Three months into 2018, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is carrying out a campaign to tighten its grip on the Christian communities within its borders. It is a long-held belief of the CCP that Christianity poses a threat to the stability and legitimacy of its regime, and under President Xi Jinping, the government is taking steps to firmly place all churches and believers under its thumb. In the country’s quest to grow and modernize, the party needs the public to see it—and not any church, and especially not Jesus Christ—as a source of guidance, help, and hope.
Just last month, the regime banned minors from going to churches, prayer houses, and other places of worship in some regions, including Hebei and Xinjiang. Officials went church to church and asked clergy to post signs outside their doors to clearly publicize the new rule barring youth.
Restrictions implemented across the country are primarily a result of the newly-redrafted Regulations on Religious Affairs, which outline how the CCP monitors all faith-based organizations and pushes them to align with the Party’s agenda. Created by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law’s stated goals are to ensure citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintain religious and social harmony, and regulate the administration of religious affairs. Government-run media continues to publicly assert that regional “governments at all levels are urged to strengthen religious work, with efforts to improve the mechanism of religious affairs.”
Changes to the regulations took effect on February 1, 2018, updating those followed since 2005. Here are some notable updates to the centerpiece law:
- Only government-recognized religious groups may establish religious schools and send students abroad.
- Unregistered groups cannot go abroad to teach, take part in meetings, or receive training on religion.
- Print and audiovisual religious materials are subject to new government quantity restrictions.
- Religious internet news sites now require government examination and approval.
- Spreading religion or conducting any religious activity within public schools is now prohibited.
- Donations over 100,000 yuan ($15,420) must be reported for approval.
- Charitable activities cannot be used to spread religion.
- Resisting and blocking extremism is explicitly emphasized.
With the vaguer 2005 rules and a degree of apathy from the central government, Chinese Christians, even those in unrecognized or underground churches, could partially practice their faith as they saw fit. Control over religious groups was not a high priority for the CCP, so toleration through neglect and indifference allowed for growth. In 1982, the Party officially admitted there were about three million Protestant Christians, and moderate estimates suggest that today there are about 60 million, along with 9 million Catholics.
Some of the most stunning and obvious acts of persecution have come against house churches, those bodies of Christ that are not officially sanctioned by Beijing but still serve the majority of believers in the country. In mid-January, the People’s Armed Police demolished the Golden Lampstand Church, home to over 50,000 worshippers in the northern Shanxi province. According to the regional state authorities, the demolition was part of a “city-wide campaign to remove illegal buildings” and the massive structure that had been built “secretly” in 2009. There was little the church’s members could do to resist the armed men carrying out the orders, and of course recompense wasn’t offered.
Examining China’s treatment of the large, restive, and distrusted Muslim majority in the western province of Xinjiang offers a picture of what could come next for Chinese Christians. Citizens there were reportedly ordered to hand in Qurans and any other Islam-related items from their home. In recent years, members of the predominantly-Muslim Uyghur ethnic group have clashed with authorities, at times resulting in violence and deaths. Newly implemented facial recognition technology used with Xianjing’s surveillance cameras alert authorities when targeted people go more than a thousand feet beyond their homes or workplaces. This comes on top of a host of other Orwellian tactics, such as mandatory GPS tracking of all cars in one prefecture within Xinjiang, a smothering police and paramilitary presence, and detention centers for political education.
Beijing is continually expanding its intelligence toolkit, and any of the methods described above could be used next to track and intimidate pastors, congregants, or whole Christian neighborhoods. The future of religious restriction in the world’s most populous country may not be headline-grabbing demolitions or mass arrests, but mass surveillance that makes constrictive law enforcement so constant and efficient that resistance appears futile.
The increasing momentum of restrictions upon religious liberty in China beckons for an American response. Leaders across Washington should draw attention to the CCP’s host of repressive tactics against religion and speak in solidarity with the persecuted throughout China. The US could reasonably intensify rhetoric against the CCP as a first step, but it would have to be done carefully. A condemnation that is worded or timed poorly would be used by Beijing as evidence to support their claims of foreign interference. Though China is unlikely to concede on any policy, the character of our nation as a defender of religious liberty and human rights requires action.
Dan Moran is an intern for Providence. He holds a B.A. in Government from The College of William & Mary.
Photo Credit: Moore Memorial Catholic Church in Shanghai, 2013. David Leo Veksler, via Flikr.