Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a campaign to tighten China’s grip on the religious community since 2016. Against that backdrop, the United Front Work Department (UFWD) — the agency within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that oversees China’s religious affairs, among others — vowed to “sinicize religions” in China.
On the sidelines of the CCP’s 19th National Party Congress on October 20, Zhang Yijiong, the executive deputy head of the UFWD, elaborated on the CCP’s policy on religious affairs since the 18th Party Congress in 2012.
Zhang said that the CCP has adhered to the goal of “sinicizing religions” in China and has made “socialist core values” play a leading role in the religious community. In the next step, Zhang added, China will keep cracking down on acts such as “taking advantage of religion to harm national security,” “promoting extremism for terrorist activities,” and “endangering national unity.”
Academia, in the past, tended to use the term “sinicization” to describe local adoption of religions imported from foreign regions. Buddhism in particular gradually integrated into the Chinese culture through a long history and finally been accepted as a Chinese religion.
Yet the term gained a new political meaning in 2016. In late April, 2016, Xi presided over a working conference on national religious affairs, making him the first Chinese president to do so in over ten years. The last time a president personally attended such a conference was in 2001, when then-President Jiang Zemin decided to crack down on “cults” after the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident related to Fanlun Gong. Xi’s attendance at the conference significantly raised the importance of religious affairs on the CCP’s agenda. During the conference, Xi demanded that China should “actively guide religions to adapt to the socialist society.”
Xi said that the key to the CCP’s policy on religious affairs is “the way of guidance,” which should be “effective, powerful, and proactive.” Chinese youth in particular, Xi said, must be guided to “believe in science, study science, spread science, and to have a correct worldview.” As for CCP members, they “should be firm Marxist atheists and must never find their values and beliefs in any religion,” Xi added.
At the same conference, one of the top CCP leaders, Yu Zhengsheng, who directly oversees the UFWD, indicated that all local officials on religious affairs should “profoundly comprehend and adhere to” the goal of “sinicizing religions” in China, in order to make religions adaptive to socialist society.
The 2016 working conference has been widely regarded as the starting point for a new CCP campaign to tighten its grip on the religious community. The policy has brought about a wave of criticism abroad. A think tank affiliated with the Tibetan government-in-exile in particular reprimanded the Chinese government for “carrying out systematic annihilation of the cultural heritage of Tibet with the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism and religious traditions.”
In response, Zhang this time specifically explained the CCP’s measures on “sinocizing Tibetan Buddhism.” He said:
Tibetan Buddhism, born in our ancient China, is a religion with Chinese characteristics. It is true that Tibetan Buddhism in formation had received influence from other neighboring Buddhist countries, but it adapted to the local reality and formed its own unique doctrine and rituals, which is a model of sinicization itself… That we are actively guiding Tibetan Buddhism in the direction of sinicization is in the hope that Tibetan Buddhism will further absorb the nutrition of the Chinese excellent culture.
In addition, Zhang didn’t forget to emphasize again China’s strong stance against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. He further warned governments around the world to “speak and act with caution and give full consideration their friendship with China and their respect for China’s sovereignty” when they consider meeting with the Dalai Lama.
It’s worth noting that Zhang himself worked as a high official in Tibet Autonomous Region for four years from 2006 to 2010.