Interviews | Society | East Asia

Religion With Chinese Characteristics: Sinicizing Religion in China

Insights from Xi Lian.

Mercy A. Kuo
Religion With Chinese Characteristics: Sinicizing Religion in China
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Lingshengdesign

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Xi Lian Professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity School and author of numerous publications including Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Modern Christianity in China (2010) and Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China (2018) is the 210th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the rationale behind China’s efforts to sinicize religion, based on a speech by Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the National Religious Work Conference in April 2016.

Beijing began its orchestrated campaign to sinicize religion in China in 2014 even though all the major religions of China, including Christianity, have long undergone significant indigenization in modern times. The problem is that they have not sinicized to the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] liking. As Xi Jinping made clear in his April 2016 speech, religion must be made to serve the state’s “highest interests” and to support the party and its core values. What that means becomes clear when you see villagers told to replace posters of Jesus with portraits of Xi Jinping. It’s a relapse of the autocratic obsession — no two suns in the sky, and no two lords in this land of China.

What does the sinicization of religion entail and which religions will it impact?

Real sinicization of religion happened spontaneously over time, as when Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara changed gender to become the Chinese Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, or when lay Protestant leaders received revelations from God to leave mission churches and found independent groups. In contrast, the current state-directed sinicization entails complete domestication of religions to rid them of any transcendent commitments or moral visions at variance with state ideology. It affects all organized religions, but Christian and Muslim communities bear the brunt of this authoritarian assault on faith.

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Analyze the correlation between sinicization of religion and national security.

China published its first national security blue book in 2014. In it, the government warned against “religious infiltration” by “hostile forces in the West.” Catholic and Protestant communities in China with their theological and in some cases ecclesial ties to the West are seen as particularly liable to Western conspiracies to contain or weaken China. The government has been particularly keen on forcing the churches to weaken their ties with the West.

Assess the impact of China’s religion policy on religious freedom on religious communities in the country.

The new religious policy publicized in 2014 was formalized into the new Regulations on Religious Affairs implemented in February 2018. In essence, it is a reversal of the somewhat tolerant religious policy of the Deng Xiaoping era and a return to the Mao-era hostility toward all forms of organized religion. Across China, hundreds of independent churches have been closed and their leaders harassed or jailed since 2018 — not to mention the expansion of the campaign since 2014 to remove crosses and decapitate church steeples. The crackdown on Muslims began among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in the form of mass detention but has now spread among the Hui Muslim minorities elsewhere in China. The pressure on churches in Hong Kong is more subtle. It can lead to self-censorship, but Beijing does not yet have the ability to shutter churches there.

Explain why U.S. and Western governments should be concerned about the sinicization of religion across China.

Innocuous as it sounds, the current campaign to sinicize religion in China is in fact an authoritarian assault on the freedom of religion and must be recognized as such. The United States and Western democracies should be concerned about it because it is a violation of basic human rights and an affront to democratic values. There is also a practical side to the matter: America’s indifference or silence in the face of religious persecution and other human rights abuses in China is an abdication of moral leadership. It nurtures authoritarian contempt for the U.S. and can exacerbate Beijing’s recklessness in both domestic and international affairs. Support for religious freedom in China and affirmation of democratic values can and should be part of a well-calibrated U.S. policy toward Beijing and would avoid signaling moral weakness, which never does the U.S. any good.