As the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) repression of faithful Chinese continues to worsen, a brief review of the statements of Chinese officials regarding China’s religious policies can help shed light on the overall direction that these policies are likely to take through 2018 and beyond.
A series of bureaucratic reforms intended to strengthen CCP power over the state apparatus have brought the work of the state organs responsible for religious affairs under the direct control of the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD is the Party body dedicated to securing the support of non-Party affiliated sectors of society, including religious groups. UFWD activities since the restructuring in March this year make clear that the bureaucratic changes are intended to aid the CCP in raising the intensity of the pressure it is already putting on religious groups.
Specifically, before March, the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) shared control of religious policy with the UFWD. After the bureaucratic restructuring, the management of these groups is left entirely in the hands of the UFWD, an affirmation of the increasing importance of united front work to CCP objectives under Xi Jinping. The UFWD and associated religious organizations have been particularly vocal about how the CCP’s approach to religious work is changing in Xi’s “new era.”
First and foremost, it will press forward with the “sinicization” of religions in China, a process intended to shape religious traditions and doctrine to better conform with Chinese society and CCP objectives. This has been a primary focus of Xi’s religious policies since his April 2016 speech at the National Religious Work Conference, in which he asserted that in order to “actively guide the adaptation of religions to socialist society, an important task is supporting China’s religions’ persistence in the direction of sinicization.” The policy of sinicization has taken form in various and evolving ways, from “localizing” religious architecture to requiring the Chinese flag on religious sites. Xi has made clear that sinicization should affect religious doctrine as well.
Xi has since reiterated the focus on sinicization in his report to the 19th Party Congress, where he made clear that this would be the main thrust of religious policy: “We will fully implement the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, insist on the sinicization of Chinese religions, and provide active guidance for religion and socialism to coexist.”
At events surrounding the Two Sessions, the annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) that take place each March, officials associated with the UFWD and the religious organizations it now directly controls emphasized the policy of sinicization in their discussion of religion. As the Two Sessions were underway, president of the Buddhist Association of China, Master Xuecheng, gave an exclusive interview with China News Net about the state of religious affairs in China, saying “religion should escape the limitations of tradition in order to modernize and sinicize.”
Islamic Association of China head Yang Faming emphasized the importance of extending sinicization to Islam as well in his speech to the CPPCC National Committee, saying, “We must allow traditional Chinese culture to permeate Islam and jointly guard the spiritual homeland of the Chinese people.” He suggested that the Islamic Association of China would work to ensure that socialist core values, traditional Chinese culture, and “Muslim Patriotic Education” will enter the mosque, and religious ceremony, culture, and architecture will embody Chinese characteristics, style, and manner. Yang said that Muslims in China must regard the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation as the highest interest of the nation, and should actively participate in reform, opening up, and socialist modernization.
Since then, the Islamic Association of China has initiated a “Four Enters” campaign, intended to “promote Islam’s adaptation to a socialist society” by requiring mosques to hold national flag raising ceremonies, hold special study lectures and speech contests at mosques, and conduct other activities intended to raise political consciousness.
After taking over direct management of religious work in March, UFWD head You Quan addressed the subject himself in a speech during a April 3-4 visit to Anhui Province entitled “Thoroughly Research Resolutions for Religious Work’s Prominent Problems, Continue the Sinicization of Religion in China.” In conducting religious affairs, You stated the department will focus on “adopting an attitude conducive to guidance, building a grassroots religious work management system, strengthening the education of religious figures, giving full play to patriotic religious groups, resolutely resisting outside forces using religion as a means of infiltration, guarding against and controlling illegal religious activities, and safeguarding national security and social harmony and stability.” Likewise, in April, former SARA Deputy Director Chen Zongrong said at a press conference that basic religious freedoms as stated in the constitution will remain unchanged; however, “China’s attitude towards religious guidance should move toward the direction of sinicization.”
Since then, the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement announced that they had jointly established a leading small group for promoting the sinicization of Chinese Christianity. According to the announcement, the body will lead an effort that appears focused on shaping religious doctrine, by “giving full play to the role of seminary faculty, strengthening the theoretical research of seminaries, and organizing personnel to write and publish theoretical articles with high academic content.” The announcement called for “combining the liaison mechanisms and practical experience of the China Christian Theological Construction Promulgation Group to promote the sinicization of Christianity in China.”
The various comments by these officials since bureaucratic restructuring was announced demonstrate that the UFWD will play a key role in ramping up pressure on religious groups. The sinicization campaign will be directed at members of all religions, and will focus on material as well as theological changes. Even as the potential warming of relations between Beijing and the Vatican received attention this year as an indicator of a change in the CCP’s attitude toward religion, the CCP’s UFWD has been behind the scenes to ensure that no authority is higher than the CCP in the eyes of religious Chinese.
Julia Bowie is an analyst of the Party Watch Initiative, a program of the Project 2049 Institute that analyzes the writings and activities of the Chinese Communist Party.
David Gitter is the director of the Party Watch Initiative.