Group of Christians are praying together in Beijing. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Chinese Christians praying in Beijing. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

China’s Communist Party is threatened by the “uncontrolled growth of Christianity” in the country –estimated by some to reach 247 million by 2030, “making it the world’s largest congregation” – and China’s thriving underground churches can therefore expect a backlash, writes Eugene K. Chow for The Diplomat.

Chow describes how “many state sanctioned churches have been forced to install surveillance cameras, and preachers, selected by the government, are monitored to ensure that their sermons do not broach taboo topics” – for example, messages that contain foreign influences. China’s government is concerned foreign powers want to infiltrate churches to destabilise the country.

Most Chinese Christians, however, meet not in the registered, state sanctioned churches, but in “underground” churches.

‘Sinicisation’ of religion

As World Watch Monitor reported, last month the Chinese government sharpened its religious regulations in a move seen by some as tightening its control on Christians. Others said the focus was curbing the rise of Islamic extremism.

According to Wang Zuoan, the head of China’s religious affairs bureau, “the revision was urgently needed because the foreign use of religion to infiltrate [China] intensifies by the day and religious extremist thought is spreading in some areas”.

While the Chinese constitution guarantees religious freedom, Zuoan told South China Morning Post the new rules were to help the government maintain “the Sinicisation of religion in our country … and keep to the correct path of adapting religion to a socialist society”.

World Watch Monitor has reported cases of Christian leaders who disappeared, were imprisoned and tortured, or harassed. Between 2013 and 2015 over 1,200 crosses were pulled down from churches in the prosperous eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, known as the ‘Jerusalem’ of the east for its strong Christian presence.

As the Communist Party prepares for its 19th Congress, opening on 18 October, an analyst for the World Watch Research unit of Christian charity Open Doors, Thomas Muller, said the regime had two priorities: controlling the media and emphasising ideology.

“The preferred line of thinking is emphasised by introducing President Xi Jinping

’s own brand of ‘political thought’ into the Party constitution, tying ideology closer to the budding personality cult around him,” he said. “Fitting into this pattern is a book recently published by the Central Party School, demanding that all students learn from President Xi’s experiences as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. As the emphasis on Communist ideology and the personality cult emerging around President Xi gets stronger, the authorities will correspondingly act more strongly against all other ‘ideologies’ not fitting into this system, including the Christian religion.”

A source who preferred to remain anonymous told World Watch Monitor that religious restrictions, in particular for students and young people, are tightening but that the policies are not equally enforced in all parts of the country due to its size and regional diversity.

‘Put religious freedom at centre of diplomacy’

Meanwhile a new report, presented in Washington on 5 October, shows that under Xi, human rights protection in China continues to deteriorate.

During the presentation of the annual report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, its chairman, Senator Marco Rubio, called on President Trump to address the decline in human rights during his visit to China next month.

The committee in its report recommends that diplomacy on religious freedom becomes one of the State Department’s priorities, “given that countries that severely restrict religious freedom are likely to face domestic instability and may also threaten regional stability”. This comes in the wake of the State Department’s decision to close its Office of Religion and Global Affairs, which its former director, Shaun Casey, called a “devastating” move.

The report also urges the Administration to fully implement the International Religious Freedom Act, an initiative of former Congressman Frank R. Wolf, designed with persecuted Christians in mind.