In early June, a pastor in China’s Shandong Province was sentenced to five years in prison for printing hymnals and other theological materials. His co-worker was sentenced to three and a half years on the same charge. On June 9, Pastor Wang Yingjie of Zion Reformed Church and his wife, Wang Ying, were placed in administrative detention by Chinese authorities. Beyond the arrest and harassment of Christians in China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is also trying to win over hearts, minds, and souls by appointing communist-approved clergy.
On April 4, Beijing unilaterally appointed Bishop Joseph Shen Bin as the Roman Catholic bishop of Shanghai without consulting the Vatican. His leadership over the Diocese of Shanghai was approved by the Council of Chinese Bishops, the state-sanctioned bishops’ conference of which he is also the head.
The unilateral appointment violates an agreement calling for cooperation between the CCP and the Holy See when appointing bishops, agreed on last October. That agreement was criticized by many Catholics who felt the Church was allowing itself to be subjugated by the CCP. By contrast, supporters of the agreements saw it as a first step toward bridging the divide between Rome and China’s state-approved Catholic Church. Yet, just months after the deal was signed, the CCP breached the agreement. In recent years, restrictions on religious freedom and religious minorities have intensified, with the latest developments suggesting the situation is worsening.
Although Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for “freedom of religious belief,” this freedom is limited to “normal” beliefs, as defined by the CCP. In practice, only five religions are authorized: the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), and the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). All five approved religions are supervised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, an organ of the United Front Work Department, the CCP’s propaganda arm. For Catholics, only worship conducted through the CPA at state-approved times and locations is legal in China. CPA liturgy is required to support socialist and state ideology. According to Liu Bainian, chairman of the CPA and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, church teachings must make people “fervently love the socialist motherland.” Furthermore, adherents of the CPA are not permitted to accept the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, His Holiness Pope Francis.
It is estimated that more than 100 million Christians worship in underground home churches scattered across the country. Many of these forbidden institutions are unregistered Catholic churches which recognize the Pope. Under PRC law, these churches are illegal, and they have been subjected to raids and mass arrests. Two high-profile martyrs to the Catholic faith in China are Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, who suffered long-term imprisonment, and Father Beda Chang, who was tortured and martyred.
Since assuming office in 2012, Xi Jinping has consolidated power in ways unseen for decades. Called the paramount leader, he holds the positions of general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission, as well as president of the PRC. In 2018, term limits for the presidency were abolished. In October 2022, Xi was given a third term as CCP general secretary, making him one of the three most powerful leaders in the history of the PRC, along with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. During Xi’s reign, human rights and personal freedoms have steadily deteriorated. He has created numerous departments and agencies to give the CCP greater control over commerce and civil society. Companies are required to maintain a party cell of at least three party members, to ensure that corporate governance is consistent with party ideology. Citizens are now subjected to a social credit score system which can result in punishment for acts considered untrustworthy by the CCP, including criticizing the government on social media, participating in underground churches, or publicly promoting religion, even one of the state-approved religions.
Last year, watchdog groups reported that the CCP intensified pressure on unregistered churches to join officially sanctioned organizations or disband. Over the past decade, a “sinicization” campaign has tried to force all religious doctrine and practice to conform with CCP doctrine. Clergy are required to attend political indoctrination sessions and liturgy is being altered to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. At the 20th National Congress of the CCP in October last year, Xi stated that religions must “adapt to socialist society.”
Apart from the CCP’s desire to control religion, another sticking point between the Vatican and Beijing is that the Holy See is the only European country to recognize the government of Taiwan.
Taiwan — a self-governing island nation with its own flag, currency, military, and democratically elected government — protects its citizens’ rights to religious freedom. Although the majority of the population follows Buddhism or Taoism, about 6% are Christian, including at least 300,000 domestic Catholics and as many as 100,000 foreign Catholics. The PRC is attempting to isolate Taiwan on the world stage, preparing for a forced annexation which will result in a loss of freedoms, as it did in Hong Kong.
The recognition of Taiwan by the Holy See, along with the continued support of the United States, is one of the most significant political alignments which is keeping Taiwan free. In a speech in 2020, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen recognized the role the Catholic Church has played in the preservation of the island nation, saying: “Over the past few decades, the Church has helped Taiwan society in so many ways and at so many levels that it is impossible to describe them in a few words or a few days.”