Chinese government officials announced Thursday that they plan to create a new state-sanctioned version of Christian theology, the latest in an uptick of attempts by the government to curtail the growing influence of religion in Chinese culture.
Speaking to the state-run China Daily newspaper, Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told reporters that the new effort would seek to marry Christian theology with established Chinese norms.
“Over the past decades, the Protestant churches in China have developed very quickly with the implementation of the country’s religious policy,” he said. “The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.”
The exact details of how and where this new theology will be developed were not immediately clear, but the move appears to be part of a long history of complex — and increasingly conflict-ridden — interactions between religion and politics in China. Religion was recast as a superstition and a foreign intrusion during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when many houses of worship were forcibly closed and congregations disbanded by Red Guards. The government has since loosened its grip on spiritual affairs, but the U.S. State Department’s “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013”, released in July, still lists China as a “Country of Particular Concern,” and cited several major hurdles faced by many Chinese seeking to freely express their religious beliefs.
But despite these challenges, most researchers agree that the Christian population in China is substantial — and growing. An official 2010 Chinese government survey reported the existence of about 23.05 million Christians in the country, but a 2011 Pew Research survey estimated that the real number is actually closer to 67 million. Of these, Pew reported that around 9 million are Catholics, 5.7 million of whom are affiliated with the state-controlled Patriotic Catholic Association — which rejects the authority of the Vatican — while another 3.3 million attend “underground” Catholic congregations who still recognize the pope in Rome. The survey also reported that roughly 23 million Chinese affiliate with the government-sanctioned Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, while around 35 million attend “unregistered” Protestant churches or state-approved churches without having formal membership.
As this Christian population rapidly expands, the Communist Chinese government — which is ardently atheist — has started to push back against the religion’s increasingly public role. For years, the pastors and congregants of illegal Protestant “house churches” have been repeatedly detained, imprisoned, and charged for things such as “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” More recently, the government has started forcibly removing crosses from several churches because they “violated zoning regulations.” Even high-profile, state-sponsored churches are starting to feel the heat: despite protests, city officials tore down the famous 180-foot spire of Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou, China in May.
Some, such as Ian Johnson at the New York Times, believe the trend is part of an organized effort on the part of the Chinese government. According to a nine-page provincial policy statement obtained by the Times in May, local politicians have been urged to ramp up efforts to regulate “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious activities — specifically Christianity and its religious symbols, such as crosses.
“The priority is to remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways and provincial highways,” the document read. “Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.”
Analysts speculate the government wants to lessen the influence of Christianity because it is seen as a threat to the established government — especially “underground” Protestantism. According to the Times, a “disproportionate number of lawyers handling prominent [civil rights] cases … are Protestant,” partially because some Chinese Protestants see rights such as freedom of expression as “God-given.”
But the government’s tendency to exact control over religion isn’t just a Christian problem. China is notorious for its harsh treatment of Tibetan Buddhists and members of the Fulan Gong religious sect, and officials have also started to crack down on Islam — particularly the religious practices of Uighurs, a mostly-Muslim minority population that populates China’s troubled western region. Local officials banned fasting during Ramadan, the month-long Muslim celebration of fasting and prayer, in the Xinjiang province earlier this year, arguing that they wanted to “protect students’ wellbeing.” According to the BBC, they also reportedly forced at least three Muslim students to eat and break their fast during that time period.