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Gratitude and anguish at Xi’s address

HONG KONG (UCAN): Responses from religious groups to remarks made by the president of China, Xi Jinping, during his epic address at the opening of the National Party Congress on October 18 in the Great Hall of the People vary radically, depending on which side the political fence they originate from.
Two of the Christian state-sanctioned organisations in the country, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, were ebullient in their praise, calling it a “major event for Chinese Christianity, (as) it clarifies Christianity’s role and strengthens her constructions.”
As the two organisations arguably most closely related to the government, their responses cite a clear mandate for Christians, as patriotic citizens, to play a role in the strengthening of society and building of a strong nation.
A blog posted on the Tianfeng Magazine website, the official publication of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, describes the new rules as offering policy guarantees through the Sinicisation (manner in which the Church relates to the government) of Christianity.
In a joint statement, the two say the guarantees come in the general principles of these regulations, which are to safeguard the religious freedom of citizens, defend religious and social harmony, regulate religious affairs, improve the level of legal religious work and protect citizens’ religious freedom.
It quotes Xi as saying in his address, “Religious groups are the bridge and link that unite and connect the Party and the government with religious community figures and the larger religious masses.”
Bishop Johan Fang Xinyao, the president of another government construct, the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, describes the remarks made by Xi as providing a fundamental base from which the Church can operate, saying that he points out the way forward for the future development of the Church in China quite clearly.
Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin, the president of the Patriotic Association, adds to the gloss saying that the report from the general secretary of the Party on the past five years is extremely informative and realistic, while praising his grand blueprint for the future as highly inspiring.
Bishop Ma also called on the Church to study the spirit of the congress report carefully, as he stressed that combined with the actual work the Church is doing, it can achieve the goals it aspires to along with all the people of China.
However, religious organisations outside of the government net have not been so bubbly in their responses.
Thomas Muller, from Open Doors, a department of World Watch Research, said, “If this indeed is the role of religions, then it is only consequent that the role they play in the internal affairs of religion must be respected and developed, as well as strive to build a politically credible, democratic and highly efficient leadership group.”
Muller then added, “The fact that the state not just counts on political reliability, but religious credibility as well, is a strong sign that it is becoming more and more totalitarian under the guise of benevolence, protection and patriotism.”
In his speech, Xi reiterated the importance of Chinese nationalism, saying the government will “uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”
An associate professor from the University of New Hampshire, Lawrence Reardon, commented, “Xi will continue to strengthen the Party’s (plan to assert) control over religious non-governmental organisations first approved in 2016, which were designed to prevent the development of an independent civil society.”
Reardon added, “In 2017, Xi followed up with new regulations on religious affairs, which have strengthened the Sinicisation of China’s religions.”
Recent comments from Church leaders within China have offered a variety of perspectives on the regulations promulgated earlier this year that are due to come into force on February 2 next year.
Some have suggested they are mainly focussed on curbing the rise of Islamic extremism and will not greatly affect the Christian Churches, while others believe that local authorities are usually reluctant to enforce regulations on Churches, because they fear creating conflict and instability.
But a third group sees a tightening of restrictions, particularly those related to student and youth work, saying that some local authorities hand out penalties to avoid being criticised by their superiors.
Last year, Muller told the World Watch Monitor the new rules are part of the government attempt to “Sinicise every aspect of Chinese life—be it culture, news or religion.”
He added, “The implications for Chinese Christians remain to be seen, but it might well be that these directives find their way into new regulations affecting the Church in China.”
Muller concluded, “Freedom in all sectors of society has been shrinking since Xi Jinping came into power and there is evidence that the government is also tightening its grip on the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”

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