While China continues its decades-long trade with the West, the officially atheist ruling Communist Party is engaging in a new effort to dictate and even displace the practice of religious faith in the country.
The Associated Press reported that under President Xi Jinping, regarded as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, Christian believers are “seeing their freedoms shrink dramatically even as the country undergoes a religious revival.”
“Experts and activists say that as he consolidates his power, Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982,” according to AP.
The Associated Press featured the story of the March raid of an unofficial “underground” church in Henan province, the “heartland” of Christianity in China, by dozen of police officers and local officials that dispersed frightened congregants.
The crackdown is part of a broader push by Xi to infuse the nation’s religions with “Chinese characteristics,” particularly loyalty to the Communist Party.
Hundreds of private Christian house churches have been shut down in recent months, and a statement last week from 47 churches in Beijing said they had faced “unprecedented” harassment since February.
China, according to some estimates, has more than 100,000 Christians among its 1.3 billion people. Some two-thirds of Chinese Christians attend an illegal or “unregistered” house church.
The communist government in recent years has allowed many unregistered Protestant house churches to grow, particularly smaller gatherings, while cracking down on others. But this year the persecution has intensified amid a “thought reform,” or political indoctrination, campaign, the Associated Press said.
The South China Morning Post reported last November that communist officials visited Christians’ homes in Yugan county of Jiangxi province, urging them to replace personal religious displays with posters of President Xi. More than 600 complied, the Hong Kong paper said.
“Through our thought reform, they’ve voluntarily done it,” claimed a Yugan official, Qi Yan, in an interview with AP. “The move is aimed at Christian families in poverty, and we educated them to believe in science and not in superstition, making them believe in the party.”
Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AP he believes Xi is a “closet Maoist,” who is “very anxious about thought control.”
“He definitely does not want people to be faithful members of the church, because then people would profess their allegiance to the church rather than to the party, or more exactly, to Xi himself,” Lam said.
Xi warned in 2016 at a religion conference that China “must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.”
In February, Christianity Today reported, the government enacted new regulations requiring religious groups to obtain government approval for any religious activity, including using one’s personal home for meetings, publishing religious materials, calling oneself a pastor and studying theology.
Last August, in a New York Times op-ed, Chinese student Derek Lam wrote that the Communist Party “is very close to completing its mission of bringing Christianity under its thumb.”
“Although there is nothing I would love more than to become a pastor and preach the gospel in Hong Kong, I will never do so if it means making Jesus subservient to Xi Jinping,” he wrote.
In its most recent survey of the persecution of Christians worldwide, Open Doors observed that in China “the distinction between government-registered and unregistered churches used to be a major factor in whether or not they were persecuted” but “this is no longer the case.”
“All Christians are slandered, which seems to support the widely held belief that the Communist Party is banking on a unified Chinese cultural identity to maintain its power.”
During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, the government completely banned religious life. In 1979, amid the economic reforms, the government-controlled Protestant Three-Self Movement was restored. In 1980, the China Christian Council was established as an umbrella organization for all Protestant churches. For Catholics, the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church operates with no ties to the Vatican, and Catholics who acknowledge the authority of the pope have been subject to persecution.