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No good news for religion at Party Congress

HONG KONG (SE): During his three-and-a-half hour presentation at the beginning of the Nineteenth Congress of the Communist Party of China, the general secretary of the party and president of China, Xi Jinping, embedded the process of Sinicisation of religion into what is anticipated to become a dogma of belief under the banner of the Thoughts of Xi Jinping.
Speaking on October 18 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, his epic address on the theme of Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, was big on promises and short on detail.
However, on religion he was a little more concrete, reinforcing previous statements that the party will fully implement its policy on religious work, by upholding the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, while at the same time ensuring that the party will provide active guidance to religions so they can adapt themselves correctly to a socialist society.
In a veiled reference to Islam, Xi spoke about religions in the context of protecting the national security against any act of infiltration, subversion or sabotage, as well as providing a shield against violent terrorist activities or ethnic separatism movements.
In recent times, Islam has attracted special attention, as since 2009, when sectarian riots killed almost 200 people in the Xinjiang province in the far-west of China, the party has sought to crush the culture of the ethnic Uyghur Muslim people who were once a majority in their homeland.
Christians have not been left unscathed either, as dozens of priests, bishops and pastors are in jail, mostly from the unofficial Catholic communities or the Protestant House Churches that are not registered with the government.
But the caution against foreign interference can also be extended to cover foreign infiltration of any kind and can be especially relevant to all Christian Churches.
But to the Catholic Church it can have a particular barb in the context of the current discussions going on between the Vatican and Beijing, which are believed to have a primary orientation towards papal authority in the appointment of bishops.
The guidance being given to the religious sectors insists on an independent principle of religion and for the Catholic Church.
This is specifically interpreted as electing and ordaining bishops on its own authority as a form of strengthening its patriotism and independence, presumably from the Vatican.
In his address to the 2,287 delegates at the October 18 to 24 congress, Xi implied that the approach to religion would basically follow the lines that he established in 2015 at a meeting of the United Work Front Department, which will remain the core of religious theory for socialism with Chinese characteristics.
AsiaNews quoted Ying Fuk-tsang, from the Divinity School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as being more specific in his description saying that it is to bring control of all religious thought and activity under the control of the Communist Party.
As the presidents of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin and Bishop Johan Fang Xingyao were among ˛leaders of the five religions who were invited to the meeting along with 74 special guests.
Sinicisation has proven to be a tricky process for religions in China and is usually interpreted in the Catholic Church as adapting religion to fit in more with the policies and principles of socialism as practiced in China under the Communist Party.
AsiaNews reported that at the National Conference on Religious Works in 2016, where Xi delivered a keynote address, the president outlined a series of new thoughts and views, as well as new requirements on religious works and mapped out a series of decisions, which were strengthened in his speech to the congress this year.
Michael Sainsbury, from UCAN, notes that the 2016 conference had much significance, as Xi himself fronted up at an unprecedented party summit on religions.
All but one of the top seven cadres in the Communist Party attended. After that, new rules to tighten control over religion were promulgated.
Both the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the United Work Front Department have frequently mentioned the need to map out important strategies for various religions in their press releases during the past 12 months.
But in his policy address at the congress, Xi also placed religion in the context of culture, calling it a major step in developing a socialist society and strengthening the rule of law by developing what he called a consultative democracy.
He stressed the importance of consolidation of a patriotic united front and adopting a new approach for works related to ethnic and religious affairs.
In a shift from previous administrations in China when the bulk of the government attention was focussed on groups like the Falun Gong, Xi has turned his attention to the recognised religions; Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Islam and Daoism.
Two of them, Buddhism and Daoism, are recognised as being local religions and have been more or less encouraged, except for Tibetan Buddhism, which Sainsbury points out has become one of the most persecuted religions on earth.
However, the other three are regarded as being foreign imports rather than home grown expressions of faith and are treated with suspicion rather than welcomed as having a positive contribution to make to the development and life of Chinese society.
Displaying a stamina that would rival Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Singapore’s Lee Kwan-yew at the zenith of their long-winded powers, Xi had something for everybody in his marathon speech, including the allusion to riches in the future, but he did not give much away on how the country might get there.
While China has made great strides in lifting half a billion people out of dire poverty, the masses are a long way off being rich and most are nowhere near being even middle class.
If he has a plan for how this can be achieved and how inequality can be overcome, he kept his cards close to his chest.
However, in terms of detail, religion fared a bit better, as the concrete policies that Xi pledged to uphold have already been laid down and are currently in the process of being introduced.

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