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China tightens grip on religion with bureaucratic overhaul

Hong Kong (UCAN): China’s Communist Party has further stepped up control over all religions, dissolving its long-standing State Administration for Religious Affairs bureau and handing its functions over to the feared United Front Work Department.
The move was announced at the close of the meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress in Beijing in mid-March, and is part of a comprehensive bureaucratic overhaul of the entire Chinese bureaucracy and comes only seven weeks after new, stricter rules on religion were introduced on February 1.
The Xinhua News Agency reported, “The CPC (Communist Party of China) exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavour in the country, and the reform is meant to strengthen the Party’s leadership in all areas and improve the structure of the Party organisation, according to the plan.
“The plan says that some state institutions previously under the leadership of the State Council have been dissolved or integrated into a new agency under the leadership of the CPC Central Committee, such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, and Ministry of Supervision and National Bureau of Corruption Prevention.”
According to Feng Yue, a political science expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “The core of this reform is to reinforce and strengthen the Party leadership and adjust the political system of the Party-State management in China.”
While the United Front— described by the president, Xi Jinping, as a “magic weapon”—previously had policy control over religion, it now has day to day oversight and direct control over the state-run organisations of all five official religions including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Chinese Bishop’s Conference.
It exercises control over religious appointments, the selection of clergy and the interpretation of religious doctrine.
The move comes at a time when the Catholic Church is deep in talks with Beijing about normalising the appointment of bishops.
Rumours were swirling that a deal would be announced to coincide with Holy Week, but it is unclear if Vatican diplomats were aware of China’s wholesale changes to the management of religion ahead of the announcement.
Or Yan Yan, a project officer with Justice and Peace Commission in Hong Kong, described the move as “a major step backwards in religious work.”
She said, “On the mainland it used to be the ‘government managing religions,’ but now they are not afraid of going backwards and directly showing the outside world its ‘the Party managing religion’.” 
It reflects the fact the Party will not loosen its control over religion and ideology at all, she added.
In addition, the Party’s Central Propaganda Department has taken over the work involving ideology including management of the press and publications and the review of feature and documentary films.
Sang Pu, a critic of the Party from Hong Kong, noted that the unified management of religious work by the United Front emphasises the Party’s absolute power, which is contrary to the direction China has pursued in recent decades. 

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