There’s been a flurry of concern recently about Chinese restrictions on the practice of religion. Most attention has focused on restrictions on the practice of Islam in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. At the local level, at least, Chinese officials seem to equate Islam with terrorism, resulting in an anti-terror crackdown that bans fasting during Ramadan and discourages beards on men and veils on women. But there’s been recent concern about Christianity as well. Yesterday, Diplomat authors Zachary Keck and Tyler Roney both explored recent comments that indicate the Chinese Communist Party wants to redefine China’s Christian theology.
Along with media outlets, the U.S. State Department joined in the chorus. Its recent International Religious Freedom Report designated China a “Country of Particular Concern” along with Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The report alleged that China’s “government harassed, assaulted, detained, arrested, or sentenced to prison a number of religious adherents for activities reported to be related to their religious beliefs and practices.” It also alleged “societal and employment discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice,” particularly in the case of Uyghur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists.
At the same time, though, not all religious groups face discrimination and restrictions. In fact, as Time’s Hannah Beech points out, China’s largest Muslim population is currently flourishing. The Hui, China’s second largest ethnic group after the majority Han, are in the midst of what Beech calls “a flowering of faith.” Unlike Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Hui face no restrictions on observing the holy month of Ramadan. They have also been taking the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in growing numbers, while Uyghurs are often not allowed to leave China. Dru Gladney, an expert on Western China at Pomona College, summed up the seeming paradox for Beech: “Clearly, there are many avenues of religious expression that are unfettered in China, but when you cross these very often nebulous and shifting boundaries of what the state regards as political, then you’re in dangerous territory.”
It’s worth exploring this idea further, and placing the current “religious crackdown” in the context of other initiatives designed to increase the CCP’s degree of social control. Xi Jinping and co. are tightening government controls over the Internet and social media in a bid to create an Internet that nurtures “socialism’s core values.” The campaign has involved required real-name registration for popular social media outlets, including microblogs and now instant messaging services, in a bid to hold users accountable for their posts. Objectionable material is vaguely defined under an “anti-rumor” campaign, allowing for the prosecution of users whose postings about “rumors” become too popular.
The CCP also famously tightened its grip on real-world activists and dissidents, especially prior to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident on July 4. One Chinese dissident and human rights activist, Wen Yunchao, presented a list of arrests and detentions of Chinese activists under Xi. Wen argues that the detentions in 2013 were both “particularly large” and “particularly unrelenting.”
Viewed in this context, it’s clear that tightened controls on religious movements are merely one facet of a broader campaign to assert CCP control over Chinese society. Beijing is particularly sensitive to the specter of “foreign influence” over sub-groups of China’s population, whether moviegoers or prominent state-sanctioned academics. Religions such as Christianity and Islam, which have cultural centers outside of China, are especially vulnerable to suspicions of foreign meddling.
As a result, religious activity is only of concern to the CCP when it is suspected of fomenting political activism. In Tibet and Xinjiang alike, religious practices are seen as part of a cultural-ethnic division that helps separate Tibetans and Uyghurs from the Han “other.” China, with its vision of ethnic unity, wants to destroy these barriers to speed up the process of assimilation. In the case of Christianity, officials worry that Chinese Christians are unduly influenced by Western emphasis on universal values. The CCP believes that every Chinese citizen should be loyal to China first, with other ethnic or religious claims taking second place. Any idea that threatens to subvert this order, whether outright separatism or merely strong ethnic or religious identity, is a potential target for CCP crackdowns.
In fact, this idea is enshrined in China’s constitution. While Article 36 guarantees all citizens the “freedom of religious belief,” it is equally clear that this freedom has limits. The constitution only guarantees state protection to the practice of “normal religious activities,” leaving the definition of what is “normal” up to the CCP. Further, Article 36 clearly states: “No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State.” An additional caveat stipulates that “religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”
China’s priorities are outlined even earlier in the constitution. Article One serves as a useful reminder for anyone looking at the recent crackdowns on Chinese discourse. China’s constitution proper begins by asserting: “The socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China. Disruption of the socialist system by any organization or individual is prohibited.” Before any lists of freedoms or rights comes the essential decree that any activity threatening China’s socialist system (and the Party) is verboten. That, in a nutshell, is the reasoning behind each and every “crackdown” instituted by the CCP.
Going back to the Time article, China’s Hui minority enjoy unrestricted religious activities because they are not seen as threatening the Party. As Beech points out, unlike the Uyghurs, the Hui are both culturally and geographically assimilated throughout China. Their embrace of Islam is thus free of the thorny subtext of separatism or autonomy that accompanies Uyghur and Tibetan religious practices.
However, Hui Muslims must still be careful not to cross the blurred boundary between religious and political expression. Beech points out an increasing interest in Sufism, including an embrace of the principle of “universal Islam,” among the Hui. The Diplomat’s Mu Chunshan noted similar rhetoric in Chinese online discussions of the Israel-Palestine crisis, where some Chinese Muslims spoke of a duty to support fellow Muslims around the world. Should more and more Hui begin to define their identity as Muslim first, Chinese second, they could attract unwelcome attention from the CCP.