Containing and controlling religion has always been a vicious, violent and frequently deadly objective of the Chinese Communist Party.
And that contest has become ever more emotionally charged in recent years as hundreds of millions of Chinese people seek the spiritual and communal solace the CCP no longer offers in its new format as an authoritarian oligarchy.
The CCP sees religious organizations, especially those with firm regional or national roots, as potential challengers to the party’s authority.
Since 1989, when the pro-reform demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square inspired similar uprisings in at least 200 other cities across China, the CCP has been on watch for any movement that might build a national organization.
CCP leaders were startled and alarmed on Sunday morning, April 25, 1999, when guards woke them with the news that between 10,000 and 15,000 protesters were outside the high red walls of their Zhongnanhai compound next to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Falun Gong, Tiananmen
The crowd was protesting the persecution of Falun Gong, a blend of qigong exercises and Buddhist meditation. It was one of many similar movements that became popular in the 1990s as the CCP’s China changed from being a culture promoting equality and social harmony into a rapacious society ruled by a vastly wealthy “Red Aristocracy.”
Two things alarmed the CCP leaders that Sunday morning. One was that more than 10,000 people, most of them middle-aged, had arrived in Beijing from all over the country without the security services having any idea this was about to happen. That suggested Falun Gong had intense internal discipline and security.
And adding to the alarm was that this happened a little more than a month before the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Security in the capital was meant to be especially tight, but it had failed.
Falun Gong was quickly declared an “evil cult” and its followers hunted to near extinction in China. Containing the influence of the group’s international following remains one of the chief duties of Beijing’s diplomats abroad.
History has more immediacy in China than in many other countries. No one, least of all the CCP, forgets that the Qing Dynasty came close to being overthrown in the 1860s by the Taiping Rebellion led by Hong Xiuquan. Hong was outraged by his failure to pass the rigorous civil service exams and win a lucrative and prestigious government job. In revenge, he devised an almost unrecognizable form of Christianity and raised a rebellion that at its height controlled at least a third of China.
It was only with the help of foreign mercenaries that Hong’s “Heavenly Kingdom” was defeated. This enabled ever more foreign colonial incursions into China, and the idea that Christianity is a tool used by western countries to subvert the country remains strong among the CCP.
The CCP followed up the Falun Gong incident by ordering a survey of senior party and military officials. This found that a remarkable proportion followed some sort of “superstitious” practices ranging from simple feng shui to full-blown religious devotion.
The party has intensified its containment of all religions since then, and there was a sure sign of this determination in March last year.
The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the department of the State Council that was formed in 1951 to regulate sanctioned religions, was dissolved. The SARA’s responsibilities were given to the burgeoning United Front Work Department (UFWD), which President and CCP general secretary Xi Jinping has adopted as his regime’s “magic weapon” for ideological penetration and control at home and aboard.
The UFWD has wasted no time in pursuing its new duties with vigor.
In August last year, a United Nations human rights committee said it had credible reports that up to one million Muslim ethnic Uighurs in northwestern Xinjiang province were being held in a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”
The committee went on to report estimates of two million Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities being forced into “political camps for indoctrination.”
Hu Lianhe, deputy director of the UFWD, responded saying “there is no arbitrary detention.” The camps, he said, were “vocational education and employment training centers” for convicted criminals.
Beijing believes that radical Islam and separatist notions are rife among the Uighur population, who the authorities blame for a rash of terrorist attacks across China in recent years.
But continued leaks of information about conditions and treatment in the camps have led to allegations of torture and brainwashing rather than re-education.
Dalai Lama’s successor
In tackling Xinjiang, the party has learned much from its experience in Tibet. There the CCP has been straining with only marginal success since its invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1950 to destroy the political and cultural influence of Tibetan Buddhism and its leader, the Dalai Lama, who is in exile in northern India.
The Dalai Lama is now 83 years old and both his followers and the CCP are looking towards his reincarnated successor.
The CCP made a forceful pre-emptive strike to control the succession in 1995 when a senior monk, one of whose roles is to discover the new reincarnation of a dead Dalai Lama, died. Beijing kidnapped the new Panchen Lama identified by the Dalai Lama, and that boy, who will be 30 years old later this month, has not been heard from since. In his place, Beijing got subservient Tibetan monks to identify another boy as the new Panchen Lama, who has been raised to manhood under CCP control.
Last month the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman said the next Dalai Lama must be chosen in line with Beijing’s regulations on the “Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas.” These rules stipulate that only the CCP can validate the reincarnation of a monk.
It is now inevitable that there is going to be a major schism when the Tibetans and Beijing identify two rival reincarnated Dalai Lamas. That will not trouble Beijing. The CCP thrives on creating confusion among its adversaries.
Beijing has done an excellent job of befuddling the Catholic Church and the Vatican after decades of negotiations on mutual recognition.
Deal with Vatican
There have been both underground and public Catholic congregations totalling about 12 million people in China since the CCP came to power in 1949.
A major barrier to mutual recognition has been the CCP’s insistence that priests, bishops and cardinals must all be approved by the party and be ultimately answerable to the Beijing regime. This has been unacceptable to the Vatican, both as the arbiter of Catholic Christian doctrine and as a nation state with full diplomatic rights and responsibilities.
In the provisional accord made last September, Pope Francis agreed to recognize seven bishops of the open church that had been appointed by the CCP, while Beijing in return said it would accept some of the underground bishops appointed by the Vatican.
In the future, the CCP and Catholic communities in China will give the Vatican lists of approved candidates from which to select bishops. But China has already reneged on elements in the deal by detaining one of the revealed secret bishops. This has prompted Joseph Zen, the retired cardinal of Hong Kong and a vehement critic of the CCP, to call the agreement “an incredible betrayal,” and to accuse the Pope of “giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves.”
Protestant Christian churches in China have about 100 million followers, but only about 30 million of those attend government-approved churches. The remaining 70 million Protestants go to clandestine “house churches” that are a particular target of suppression by government agents.
‘1 million persecuted’
Since President Xi began his program of “Sinicization of Religion” raids on house churches, and the detention of congregations and pastors has intensified dramatically. China Aid, a Texas-based group that gathers and publishes information on the plight of Protestant Christianity in China, says that more than 5,000 people were detained and 500 given prison sentences last year, increases of around 40% over 2017.
In addition about a million people – three-and-half times more than in 2017 – were “persecuted.” By this China Aid means they were subjected to penalties like losing their jobs or other sanctions on their daily lives.
One aim now appears to be to spark a movement among ordinary Chinese against secret Christian churches. Last week Guangzhou, at the hub of the Pearl River Delta close to Hong Kong, became the first major city in China to offer rewards to people who report “illegal religious activities.”
Informants can earn up to the equivalent of $1,500 for giving the authorities a tip-off leading to the arrest of a foreign religious leader. About half that amount is on offer for information leading to the closure of local secret “house” churches and their pastors.