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Beijing ups the ante against religious belief

HONG KONG (SE): Leaders of various faith groups have been told by Yu Zhengsheng, a Politburo official, that all religious groups in China must promote Chinese culture and become more compatible with socialism.

UCAN reported Yu as saying that religious leaders are required to form a bridge between the Communist Party and the hundreds of millions of Chinese people that follow the country’s five officially recognised religions—Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism.

State news agency, Xinhua, reported, “He called on religious groups in China to continue adding Chinese characteristics, dig into positive elements in their religions and make more effort in building a religious ideology with Chinese characteristics.”

Yu was flanked by the vice premier, Liu Yandong, and Sun Chunlan, the head of the United Work Front Department, which manages relations with faith groups, at the highest-level meeting between senior officials and religious leaders in months.

National broadcaster, CCTV, carried Yu’s instructions on its evening bulletin on February 4.

Liu Yuanlong, who attended the meeting as the vice director of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, was not immediately available for comment.

Beijing is reported to have postponed a major meeting on religion that was due to be chaired by the president, Xi Jinping, at the end of last year with no explanation. 

Delays in scheduling may be due to problems in drawing up a cohesive religious blueprint for the whole country.

Yu has met regularly with religious groups across the country over the past year as the party makes plans for the meeting.

UCAN says that under Xi, China has veered toward a more repressive policy on religion that has stressed Chinese faiths over those deemed imported from overseas.

The Chinese president has regularly quoted from Confucius, whose popularity has been resurgent in recent years, while Christians, Muslims and Buddhists have complained of growing persecution.

Amid a campaign by the provincial authorities in Zhejiang that has led to the removal of more than 1,500 crosses from Church buildings over the past two years, authorities there have started a new programme that includes efforts to tie bible passages to Communist Party doctrine.

In another major shift towards forming a restrictive state policy on religious practice, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council have issued a circular ordering retired officials to steer clear of religion, Xinhua reported on February 4.

“It clearly states that retired cadres cannot believe in religion, cannot participate in religious activities and must resolutely fight against cults,” the document says, adding that retired officials must distinguish between ethnic customs and believing in religions.

Although Beijing has barred active cadres from practicing religion, it now appears to be worried, as this is the first time a state document has also ordered retired officials not to follow a faith since the party set up its retirement system in 1982.

“Amid rapid economic and social development and an aging population, we have seen... the numbers of retired officials grow every year,” an opinion piece from the party’s personnel arm was quoted by Radio Free Asia as saying on February 5.

“We have seen a number of new issues and problems emerging to do with the outlook, actions and the management of services linked to retired officials,” an explanation of the opinion piece posted on the website of party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said. ”We need to respond to and manage those problems.”

It added, “There is an urgent need to grasp accurately the overall situation and trends among retired officials.”

Retired military personnel are seen as influential in determining public opinion whether in favour of or against the Communist Party, so their drift into underground or House Churches, which are seen as being a dangerous influence in the first place, presents a dilemma for the party.

Democracy advocate in Beijing, Zha Jianguo, told Radio Free Asia, “If you are a party member, then it is reasonable to expect you to follow its leaders. But the party itself is having a crisis of faith, so it can’t afford to allow these people to go off and believe in other faiths.”

Zha explained, “If this wasn’t the case, then they would just let people believe what they want to believe. They are only trying to hold onto (atheism) because it is in crisis.”

Ying Ying-tsang, from the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Radio Free Asia that the party can identify those who have formed an allegiance with a faith and has been rounding them up and telling them that they will not be punished if they renounce their connections.

But he noted that the problem is that they did not join the party because they believed in it, but for the prestige involved, so in retirement are inclined to drift according to their personal inclinations.

Ying said that at the same time as authorities in China are demolishing crosses on churches in Zhejiang, they are also demolishing symbolic crosses in people’s hearts.

How the state plans to enforce the measure remains unclear. A survey conducted by the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society from Purdue University in 2007 found in that as many as 84 per cent of party members admit to some kind of religious belief.


“Many of the exposed corrupt officials of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) are reported to believe in religion or magic, such as patronising and consulting spiritual masters,” Yang Fenggang, the director of the centre, said. “This kind of behaviour is probably common among other officials as well.”

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