China Tightens Control on Religion

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Promised ‘changes’ at odds with widespread crackdown on Chinese Christians.

by Xu Mei

NANJING, China, November 16 (Compass) -- Last week before his resignation as U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell said relations between China and the U.S. were at the best point they had been in more than 30 years, according to Agence France-Presse. However, that relationship may change as further evidence emerges of a widespread crackdown on the Chinese church.

A series of arrests and raids occurred during the months of September and October, indicating that a new crackdown was underway, even as the government professed its willingness to change.

Pastor Cai Zhuohua, a well-known house church leader, was among those arrested. Cai and his wife are currently awaiting trial in Beijing.

On November 9, Compass reported that Chinese officials had publicly declared a new openness to changes in religious policy. However, that promise was tempered by the words of Ji Wenyuan, deputy director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), who said China’s situation was unique and any change must be carefully considered.

Meanwhile, evidence has emerged that the government issued three new internal directives in August calling for much tighter control of religion. The information was published in the September issue of a Chinese-language magazine printed in Hong Kong.

According to the report in Zheng Ming, the new directives address three issues: the conversion of Communist Party members, the growth of religion and religious organizations across the country, and the increase of religious activity on university campuses.

The first document, dated August 12, deals with the issue of Communist Party members converting to religious faiths. The government admits that over the past three years, 230 top Party cadres in a handful of provinces became believers and were dismissed from the Party as a result.

The new edict re-affirms that no Party member can openly or secretly join any religious organization. A thorough purge of those who had secretly converted is expected.

The second document, released on August 17, calls for much tighter control of religious affairs by Communist Party officials. A detailed investigation was ordered into the growth of religion and religious organizations in every part of the country.

In typical Chinese style, the document lists “Four Don’ts” and “Five Prohibitions” which from now on would govern religious affairs.

The Four Don’ts basically rule out the establishment of any form of relationship with a foreign religious organization.

The Five Prohibitions spell this out in greater detail. Chinese religious organizations are prohibited from establishing any “subordinate relationship” with overseas religious bodies. They are also banned from using propagation of religion to carry out social activities “of a political nature” and from undertaking any religious activities which are contrary to the Chinese constitution.

Religious organizations are also prohibited from making converts or setting up religious organizations among Party, government or judicial organs.

This second document reveals the extent to which religion, particularly Christianity, has grown in recent years. It states that “hostile religious forces” have infiltrated the government at many levels. The government is particularly concerned about religion becoming a powerful rallying force for unemployed workers who are a growing segment of the Chinese population.

The blunt statement that religion is still an “important component part in the overall strategy of the West against China” proves that stereotypical Maoist images of Christianity are still very much alive in Beijing’s ruling circles.

Alarmingly, this second document calls for a specific crackdown on the “rampant” growth of religious believers in 10 provinces: Guangdong, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Beijing, Fujian, Zhejiang, Hunan, Hebei, Henan and Chongqing.

Meanwhile, a third policy document released on August 22 prohibits all religious activities in institutions of higher learning. No religious rites or buildings will be allowed on university campuses, and any teaching staff or students who belong to the Communist Party but attend religious meetings will be forced to resign from the Party.

Directives Already Enforced

This comprehensive yet secretive tightening of religious controls may account for the closure of four printing presses in recent months and the September arrest of Pastor Cai Zhuohua, a prominent Beijing house church leader.

Pastor Cai, 32, was kidnapped by three plain clothes police officers on September 11. Cai’s wife and two other relatives were arrested on September 27.

Chinese sources told the U.S.-based China Aid Foundation that the pastor faces an extremely harsh sentence because of his role in Beijing house church leadership and his alleged role in the printing and distribution of illegal religious materials.

Officials apparently found about 200,000 copies of the Bible and other Christian literature in a storage room managed by Cai.

However, authorities may convict Cai on trumped up criminal charges such as tax evasion or illegal business management rather than purely religious charges.

According to a China Aid source, the government has labeled this “the most serious case of overseas religious infiltration since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.”

Another source told China Aid that this case is part of a broader national campaign that began in June against the underground church and so-called “illegal” or unauthorized religious publications.

Olympic Pressure

The Chinese government is no doubt aware that a full-scale crackdown on the Chinese church at this point in time would lead to an international outcry, particularly in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing in 2008.

Religious issues are a potential source of embarrassment for the Games. At the recent South East Asian Games held in Vietnam in December 2003, some Vietnamese Christians seized the opportunity to protest on the steps of government buildings, attracting international media attention and severely embarrassing the Communist government.

As one source in China told Compass last week, this new crackdown may be an effort to “tidy things up” before the Olympics, to prevent similar incidents in Beijing.

China’s desire to increase its standing on the international scene may account for the public promises made in October to soften religious policy. These promises were perhaps an effort to deflect attention away from an increasingly serious crackdown on the Chinese church.

As one China observer told Compass, “The government seems locked into a defensive mindset which makes it unwilling to consider reform -- let alone the liberalization of China’s repressive system of religious control.

“Recent serious ethnic disturbances among Chinese Muslims in central China, as well as the explosive role of religion on the international scene, may cause [the Chinese regime] to further retreat from necessary updating of its religious policies.

“If so, this will only make the ‘problem of religion’ more intractable in the longer term.”