China Launches ‘Grass-Roots’ Campaign to Silence ‘Illegal’ Religious Beliefs

Chinese Christians pray during a midnight mass on Christmas eve at a church in Beijing, China, Friday, Dec. 24, 2004. Chinese authorities insist that Christians worship only in government-controlled churches. Despite harassment, fines and the possibility of prison, millions of Protestants and Catholics continue to attend unauthorized assemblies, including in …
AP Photo/Str

China’s state-run Global Times newspaper announced a series of “grass-roots” measures to diminish the influence of religion in the lives of individuals, particularly designed to weaken “overseas influence” and manage “illegal” religious practices that do not promote communism.

Under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has adopted increasingly violent measures to intimidate believers out of opening practicing their faith. Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners are among the most persecuted nationwide, facing imprisonment and “re-education” in political brainwashing camps.

While repression of people of faith is not a recent development in China, the Global Times highlights new programs granting local officials greater power to suppress religion influence. “Local governments around China have been regulating and managing illegal religious activities, including in rural areas, as the country steps up efforts to better combine religions with Chinese society,” the newspaper notes.

In Hunan province, for example, local Communist Party officials vowed to “resolve the over-commercialization of Buddhism and Taoism, such as illegally building monasteries and religious statues” and generally “prevent overseas influence.” Local officials are also increasing pressure on religious institutions to “show ‘positive energy'” by participating in communist activities.

The Global Times cites the remarks of one official – State Administration for Religious Affairs director Wang Zuoan – who wrote in a local journal that the government has a responsibility to promote itself through religious teaching.

“Religious freedom does not mean zero management on religious issues, while management does not mean zero respect for religious believers,” Wang reportedly claimed.

China’s Communist Party is facing a significant ideological challenge from religion. Christianity is spreading at a rapid rate; some estimates suggest that as many as 100 million Chinese nationals are Christians, 20 million more than are registered members of the Communist Party. Islam has grown to be a particular concern in Xinjiang, the nation’s westernmost province and home to the majority-Muslim Uighur minority, which Beijing has gone to great lengths to repress. Buddhists, particularly Tibetan Buddhists, reject much of the Communist Party’s material ideology and refuse to participate in government activities.

Fearing that the nationwide religious boom will damage the trustworthiness of Communist Party officials, Beijing added new punishments for party members “who follow a religion” in a code of conduct debuted Monday, according to state media.

State media has also worked to tarnish the image of religious believers through columns that frame religion as antiquated and a threat to modernization. A Global Times piece from August 15 proclaimed that “going back to God reflects a resistance to globalization and a resilience that stems from being marginalized in the process.” The newspaper complained that, in the West, “the trouble is that the faith of the believers is taken as a kind of freedom that must be guaranteed,” and the possibility of religious believers being silenced by government atheists “is almost a taboo in Western civilization.”

Xi’s approach to religion has been to tackle each with individual policies to silence them. For Christianity, Xi’s government has imposed a variety of draconian zoning measures that result in government officials bulldozing churches, taking down crosses, and intimidating Christians out of the public eye. Pastors who preach independently of the Communist Party ideology are routinely arrested and charged with “illegal” religious activity. In February, reports surfaced that Beijing had established “mind transportation centers” where Christians were held hostage and forced to consume communist propaganda.

In Xinjiang, estimates suggest that up to one million Muslims have been forced preemptively into “political re-education centers,” forced to eat pork and listen to incessant atheist propaganda. Many are believed to be tortured in these centers. The U.S. Congress has moved to sanction China for these human rights abuses.

Xinjiang political officials also openly deny that Uighurs are an ethnic Turkic population, despite their genetic and linguistic ties to the global Turkic community.

“The Uyghur people are members of the Chinese family, not descendants of the Turks, let alone anything to do with Turkish people,” Yasheng Sidike, the mayor of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, insisted recently. “The fallacies that claim ‘East Turkistan is our country’ and ‘Uyghur as the native of Xinjiang’ are ridiculous, ignorant and condemnable.”

Buddhists are also being subject to communist propaganda in their temples. This week, Beijing forced the monks at its legendary Shaolin Temple to raise the red Chinese flag as a move to promote loyalty to Xi, infuriating some Buddhists. Beijing has also attempted to actively interfere in the rise of the next Dalai Lama and dismissed the current Dalai Lama as a terrorist affiliated with the Islamic State.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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