The opening ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, held in October 2017. (Photo by Prachatai via Flickr; CC 2.0)
The opening ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, held in October 2017. The Congress is the most important political event in China, where decisions taken by the Central Committee are endorsed. (Photo by Prachatai via Flickr; CC 2.0)

China’s Communist Party has disbanded its Religious Affairs Bureau to bring religion under the control of the party’s Central Committee, in what some observers see as a further tightening of the belt.

The State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) is to be absorbed by the United Front Work Department, an organ of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, which manages relationships with non-Communist individuals and organisations. Chinese state broadcaster Xinhua announced the change last week, saying it was part of a general restructuring and that the department will also take charge of ethnic affairs. This will include managing the relationships with minorities in areas like Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Implementation is expected by the end of this year.

While some do not expect much to change, Catholic commentator Eric Lai told AsiaNews the Communist Party wants “to use religion as a tool for stability” – mirroring the approaches of other authoritarian governments, such as Russia.

It comes as fears continue to grow regarding state meddling in the appointment of Catholic bishops. “If the Vatican and China sign an official accord, will the China Catholic Church follow the path of maintaining stability like the Russian Orthodox Church, or have true religious autonomy to preach in the country? Under the current situation, no doubt the former is more likely,” Lai says.

Meanwhile, Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas commented: “Many religious believers in China, including Christians, are already concerned about tightening control over religious activities. These changes will do nothing to allay their fears. Under Xi Jinping control of religious life has become a new priority for the Communist Party of China, and so far this has been manifested through the curtailing of the right to freedom of religion or belief for both registered and unregistered religious communities, including Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims.”

‘Cautious, not fearful’

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

Almost two months on, the enforcement of the regulations has varied from region to region, a local source told World Watch Monitor.

“While some [reported] incidents in Henan Province are confirmed as true, it seems not to happen in all places in Henan or in other provinces,” the source said. “Chinese pastors are cautious, but not fearful. Some might think Chinese churches may be fearful when they see a few incidents happening, but generally they are not, and still continue church activities until they directly face restrictions from their own local authorities.”

Meanwhile the man who presided over the removal of 1,500 crosses from churches in Zhejiang Province has been appointed as the new vice-chairman and secretary-general of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

As Zhejiang’s committee secretary, Xia Baolong, a close ally of President Xi, also presided over the demolition of several churches, which he said had been built illegally.

Professor Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Catholic news agency UCAN the appointment suggested Xi approved of Xia’s efforts in removing crosses.