Why the Chinese Communist Party Fears Religion

In 2018, the Vatican signed a deal with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), attempting to regularize the status of the underground church. The details of the arrangement were kept secret from the laity. Three years later, however, the repression of Christians, whatever their denomination, is at its highest point since the Cultural Revolution. As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary, Christianity—and other faiths—remain among the challengers it fears most.

Religious controls have been part of communist practice since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. As a result, churches split into “patriotic” associations, officially sanctioned if frowned upon. Unrecognized denominations’ status ranged, depending on the government’s mood, from fully underground to operating openly but cautiously.

In 2018, the Vatican signed a deal with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), attempting to regularize the status of the underground church. The details of the arrangement were kept secret from the laity. Three years later, however, the repression of Christians, whatever their denomination, is at its highest point since the Cultural Revolution. As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary, Christianity—and other faiths—remain among the challengers it fears most.

Religious controls have been part of communist practice since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. As a result, churches split into “patriotic” associations, officially sanctioned if frowned upon. Unrecognized denominations’ status ranged, depending on the government’s mood, from fully underground to operating openly but cautiously.

Recent restrictions on Christian practices began to intensify in 2018, the same year the accord with the Vatican was signed. Since then, many churches have been shut down—mostly unsanctioned ones but including some officially recognized groups. Between 5,000 and 10,000 Christian churchgoers have been arrested, some prominent Protestant clergy have been given long prison sentences, and around two-thirds of China’s Protestants have resorted to underground churches in an attempt to avoid police harassment.

Government officials have been asked to compile more details of worshippers, feeding into discrimination in employment, especially in official posts. All children under age 18 have been strictly prohibited from attending any kind of religious education—theoretically already the case but not strongly enforced beforehand. Religious leaders are now expected to spend more time extolling the CCP and Chinese President Xi Jinping personally than they do seeing to their flock. In some churches, icons of Jesus or Mary have already been replaced with portraits of Xi. The old State Administration for Religious Affairs has been abolished and the handling of faith instead moved under the auspices of the United Front—a group that coordinates efforts to coerce all forms of civil society for the party’s ends.

The assault on Christian practice in China is, of course, neither new nor unique. The CCP has always imposed limits on believers, and Chinese imperial states’ relationships with faith were often fraught. During the Tang dynasty in the 9th century, Emperor Wuzong sought to cleanse the country of foreign influences. He targeted not just Buddhism, then seen as an outside, Indian religion, but also Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism. China’s current fixation with “foreign” religions has its roots in the 19th century Qing dynasty, when Christianity and its attendant missionaries were intimately linked with Western imperial powers picking apart the Chinese empire, during what Chinese historians call the “century of humiliation.” The Taiping Rebellion, led by an eccentric Chinese Christian leader who preached his own localized version of the faith and accompanied by Islamist rebellions across the country, only solidified the fear of foreign religion in the minds of the Chinese elite.

In recent years, Islam has been even more of a target than Christianity—not least because it’s closely associated with specific ethnic groups, such as the Uyghurs, the target of an ongoing genocide in the western region of Xinjiang. At least 1 million people have been locked up in “re-education” camps designed to erase their ethnic and religious identity through indoctrination and torture. And other Muslim groups, such as the Hui in central China, are now seeing harsher restrictions on their faith.

The ultimate goal seems to be to suppress any kind of identity—religious, ethnic, or ideological—that might challenge the CCP’s authority, whether now or in the future. As Sean Roberts, an expert on the Uyghurs’ persecution and director and associate professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, put it, China “is most concerned about religion when they think it can foster a turn away from party ideology, especially when it fuels [separatist] nationalism as in the case of Tibet and the Uyghurs.”

But of all those different possible identities, Christianity may be the most common. Statistics are tricky business in China, but there may be as many as 100 million believers—more than the 90 million members of the Chinese Communist Party. Some, perhaps overly optimistic, estimates see as many as 250 million Christians in China by 2030. All that makes the faith—however disparate and disunified Christian belief is—inherently threatening to the CCP. Chinese leadership also studied the fall of the Soviet bloc intensely and are well aware of the role both Catholic and Protestant faith contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Chinese official rhetoric loves to talk about serving the people, self-sacrifice, and communal values. That’s not that far from Christianity, but Christian “ideology” is not tainted, at least in China, by a history of being employed in the service of state control and the calculations of power-hungry politicians.

The party has compromised on almost all the socialist values it nominally espouses since former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s, leaving many in the country with an intense sense of a moral vacuum.

In other words, even if what you care most about is “socialist values,” Christianity enables you to practice and advocate those values without putting you in a position to defend the indefensible actions of the party hierarchy over the past century. Like nonconformists in 18th and 19th century England, Christians in China often have a reputation for fair dealings, even among nonbelievers.

No wonder the party fears Christianity. But the CCP may be making a rod for its own back. Christian leaders have often been willing to compromise, avoiding directly confronting the party for fear of the consequences. If left with little other option, faith and national pride may not blend.

Abroad, we’ve already seen the carefully built edifice of Chinese global power by generations of previous communist leaders squandered on petty, unnecessary, and ultimately self-defeating statements of nationalistic pride. Those same mistakes are being made domestically. A faith many Chinese believed was entirely compatible with their patriotism and even their support for the system could become a major wellspring of opposition to the party’s rule. As space for all forms of belief other than belief in Xi are squeezed out of China, the flames of martyrdom may be surprisingly inspiring.

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