China presented an official ‘white paper’ on religion on Wednesday, 4 April, guaranteeing “protection” for religious freedom, just four days after banning the online sale of Bibles.

The policy paper, titled ‘China’s Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief’, was presented by the State Council Information Office at a press conference and followed the disbandment of the Religious Affairs Bureau.

A local source said they had not been able to find or download Bibles from a popular Amazon-like online platform and that other people had reported similar experiences on social media. Others, however, still seemed to have access to online Bibles earlier this week, the source said.

Until this week the popular website TaoBao sold different types of bibles. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Until this week the popular website TaoBao sold a range of Bibles. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

The latest developments follow the implementation of new regulations on religion in February, which some religious leaders in China said violated religious freedom.

‘Active guidance needed’

According to Bernardo Cervellera, writing for AsiaNews, the ‘white paper’ signalled a shift away from the Marxist philosophy that defined religion as the “opium of the people”, defining China as a “multi-religious country since ancient times”. However, the government’s policy document added that “active guidance” was needed so religions could “adapt to socialist society”.

The ‘Sinicization’ of religion has long been a core message of President Xi Jinping. Under his rule, control of religious life has increased, causing more pressure on Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

“The religious affairs that Xi Jinping is talking about are in fact mass line ideological work”, Wu Fan, editor-in chief of the magazine Chinese Affairs, told Radio Free Asia (RFA). “Religions are expected to follow the leadership of the party, according to [Xi’s] Chinese dream. … Basically, they have completely changed the meaning of religion”, he said.

Catholic commentator Eric Lai said in March that the Communist Party wants “to use religion as a tool for stability” – mirroring the approaches of other authoritarian governments, such as Russia.

Meanwhile the White Paper was published amidst ongoing talks between the Vatican and Beijing about the appointment of bishops. Anthony Lamb, of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, told RFA that China’s policy document on religions didn’t “bode well for any future deal”. “The appointment system [for bishops] must comply with canon law [and] all appointments must be made unanimously. … Otherwise, the entire world will be against us”, he said. “The Catholic Church cannot make an exception … for China.”

‘Colonialism and imperialism’

The government’s policy paper states that there are five recognised religions in China, with a total of 200 million believers, with Catholics and Protestants accounting for 6 million and 30 million respectively. But Cervellera says those calculations are based only on the formal, registered communities, while some estimate that there are as many Christians – both Catholics are Protestants – in unofficial, or ‘underground’, churches.

World Watch Monitor reported in October that some estimate the number of Christians in China could reach 247 million by 2030, “making it the world’s largest congregation”.

A local source told World Watch Monitor the paper showed why Christianity is a sensitive subject for the Chinese government.

The source said it highlighted how “Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has been controlled and utilised by colonialism and imperialism for a long time, which was a shameful history of being bullied by this western religion, whereas, in the government’s eyes, this is an historic moment for Chinese believers to make an independent choice guided by the principles of ‘independence’, ‘self-control’ and ‘self-administration’, amidst the fight for social progress and independence by Chinese ethnic groups”.