The Chinese Communist Party held its first conference on religious freedom in fifteen years this weekend, in which President Xi Jinping demanded that “unyielding Marxist atheists” impose communism onto the nation’s religious groups. The meeting follows months of growing tensions between the communists in Beijing and blossoming Christian and Muslim underground communities.
“We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists,” Xi said at the meeting, according to the state-run People’s Daily newspaper. Members of the Chinese Communist Party, he warned, must be “unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith, and bear in mind the Party’s tenets.” “We should guide and educate the religious circle and their followers with the socialist core values, and guide the religious people with ideas of unity, progress, peace and tolerance,” he added.
Communists have a special responsibility to steer “teenagers” away from religion, he added, while religious leaders are obligated to “dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress, and favorable for the building of a healthy and civilized society, and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture.”
All religions should promote “Chinese culture… Chinese laws and regulations” for the imposition of “socialist modernization” on society, he continued.
Another state-run publication, the Global Times, notes that communist officials found such a meeting necessary because “religions have developed fast in China,” and are subject to non-communist world views which could endanger the power of China’s embedded communist elite. Such a meeting — especially in light of recent Chinese crackdowns on Muslims in the west, Christians in the east, and Buddhists in Tibet — may be a sign that the communists increasingly fear a religiously-inspired rebellion.
Adding to the impression that the Chinese government increasingly fears religion are repeated assurances in communist media that Beijing is properly handling religious threats. “It has been 15 years since the last national religious working conference was held in 2001. The unusually long interval shows that the country’s religious situation is good in general,” Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the Ethnic and Religious Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, is quoted as saying in the Global Times.
“Hebei Province has a large number of Catholics, while Ningxia is home to many Muslims. The arrangement shows the government’s intention to unite different religious groups, as well as to help them adapt to the socialist society,” a theology professor identified as Li Xiangping adds.
Estimates using information smuggled out of China by pro-religious freedom NGOs estimate that there are up to six million Chinese Catholics nationwide, who do not identify as members of the communist-controlled Patriotic Church but recognize Pope Francis as their ultimate religious authority on earth. They worship in secret “house churches,” hidden to the best of their ability from government officials. “They want to lead us. But those who don’t believe in God cannot lead us,” Father Dong Baolu, a Catholic priest, said in an interview earlier this month.
Those who do not conform are subject to torture in “reeducation” programs or simply disappear. At least five priests have been “disappeared” across China in April alone. A sixth was found dead, a death ruled a “suicide” but widely considered an act of state aggression against the Church by those who knew him.
Most recently, a report surfaced this weekend of an incident occurring on April 14, in which Chinese authorities buried a Christian woman alive with a bulldozer. The woman, a pastor’s wife named Ding Cuimei, was suffocated after standing before a church the Chinese government had decreed must be demolished. Pastor Li Jiangong was buried with his wife, though he managed to survive, clawing his way out.
Muslims, mostly located in Western Xinjiang province, are mostly forbidden from practicing their religion openly, as well. While Beijing allows Muslims of the ethnic Hui minority greater freedom to practice openly — and has even paid for collective voyages to Mecca — ethnic Uighurs face legal repercussions for wearing Islamic garb on public transportation, openly fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, or wearing a burqa. Stores in Xinjiang are mandated to sell multiple varieties of alcohol and cigarettes, both forbidden by the religion. Earlier this month, Chinese officials began advocating “ethnic unity” in Xinjiang, calling for Uighurs to dilute their culture for the traditions of the nation’s majority Han ethnic group.
The Chinese government has also had a long-standing feud with the Buddhists of Tibet. In order to control Buddhism, the government has set up an official database of “living buddhas” sanctioned by the Communist Party. The list excludes the head of the religion, the Dalai Lama, considered the chief living buddha by believers. China’s government has previously accused the Dalai Lama of sympathizing with the Islamic State terrorist group.