24 October 2016
Authorities remove the cross atop a Christian church in Tiazhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province. Photo: China Aid
Authorities remove the cross atop a Christian church in Tiazhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province. Photo: China Aid

Why Xi crusade to curb religious expression is doomed to fail

At a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Politburo on religious issues last month, President Xi Jinping stressed that all religious leaders and followers across China must “support the leadership of the communist party, endorse the socialist system, and aggressively carry out the core values of socialism”.

He also called upon all religious groups in the mainland to rally behind the Communist Party in order to help it consolidate its leadership.

It has become increasingly apparent that after having brought the national media into line, Xi’s next target would be the various religious groups in the mainland.

On the surface, President Xi’s remarks were directed at the Islamist terrorists and separationists in Xinjiang as well as the disaffected Tibetan Buddhists.

However, the truth is, what President Xi and probably the entire Politburo are most concerned about is actually the Christian population in China.

It is because unlike the Islamist fundamentalists and Tibetan monks, who are mostly based in remote Xinjiang and Tibet and can therefore be contained by force in a relatively easier way, Christians, be they Roman Catholics or Protestants, are scattered across every corner of the country, and their numbers are rising rapidly.

In Beijing’s eyes, the rise of Christianity in China could pose a serious threat to the Communist Party’s rule.

Today it is estimated that there are around 90 million Christians in China, and their numbers are expected to hit 160 million by the year 2025.

By that time China could become the largest Christian country on earth.

Even though the overwhelming majority of Christians in China are average and law-abiding citizens, Beijing is still highly alert to the growing influence of the church.

It is because Beijing has always borne in mind the alarming lesson of the democratic uprising led by both the church and the Solidarity in Poland which almost toppled the communist regime in the early ’80s.

Former leader Deng Xiaoping was said to have once warned of “the infection of the Polish virus” in one of his speeches.

Despite the fact that ever since he came to power in 2012, Emperor Xi has been taking great pains to amass power and undo the collective and consensual leadership system established by Deng Xiaoping, he does strictly follow one of Deng’s teachings: always beware of western religions and their infiltration into the Chinese society.

In fact, under Xi’s religious “scorched-earth policy”, China has witnessed the most ferocious, brutal and relentless crackdown on religious freedom, particularly Christians, since the Cultural Revolution.

For instance, in the Zhejiang province, where Xi’s political career began to take off, the local authorities have been mounting a continued and massive crackdown on the church and Christians since 2014.

So far more than 2,000 crosses have been removed from churches, chapels and cathedrals across the province, and thousands of pastors, priests, their followers or even the lawyers who have volunteered to defend them in court are either held in custody or placed under 24-hour surveillance.

The crusade to uproot the Christian faith in Zhejiang is still underway in full swing on Xi’s order.

However, it appears President Xi, who has been adopting a much tougher stance on religion than his predecessors, still finds the ongoing nationwide suppression of Christianity not reassuring enough.

It is because there are signs that more and more Communist Party members have become Christians themselves, which is seen by Xi as his worst nightmare: western religious ideologies have infiltrated the party and polluted the minds of hundreds of thousands of party members, and eventually the communist dynasty could be toppled from within.

To combat this infiltration, Xi has issued an official decree ordering all party members to stay vigilant against the seduction of western religious values at all times and always bear in mind that they must remain steadfast Marxist atheists under all circumstances.

He also ordered that patriotic and Maoist education be intensified in schools across the country to make sure young people are immune to “toxic” Christian values.

The problem is, there are a lot of Christian sympathizers within the Communist Party, many of whom are using their official power to protect the church.

President Xi would be completely naïve if he believed he could win this war of ideology by sheer force, intimidation and terror.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 5.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Adjunct Professor, History Department, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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