Tao, “China Uses National Census to Investigate People of Faith” at Bitter Winter (November 26, 2020)
Census takers can then report the residents to the police.
The government tells us that foreign forces are using Protestantism and Catholicism to infiltrate China, and we should be vigilante of religions to help preserve national security,” the census taker explained.Jiang Tao, “China Uses National Census to Investigate People of Faith” at Bitter Winter (November 26, 2020)
Aside from Protestants and Catholics, members of Falun Gong and The Church of Almighty God were also targeted. One member of The Church of Almighty God told Bitter Winter that he was afraid to answer the door because he would have to give the census takers his Identity Card number, which would lead to his arrest. He had been evading authorities for several years because of his religious beliefs.
Additionally, because of the way the new census data is collected, Tibetans worry about disclosing that they have family in other regions. Based on their experience of the 2010 census, they fear that the 2020 census will continue to disguise the actual size of the Tibetan population and the number of Han Chinese migrants to Tibet.
Xi Jinping’s ramped up war on religion
General Secretary Xi Jinping’s recent book, On the Party’s Propaganda and Ideological Work, reaffirms the Chinese government’s commitment to Marxist-Leninism, which he also affirmed at the Chinese Communist Party’s recent Five-Year-Plan meeting (The Wire China, November 1, 2020).
In a move reminiscent of Soviet Russia’s “war on religion,” the avowedly atheistic Communist Party of China has taken a much more aggressive stance against religious practices in the last several years under Xi’s leadership, including the creation of new rules limiting foreign influence on religion in China, ostensibly to to prevent the spread of religious extremism and prevent foreign influences from subverting national unity. (CNN, November 25, 2020).
Rian Thum, an expert on Islam in China at the University of Nottingham, told CNN that the Chinese government’s use of the phrase “China’s religious independence” in the new rules underlines the government’s effort to rid the country of foreign influences. It is aimed at Christian groups in particular because Christianity is one of the fastest growing religions and, in the past, foreigners have had some freedom to live as Christians. The new rules could require foreigners to use state-approved religious texts, among other bureaucratic hurdles.
The new Marxist-Leninist Bible
As part of Xi’s commitment to Marxism, religion, where not fully suppressed, is being co-opted to spread Party dogma—a move that he describes as “sinocizing” religion. In one egregious example, the Chinese government rewrote a portion of the Bible to portray Jesus as killing the woman caught in adultery.
In John 8:1-11 in the New Testament, the religious leaders of the time brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. They asked Jesus what should be done with her, noting that the Law decreed that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned. Jesus’s response was, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Everyone left, beginning with the eldest. Jesus then told the woman that he did not condemn her but that she should leave her life of sin. This passage is frequently cited as an example of God’s mercy, along with his justice.
However, in the Chinese government’s state-approved version of this passage, depicted in textbooks on professional ethics and law, the story turns out very differently:
The crowd wanted to stone the woman to death as per their law. But Jesus said, ‘Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.’ Hearing this, they slipped away one by one. When the crowd disappeared, Jesus stoned the sinner to death saying, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.”Massimo Introvigne, “CCP Rewriting the Gospel: Jesus Actually “Killed” the Woman Taken in Adultery” at Bitter Winter (September 24, 2020)
As Massimo Introvigne points out at Bitter Winter, the purpose of the government’s revision is not so much to defame Jesus as to teach a principle about obedience to the Party:
“It is about the CCP itself. Many CCP bureaucrats, judges, and police officers are notoriously corrupted. Yet, the story teaches that they should be obeyed. If “sinners” would be prevented from “executing the law,” including administering the capital punishment with or without due process, “the law would be dead.”
“As told to Chinese students, the story teaches that the law and the Party are good and pure, and transcend the impure human beings who happen to represent them.
“Even if the officers are corrupted, their decision should be accepted—because, honest or corrupted, they represent the Party, and the Party’s law should never be questioned.Massimo Introvigne, “CCP Rewriting the Gospel: Jesus Actually “Killed” the Woman Taken in Adultery” at Bitter Winter (September 24, 2020)
While the means may be different, the ends are the same as those of the former Soviet Union and other Marxist regimes. The only use for religion in China is to advance the goals of the Chinese Communist Party.
You may also find these articles by Heather Zeiger about religious and ethnic persecution in China of interest:
How China’s Technocracy uses the pandemic to suppress religion The pandemic provided a pretext to install surveillance equipment in churches and surveil believers online.
High-tech suppression of China’s Mongol Region provokes protests But Mongolian protesters against Chinese-dominated schools are threatened with loss of social credit, which means no jobs or loans