The Chinese government has released a set of proposed amendments to its rules regulating religious affairs, as President Xi Jinping attempts to exert even greater control over how religion is practised.

The new set of amendments, released to the public on 7 Sep. for a one-month consultation period, includes guidelines on religious education, the types of religious organisations that can exist, where they can exist and the activities they can organise.

Yu Zhengsheng, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, emphasised the need for provincial officials to have a better overall understanding of religion, so that they are better able to resist “foreign” religions. (The idea of resisting “foreign” religions is generally taken as an attack on Christianity, which is considered a product of the West, promulgated by foreign powers with the intention of destabilising Chinese “harmony”).

This all fits into the current government’s efforts to ‘Sinicize’ every aspect of Chinese life – be it culture, news or religion.

–Thomas Muller, Open Doors

This comes shortly after China’s broadcasting regulator announced that it is planning to curb all social and entertainment news that promotes Western lifestyles.

“This all fits into the current government’s efforts to ‘Sinicize’ every aspect of Chinese life – be it culture, news or religion”, according to Thomas Muller, analyst at Open Doors’ World Watch Research unit. Open Doors is an international charity which monitors Christians under pressure around the world.

Making religions ‘more Chinese’

In April, President Xi, speaking in Beijing at the National Conference of Religious Work, said he wished to “help religions adapt to the socialist society”.

Xi’s April speech was based around four themes:

• Unity between religious and non-religious groups in society, along with ethnic and regional unity. Xi urged officials to guide the religious to “love their country”, protect the unification of their motherland and serve the overall interests of the Chinese nation.

• Localisation of “foreign” religions in order to make them more “Chinese” and to prevent foreign infiltration. He stressed harmony in the building of a healthy and civilised society.

• Limiting religion’s influence by keeping it separated from government administration, the legal system, and education; and countering religious content on the Internet by disseminating the Party’s religious policies and theories online.

• Party leadership. The General Secretary called on Party cadres to strengthen their supervision of religion and encouraged them to guide and educate religious circles and their followers with socialist core values and with ideas of unity, progress, peace and tolerance.

“[The] implications for Chinese Christians remain to be seen, but it might well be that these directives find their way into new regulations affecting the Church in China,” said an Asia analyst for Open Doors, who wished to remain anonymous. “Freedom in all sectors of society [has been] shrinking since Xi Jinping came into power, and there is evidence that the government is also tightening its grip on the Three Self Patriotic Movement [the state-approved Church].”

1,500 crosses taken down from church rooftops

In the past three years, over 1,500 crosses have been removed from churches in the south-eastern province of Zhejiang – known as the “Jerusalem of the East” because of its strong Christian presence. Meanwhile, some churches were labelled “illegal structures” and demolished. Those who have resisted have faced physical abuse, detention and criminal charges.

Open Doors’ Asia analyst calls it “the most blatant attack on the Church since the Cultural Revolution – under the guise of enforcing building-code regulations”.

David Saperstein, US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, said he “remained concerned” about the situation. “We really encourage them to ease the restrictions all across the country and allow religious freedom and religious institutions to flourish and function without the kind of constraints that they face – that are so pervasive,” he said.

China remained a “Country of Particular Concern” in the US State Department’s latest annual report.

“Over the past year, the Chinese government has stepped up its persecution of religious groups deemed a threat to the state’s supremacy and maintenance of a ‘socialist society’. Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down,” it said.

The Chinese government has stepped up its persecution of religious groups… Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down.

–US State Department

The Chinese government did not respond to the report’s assertions. However, US government-funded Voice Of America News highlighted a year-old editorial on the pro-Chinese government ‘Global Times’ news site, which reiterated that China “respects religious freedom” but that “the growth rate of Christianity in some Chinese provinces is among highest in world (sic)… Many people feel the churches and crosses in Zhejiang have become too big for their taste.”

VOA added that it was “unusual” Beijing had targeted only one province and also state-registered churches, “rather than unregistered ones where many of China’s Christians pray in potential violation of the law”.

In a recent podcast, US-based political scientist Carsten Vala told VOA: “It seems as though the top provincial leader [in Zhejiang] … took offence that Christian churches were so prominent and they have these massive buildings and very large crosses that were visible from public highways miles away.”

Vala said Christianity has attracted younger and better-educated followers in recent decades and that the Communist Party has become increasingly concerned that this may pose a threat to its power. However, he said that stronger pressure on the Church has in recent decades always led to stronger Church growth and that the most likely response to further pressure would be for more Christians to go “underground”.

“I don’t think the Chinese authorities necessarily understand the history of Christianity, so they don’t understand that often this kind of campaign can boomerang and actually end up with the opposite result,” he said. “There’s also a push to try to register the unregistered churches. At the very local level, there have been reports and discussions about linking those congregations to essentially what are the lowest level of the state-hierarchy ‘neighbourhood-watch’ committees. And so maybe the government thinks that if they are registering the unregistered groups and then putting pressure on the official churches, that this will have a successful result. But history shows time and again that when persecution comes, it leads to a temporary lull and then a resurgence of believers.”

Open Doors’ Asia analyst says Christians in China have been concerned that the situation in Zhejiang may be a “precursor to a more intrusive and widespread effort aimed at shutting down more and more churches around the country”. But so far, this has not been the case.

Learn more: Zhejiang, a sign of things to come? 

Learn more: What’s behind the pressure on the Chinese Church?