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ANALYSIS: High-level China religion summit sparks questions

BEIJING (BP) — A recent conference on religion attended by top Chinese government leaders has raised new questions about whether China’s latest round of restrictions on Christians and other believers will ease — or become national policy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the national conference on “religious freedom,” convened April 22-23 in Beijing. The other six members of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee also attended, an indication of the meeting’s importance.

In his speech, Xi said religious leaders must “protect the unification of their motherland and serve the overall interests of the Chinese nation,” according to a report from the official Xinhua news agency.

All religious believers, Xi stressed, should “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture [and] abide by Chinese laws and regulations…. We should guide and educate the religious circle and their followers with the socialist core values. [They should] dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress, and favorable for the building of a healthy and civilized society, and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture.”

One possible interpretation of Xi’s words: We know you believers are growing in numbers and influence. Work with us (the government) and we will work with you.

Another, less charitable spin: Get with the program, if you know what’s good for you, or else.

Xi added a stern warning about foreign religious influence: “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists,” he said. Members of the Communist Party, meanwhile, should reaffirm their stand as “unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith and bear in mind the Party’s tenets” — a return to rigid orthodoxy which had softened in recent years.

The Chinese president, who is also general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, repeatedly referred to regulating religion by law, sparking speculation that a new national law on religion may be coming.
“They want to make sure that they have retained the reins of power,” Lauren Pfister, professor of religion at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Christianity Daily. They are “slowly tightening the grips…. The question is, how far will this go?”

The conference was held less than two weeks after the widely reported death of Christian believer Ding Cuimei, who was killed April 14 in Henan Province. Ding and her husband, Li Jiangong, stood in front of a bulldozer sent by a government-backed developer to knock down their home, also a house church, in China’s Henan Province. The two reportedly were shoved into a pit and covered with soil, according to China Aid, an organization that advocates for religious rights in China. Li dug his way out, but Ding suffocated.

The bulldozer crew was detained and the land was later ruled to belong to the church by authorities. But China Aid charged that local security tried to silence Li before his wife’s death was reported.

That’s only the most tragic instance of an apparently coordinated assault on Christians. In Zhejiang Province, authorities have torn down more than 1,500 crosses from churches and in some cases demolished entire church buildings, provoking angry public demonstrations by Christians.

Would such abuses cease if religious freedom, guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, were codified by new laws? Perhaps. But Xi’s religion initiative seems to fit into a wider agenda he has pursued since he became president in 2013: to tighten and centralize control over all aspects of Chinese society, from business and government to the military, the arts, popular culture — even the Communist Party itself. His massive anti-corruption campaign has swept up thousands of party cadres as it moves from one social arena to another.

The government also has cracked down on foreign non-governmental organizations in recent months, arresting many foreign NGO workers. Chinese authorities aren’t just concerned about Christian influence from overseas. They fear the growth of radical Islamism among Muslims in the country’s restive west and continue to closely control Buddhists loyal to the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

In its latest annual report, released May 2, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said:

“China’s severe religious freedom violations continued in 2015. While the Chinese government sought to further assert itself on the global stage, at home it pursued policies to diminish the voices of individuals and organizations advocating for human rights and genuine rule of law. During the past year, as in recent years, the central and/or provincial governments continued to forcibly remove crosses and bulldoze churches; implement a discriminatory and at times violent crackdown on Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists and their rights; and harass, imprison, or otherwise detain Falun Gong practitioners, human rights defenders, and others. Based on the continuation of this long-standing trend of religious freedom violations, USCIRF again recommends in 2016 that China be designated a ‘country of particular concern’ … for its systematic, egregious, and ongoing abuses.”

Yet Christian ranks continue to expand, both in open, government-sanctioned churches and in China’s huge house-church networks. Estimates of the number of Christians frequently range as high as 100 million.

Yang Fenggang, an expert on religion at Purdue University, predicts that at current rates China “could be home to the world’s largest number of Christians by 2030 — with 247 million believers,” reports TIME magazine.

“Considering the Chinese Communist Party currently has only 88 million members, it is easy to see why the party top brass might be wary.”

Stay tuned.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges