Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening session of the 19th Communist Party Congress on 18 October in Beijing.

China’s new regulations on religious affairs, passed last month, are a “major event for Chinese Christianity, [as] they clarify Christianity’s role and strengthen her constructions”, according to the two organisations that comprise the state-sanctioned Church in China.

The China Christian Council and Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which form the ‘lianghui’ (two organisations with close relations), say they see a clear role for patriotic Christians in strengthening and building the nation.

The lianghui, in a blog for their official Tianfeng Magazine, said the new rules “offer policy guarantees for the Sinicisation [Chinese nationalism] of Christianity since the general principles of these regulations are to safeguard the religious freedom of citizens, defend religious and social harmony, regulate religious affairs, improve the level of legal religious work, and protect citizens’ religious freedom”.

The article quotes President Xi Jinping, who saidreligious groups are the bridge and link that unite and connect the Party and the government with religious community figures and the larger religious masses”.

Responding to Xi’s comments, Thomas Muller, analyst for the World Watch Research unit of Christian charity Open Doors, said: “If this indeed is the role of religions, then it is only consequent that the role they play in the internal affairs of religion must be respected and developed, as well as strive to build a politically credible, democratic, and highly efficient leadership group. The fact that the state not just counts on political reliability, but religious credibility as well, is a strong sign that [it] becomes more and more totalitarian under the guise of benevolence, protection and patriotism.”

‘Strengthen the Party’s control’

In his speech at the Communist Party Congress on Wednesday (18 October), Xi reiterated the importance of Chinese nationalism, saying the government would “uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society”.

Associate Professor Lawrence Reardon from the University of New Hampshire told Catholic news agency UCAN: “To control religious believers, Xi will continue to strengthen the Party’s control over religious non-governmental organisations first approved in 2016, which were designed to prevent the development of an independent civil society.

“In 2017, Xi followed up with new regulations on religious affairs, which have strengthened the Sinicisation of China’s religions.”

‘Curbing Islamic extremism’

Over the past few months, Chinese church leaders have given a range of differing perspectives on the proposed new religious regulations, which are due to come into force on 1 February 2018.

Some have suggested the regulations are mainly focused on curbing the rise of Islamic extremism and will not greatly affect Christians. Others have said local authorities are usually reluctant to enforce regulations on churches because of fears of creating conflict and instability.

But others have said they have seen some tightening of restrictions, particularly related to student and youth work, and that some local authorities hand out punishments to avoid being criticised by their superiors.

Last year, analyst Thomas Muller told World Watch Monitor the new rules were part of the government’s attempts to “Sinicize every aspect of Chinese life – be it culture, news or religion”.

“[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,” he said. “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.”