- China is increasingly cracking down on Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists.
- Authorities are subjecting Muslims to an unprecedented amount of surveillance, shutting down Christian churches, and forcing monks to pledge allegiance to the state.
- The officially atheist Chinese Communist Party disapproves of all kinds of grassroots organisations as they are seen to undermine its grip on power.
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China is waging an unprecedented war on religion.
Over the past year alone, China has detained Muslim for showing their faith, forced Buddhists to pledge allegiance to the ruling Communist Party, and coerced Christian churches to take down their crosses or shut down.
The ‘sinicization’ of religion
The Party, which is officially atheist, has for decades attempted to control religious organisations to maintain its dominance.
Its State Administration for Religious Affairs, set up in 1951, allows five religious organisations to exist under the state’s control: a Party-sanctioned form of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism.
The state controls these groups’ personnel, publications, and finances. Technically, citizens are free to practise religion freely, as long as their sect is officially sanctioned by the government.
Party officials in 2015 introduced the term “sinicization” into official government lexicon, in which they called on Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian leaders to fuse their religions with Chinese socialist thought.
Roderic Wye, a former first secretary in the British Embassy in Beijing, told Business Insider last year: “The party has always had trouble with religion one way or another, because often religious activity tends to imply some sort of organisation.”
“Once there are organisations, the party is very keen to control them,” Wye added.
But under the presidency of Xi Jinping, the government’s crackdown appears to have increased at an alarming scale.
‘They want to … cut off Islam at the roots’
In the western region of Xinjiang, the home of the majority-Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, authorities have installed a massive police state and is estimated to have imprisoned up to 1.5 million residents.
Many detainees said they were arrested for showing distinct markers of Islam, like growing a long beard or refusing to drink. Beijing this week claimed it had released most Uighurs from detention camps, but has provided no credible evidence.
Muslims elsewhere in the country are also vulnerable.
Authorities in Beijing have ordered at least 11 halal restaurants and food stalls to remove Arabic script and symbols associated with Islam, Reuters reported this week.
“They said this is foreign culture and you should use more Chinese culture,” one restaurant manager, who asked not to be identified, told the news agency. It’s not clear if it issued the order to all halal stores in the city.
The Communist Party, which is suspicious of foreign forces in its country, interpret symbols of Islam and the Arabic language as pledging allegiance to something other than the Chinese state.
“They [Chinese authorities] want Islam in China to operate primarily through Chinese language,” Darren Byler, a Xinjiang expert, told Reuters.
The majority-Muslim Hui ethnic group, who are scattered around China, also fear that the government will extend its crackdown to them.
In the northern city of Yinchuan, home to the largest concentration of Hui Muslims in the country, authorities have banned the daily call to prayer because it apparently created noise pollution, the South China Morning Post reported last year.
One unnamed imam in Linxia, central China, also told Agence France-Presse: “They want to secularize Muslims, to cut off Islam at the roots. These days, children are not allowed to believe in religion: Only in communism and the party.”
Monitored services, censored sermons
The crackdown extends beyond Islam.
Authorities have also targeted Christians outside the state-sanctioned Catholic and Protestant associations by burning Bibles, shutting down churches, and ordering people to renounce their faith.
Some churches allowed to remain open have to install facial-recognition cameras in the building, or risk getting shut down. Party officials censor and add state propaganda to pastors’ sermons, Bob Fu, who runs the US rights group ChinaAid, told France24 last year.
Last September, authorities in China and the Vatican signed an agreement in which Pope Francis officially recognised seven Beijing-appointed bishops, who had been excommunicated because they weren’t approved by the Holy See. Critics said the deal ceded power from the Holy See to the Communist Party.
China has about 9 million Catholics, 5.7 million of whom worship in state-sponsored churches and organisations, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA).
Additionally, there are about 68 million Protestants in China, but only 23 million of them worship in state-affiliated churches, RFA reported.
Monks raising the Communist Party flag
Buddhism and Taoism – which has historically deeper roots in East Asia – are not exempt either.
China restricts religious operations in Tibet, and spiritual leader the Dalai Lama remains in his decades-long exile.
Activists say the state monitors the daily activities of major Tibetan monasteries, limits believers’ travel and communications, and has routinely detained monks on terrorism charges – not dissimilar from the situation in Xinjiang.
Last summer, China’s famous Shaolin Temple – an ancient Buddhist monastery believed to be the birth place of kung fu – raised the Chinese national flag for the first time in its 1,500-year history as part of a government campaign to demonstrate its patriotism.
‘No other source of moral or social authority is tolerated’
Wye, the former British Embassy official, said China’s keenness to exert control over religions is also to limit foreign influence.
“There’s always been a concern the Chinese state has had about the extent of foreign influence over religion and the way foreign forces might use to manipulate societal thought,” Wye, now an associate fellow at Chatham House, told Business Insider last year.
“This is part of the wider ‘China dream’ that Xi Jinping has, to make China big and strong again,” he added.
“Whatever political and social development China will take in the future, it is to be decided and promulgated by the Chinese Communist Party, and no other source of moral or social authority is tolerated.”