The U.S. Department of State’s just-released 2020 Annual Report on the state of religious freedom around the world devotes 136 pages to China. That’s because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses an extensive network of surveillance cameras coupled with facial recognition software — as well as cell phone tracking, internet and message monitoring, and biometric profiling — to persecute adherents of non-state-sanctioned organizations. Advances in collecting and storage of massive amounts of data to be sifted by algorithms have made this possible.
In 2020, according to the report, the CCP used the COVID-19 pandemic to suppress religion through monitoring house church locations, shutting down online services, and creating bureaucratic barriers to opening buildings for worship. Through this “stability maintenance program,” some places of worship were torn down and replaced with businesses, ostensibly because they were a “danger to social stability.”
“Normal” can be an ambiguous word
According to China’s constitution, citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” and protections for the practice of “normal religious activities.” However, the Chinese Communist Party uses the ambiguity inherent in the word “normal” to determine the appropriate practice of the five officially recognized religions in China–Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism.
People are only free to practice these religions if the place of worship has registered as one of the state-sanctioned groups: Buddhist Association of China (BAC), Chinese Taoist Association, Islamic Association of China (IAC), Three Self Patriotic Movement Church (TSPM), and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). According to the Department of State Report:
Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See, are not permitted to register as legal entities. The law does not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.”“2020 Report on International Religious Freedom” at Office of International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State (May 12, 2021, p. 7)
Party members and armed forces personnel must be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices, state-sanctioned or not. Thus avowed atheists make decisions about appropriate or normal religious practice for five of the largest religions in the world.
Religious language is co-opted to justify suppression
The CCP will sometimes co-opt language to justify authoritarianism and suppression of religious freedoms. For example, the Church of the Almighty God has elements of Christianity but believes that God is incarnated as a Chinese woman living in New York who calls herself Almighty God. Christian theologians would probably consider the church a “doomsday cult,” deviating far from the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy.
In an environment that espouses freedom of religion, the question of whether such a group is a cult, sect, denomination, heresy, different religion, etc., is an internal discussion around classification among adherents and scholars. Group decisions may result in social exclusion of the group from some venues but it does not result in members of the group being jailed, tortured, or killed by authorities.
It’s a far different story in China. The CCP uses “deviations” from a religion as a reason to classify a group as a forbidden “heterodox teaching” (xie jiao) although sometimes the groups they classify as xie jiao are not actually deviations.Bitter Winter, an online magazine that documents religious persecution worldwide and was quoted over eighty times in the Department of State report, points out that the Chinese government classifies a group as xie jiao because it is hostile to the CCP, not because of the group’s doctrine.
The Department of State report cites Bitter Winter’s story on leaked documents issued in September 2020 that ordered a nationwide three-year crackdown on the Church of Almighty God with the goal “To destroy the Church’s system domestically completely, to substantially downsize its membership by preventing church activities and blocking new members from joining, and to curb the development of the church abroad” (p. 12).
How do these policies affect the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?
The CCP justifies numerous offenses against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, as listed in the report, on national security grounds. Terrorists worldwide are often motivated by religious extremism but the CCP has taken fears of terrorism and even wording and laws from other countries, including the U.S., to justify detaining Uyghur people in general. For example, the CCP’s counter-terrorism laws include detaining Muslim minorities for wearing a beard, having a prayer rug, owning a Quran, or traveling abroad. Even having too many children is considered a sign of religious extremism. Detainees are sent to “vocational training schools” that are, in effect, internment camps. Even ethnic Uyghurs who do not practice Islam are sent to these camps.
The CCP’s underlying fear and what they are doing about it
Westerners find it difficult to understand the persecution of groups like the Falun Gong, the Church of Almighty God, and others that offer no apparent political threat. But the persecution of “heterodox groups” does not turn on their aims or beliefs so much as the number of their members and whether those members could organize. Ultimately, the CCP wants everyone to adhere to its ideology, so violent actions are more about quelling potential resistance than about regulating beliefs.
Under Chinese law, religious activities “must not harm national security,” but what that means is left up to the authorities’ interpretation. It can include criticizing the CCP or refusing to join a state-sanctioned group. It can also mean the fear that the group could potentially organize against the Communist government.
China scholars note that the CCP is very interested in studying how other authoritarian governments were toppled. The CCP, and Xi Jinping in particular, are obsessed with the fall of the Soviet Union. They don’t see the collapse as due to inherent weakness but rather due to tolerance of dissent. To them, it shows the importance of weeding out dissent and corruption as well as controlling the military from the top down. The military and other government elites must not have split loyalties, even religious loyalties. Thus they must be avowedly atheist and study Xi Jinping Thought. Even retired CCP officials and veterans are prohibited from practicing any religion.
The CCP also studied the Arab Spring protests (2010) which showed how social media can mobilize crowds. That ties into the CCP’s aggressive response to the Hong Kong democracy protests, which were mobilized online and the “strike hard” campaign against the Uyghurs after a series of violent conflicts between Han Chinese and Uyghurs (who are not ethnically Chinese).
The CCP also learned from the Arab Spring the importance of controlling the narrative and dividing the populace by blaming an ethnic or religious group.
Project: A “religion with Chinese characteristics”
Finally, the CCP is interested in homogenizing the official religions so that they all teach Party ideology. The Department of State report discusses the 2019-2024 five-year nationwide campaign to “sinicize religion,” an effort by the CCP to bring all religious doctrines and practices in line with CCP ideology. This campaign follows the 2018 revision to the Regulations on Religious Affairs, which placed more restrictions on religious groups, especially on the training of children: “Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations” (page 11). The law also mandates teaching atheism in school and minors are not permitted to enter religious venues or participate in religious activities.
On February 1, 2020, the Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations went into effect, which formalizes the administrative procedures that each province should put in place to ensure the sinicization of all religious organizations. The Department of State report features multiple pages of specific efforts to stop any religious practice, including banning Christmas songs or physically blocking the entrance of churches (p. 22) and to indoctrinate the leadership of the major religious groups.
Clergy from each of the five recognized religions were required to attend mandatory training sessions to learn how to incorporate Xi Jinping Thought, Chinese socialism, and the 19th National Congress of the CCP into their sermons. Clergy were required to write essays on their love for China and the CCP, and they were required to participate in a sermon competition in which they must use the Bible to promote CCP ideology (p. 24). Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim leadership were required to attend training sessions and incorporate CCP ideology into their teachings as well. The CCP has also changed religious books, banners, and doctrines to align with CCP ideology. I’ve written before on Xi Jinping’s “war on religion” and the CCP’s rewriting of the Bible here.
The underlying forces include Beijing’s ability, for the first time in history, to engage in mass total technocratic surveillance. We will see whether the new weapons are sufficient to kill off religion.
Note: This article only touches on the systematic oppression of religious practices in China. The Department of State report also offers individual sections on Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macao, all autonomous regions according to Chinese law. It details the ways Buddhists in Tibet, Muslims in Xinjiang, Protestants and Catholics in Hong Kong and Macao as well as Taoists, folk religious groups, and off-shoots of these larger groups are being categorically denied the freedom to hold religious beliefs and practices in Communist China.
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China’s door-to-door census now identifies religious believers. Census takers are urged to keep their eyes open for evidence of religious activity: “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.” Census takers can then report the residents to the police. (Heather Zeiger)