Chinese officials and residents in a rural area of Jiangxi province have revealed a government plan to “melt the hard ice” in the hearts of Christians towards communism by denying them pivotal poverty relief packages if they do not replace images of Jesus in their households with photos of President Xi Jinping.
One official stated that the move was necessary because Christians are “ignorant” and need to be taught to worship the state, not God.
The move is the latest in a string of crackdowns against Christianity in the Xi era. Xi’s regime views Christianity, which has experienced a popularity boom in the past decade, as a challenge to the supremacy of the Communist Party’s growing cult of personality around Xi himself.
The South China Morning Post first picked up on the social media posting that revealed the program, noting that the post showed someone replacing their Christian images with Xi Jinping’s official headshot and praised local Communist Party officials for having transformed locals “from believing in religion to believing in the party.”
The social media post tracked efforts in the town of Huangjinbu, in southeastern Jiangxi province. It claimed that up to 600 residents had “voluntarily” replaced their images of Jesus, resulting in 453 new photos of Xi hanging on living room walls.
The Washington Post, which also reported on the post, noted that Communist Party officials in Yugan county in Jiangxi, where Huangjinbu is located, had noted with panic the rapid growth of the region’s Christian population an expressed “a sense of crisis” about it in a regional meeting in October. This new effort may have been a result of brainstorming to solve the problem of more people believing in Jesus than communism.
The South China Morning Post confirmed the efforts with Qi Yan, identified as “chairman of the Huangjinbu people’s congress.”
“Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their savior. … After our cadres’ work, they’ll realise their mistakes and think: we should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help,” Qi told the newspaper. Some, he added, became Christians due to “illness in the family,” which the communists argue can only be cured through “the Communist Party and General Secretary Xi.”
Qi claimed that the government has only forced individuals to place photos of Xi over their Christian images in “the center of their home,” not their bedrooms or other private areas.
A local resident, which the South China Morning Post identified as “Liu,” stated that many families were forced to remove their images because they would otherwise not receive their poverty relief packages, putting their lives in jeopardy.
Christian persecution has become a hallmark of Xi-era Chinese Communist Party (CPC) rule, both due to Xi’s efforts to amass power and Christian groups’ efforts to spread the word of the Gospels. The former have been more successful than those of Xi’s recent predecessors, and Xi himself became the most powerful (CPC) chairman in modern memory at the party’s congress in October, where the party enshrined his name in the constitution, alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The Washington Post, in their piece on Huangjinbu, notes that some Chinese media have begun referring to Xi as “Great Leader,” a title previously reserved for Mao.
Xi prepared for his elevation at the party congress by severely limiting the mobility of Christian leaders, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA). At the time, RFA reported that the party had “slapped a travel ban on a number of Christian believers” in southern China, preventing them from traveling to conferences in Hong Kong where they may speak openly about their persecution. Some, friends and family say, were arrested or simply went missing.
China only formally allows two Christian churches to practice: the Catholic Church and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a state-controlled Protestant entity. All open Christian worship is heavily regulated and officials control who delivers sermons and what they say during services. Even in more autonomous regions like Hong Kong, the Communist government has exerted its control over Christian events. Hong Kong Christian activist Derek Lam, for example, noted in an August New York Times column that Beijing had begun hijacking Christian youth events to promote “One Belt, One Road,” a communist infrastructure project intended to grant China complete dominance of the Asian economy.
Most Christians in China are estimated not to belong to either of the legal churches, but to worship in underground “house” churches, which are illegal. Researchers have estimated the total Christian population in China to be around 100 million, compared to 85 million members of the CPC.