There are quite a lot of paradoxes and contractions in China under President Xi Jinping. Chief among these is that, while oppressing the country’s religions, notably Christian churches and the Uyghur Muslim minority, the ruling Communist Party of China is functioning not purely as a political party but as a religion with Xi as the supreme patriarch.
This is manifested in a variety of different ways.
In October last year and in March this year, his “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” or Xi Jinping Thought for short, was enshrined in the CPC’s charter and the constitution of the People’s Republic of China, respectively.
With his name and thought immortalized, China’s new “helmsman” enjoys the same celebrated status of Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and ruled it with absolute power and an iron fist until his death in 1976.
Xi Jinping Thought is now the “spiritual” guide for not just the party’s 90 million members but for the entire 1.4-billion-population country. While holy books, including the Bible, are confiscated, as reported by the Global Times, a party-backed newspaper, “Xi Jinping Thought is being studied in all corners of society, from local governments to media outlets, from university students to street cleaners.”
But such study is not always voluntary. In an effort to “Sinicize” the nation’s religions, the Xi administration has forced them to adopt his “Chinese characteristics,” which include unwavering loyalty to the CPC.
It is reported that in an article published in April, China’s Religious Affairs Department ordered Christian churches to endorse the party’s leadership as part of “Sinicization,” blatantly claiming: “Only Sinicized churches can obtain God’s love.”
Such a blatant assertion is tantamount to a patristic doctrine that “outside the Church, there is no salvation,” which the Roman Catholic Church now interprets less rigidly.
With his thought becoming China’s dogma, Xi – dubbed the “chairman of everything, everyone and everything” – is revered as a living god. While religious artifacts are banned, his posters are ubiquitous both at public places and in private households.
As widely reported by major international media outlets, last November, officials in Yugan, Jiangxi, an impoverished county in rural southeastern China, even told local destitute Christians to replace their images of Jesus with portraits of Xi Jinping should they wish to escape poverty.
During that month, Communist Party officials in Henan, central China, made a pilgrimage to a Paulownia tree planted in their province by Xi in 2009, when he was the PRC’s vice-president. Once they arrived there, they stood still and gazed at the tree, venerating it as a sacred one, while pondering the party mission.
To many, especially those living in democratic states, where leaders are elected by the people to advance their well-being and where human rights and religious freedoms are respected, all of this might be too absurd to believe. But in Xi’s Communist-ruled China, it seems to have become the norm.
What is noteworthy is that such a deep devotion to him and the party has been inspired by Xi and his propagandists.
On October 31 last year, just a few days after the CPC’s 19th conclave, also regarded as Xi’s congress, he led the other six members of the newly reshuffled Politburo Standing Committee, the inner sanctum of Chinese politics, to a site in Shanghai where the party’s first congress was held in 1921, to renew the party oath.
About two weeks later, Xinhua, the strictly censored state’s official news agency, published an extensive and glowing hagiography of Xi.
The 8,000-word (in English) opus, an unprecedented portrayal of any Chinese leader, used many obsequious titles to depict Xi. He was hailed as, among other fawning names, a pathfinder, a sage whose “extensive knowledge of literature and the arts makes him a consummate communicator in the international arena,” an omnipotent man “who makes things happen,” and a “servant of the public” who is very approachable and caring.
In other words, though not explicitly, for Xinhua and his other apologists, Xi is not just a political leader but a god-like figure, who is virtuous, benevolent, all-knowing and all-powerful.
Against this background, it isn’t so shocking that Communist cadres in Yugan told local Christians that the Chinese autocrat – not Jesus Christ – was their savior or that pilgrimage to places related to Xi, such as the cave dormitories where the young Xi spend six years during Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, is allowed or encouraged.
That said, it’s still ironic and paradoxical for several reasons.
Xinhua’s fawning profile of Xi said that during his first term, “more than 60 million people have bid goodbye to poverty.” Yet Christians in Yugan weren’t likely among these. According to reports citing official data, about 10% of this county’s 1 million residents live below China’s official poverty line, and a similar percentage of its population is Christian.
The demand that believers have to swap religious objects for Xi’s pictures if they want to benefit from the party’s poverty-relief efforts is blatantly discriminative, not just economically but also religiously. It also reveals, contrary to what they preach, Communist officials in Yugan, and perhaps Xi himself, treat Christians as servants, to whom they only bestow their “grace” if the latter toe the party’s line and worship the autocrat.
Most paradoxically, developments in Yugan and elsewhere in China show that under Xi, the CPC is somehow operating as a “religion” with him as its “spiritual” leader, though – like other communist/Marxist regimes and leaders – the CPC and Xi are officially atheists.
As illustrated by past and present cases, when an agnostic, communist autocrat thinks or acts as if he is a god-like person, his people tend to suffer. Atrocities in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, in Cambodia under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, in the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin and in North Korea under Kim Jong-un’s tyrannical rule are some of these examples.
It’s unlikely that the Chinese people will suffer the same fate under Xi’s reign. Still, if excessive devotion to him and his ideology isn’t curbed and the 65-year-old supremo – who is almost certain to break the CPC’s quarter-century norm to stay in power beyond his second term that ends in 2022-23 – behaves in a Mao-like manner or acts as if he is infallible, all-knowing and almighty, then it isn’t completely ruled out.
Apparently, many people in China, including party members and intellectuals, are now aware of such a danger and some have already publicly voiced their opposition to his rule, ideology and personality cult.