China’s Renewed Push to Tame Religion – Analysis – Eurasia Review
By Kalpit A Mankikar and Amit Kumar
Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently met with leaders of the Clergy Association. The deliberations appear to point to the future trajectory of organized religion in China. Wang stressed the need to build a contingent of “politically reliable” clerics to ensure that the leadership of the Church remains with those who feel affection for their nation and religion. He told the representatives of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church of China that Chinese culture and language should be the basis for the interpretation of religious doctrines and that it was important to promote the “sinicization” of Catholicism. It is important to note that the leader who is number 4 in the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants the Church to repel “infiltration by foreign forces” and protect “the security and development interests” of China.
The unease between CCP religion and organized religion is becoming apparent. While Chinese President Xi Jinping has refrained from overseas travel since the start of the pandemic, in the run-up to the Party Congress in October, he visited all the restive regions – Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. During his trip to Xinjiang, Xi stressed the need for Islam in China to conform to Chinese sensibilities.
At the National Conference of Religious Work held in April 2016, while emphasizing the need to develop a socialist theory of religion with Chinese characteristics, Xi Jinping reiterated patriotism and socialism as two cardinal virtues that every religion should adhere to. Furthermore, he also warned against any religious interference in the government administration and called for resolute guarding against any infiltration abroad through religious institutions. To further consolidate the party’s grip on religion, the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), which previously oversaw religious affairs, was integrated into the United Front Department of the CPC Central Committee in 2018.
Cassock, carrot and stick
The CCP uses both coercion and co-option to ensure that organized religion does not threaten its existence and instead remains aligned with its interests.
Hong Kong had until recently remained relatively free from CCP control over religious affairs, due to its special status guaranteed by the Basic Law, but the island now appears to be the renewed focus of this project. . However, with the enactment of the National Security Law in June 2020, followed by changes to legislative and electoral procedures, Beijing has already tamed institutions it deems recalcitrant. Now it’s the turn of one of the last pockets of resistance: The cleric-activist. In an important interaction in October 2021, mainland bishops met their counterparts in Hong Kong to urge them to preach “religion with Chinese characteristics.”
Concerns over national security law in Hong Kong have led many places of worship to back off from holding the annual mass in memory of those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. However, a Methodist Ward Memorial , rebel, went ahead and organized a prayer meeting. Some people also remain unfazed. The retired head of the Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, regularly participated in pro-democracy protests and vigils to mark the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown. He also attended to trials involving activists and visited the prisons where they were incarcerated. Recently, Cardinal Joseph Zen was arrested under the National Security Law and charged with colluding with foreign forces.
However, in 2018, Vatican City and China reached an agreement regarding the appointment of bishops in the Roman Catholic Church. Although the details of the agreement are still secret, it would grant the pope the right to appoint bishops to the Roman Catholic Churches in China from a pool of candidates nominated by Chinese authorities. Cardinal Zen had been at the forefront of opposing the deal and even visited the Vatican in 2020 to dissuade the pope from renewing it further. He accused the Holy See of betraying underground Catholics and selling them to the Chinese state. However, despite its objection, the Vatican extended the agreement for another two years which is due to expire in October 2022.
The agreement appears to have been to the CCP’s advantage as it advances the idea that members of the religious denomination can adhere to both Catholic preaching and Chinese-style Communism. Above all, it gives the CCP leverage over the internal dynamics of the Church.
Lessons on the Cold War
Part of the CCP’s paranoia about organized religion stems from the means employed by the United States in the 1980s that precipitated the downfall of its fraternal regimes in Eastern Europe. Edwin Meese, who served as US President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, reveals that the West adopted a strategy of mobilizing resistance against communism without the use of powerful tools such as the military and the support of anti-Marxist groups . US National Security Advisor Richard Allen has called the Vatican-US axis “one of the great secret alliances of all time”.
This pact between the Vatican and the Reagan administration ensured that there was an osmosis of crucial intelligence inputs. Poland was chosen as the location for implementing this strategy because it was steeped in religion. Thus, a Polish trade union such as Solidarity received financial support from the United States and the Vatican.[i] As in Hong Kong, Poland then declared martial law and in a crackdown members of the Solidarity union were arrested, several activists have been arrested since the enactment of Hong Kong’s national security legislation in 2020 Poland had then severed communication with the outside world, and Today, Hong Kong is becoming more insular. This was compounded in both cases by centralized political authority and economic hardship (due to the COVID-19 outbreak and China’s response to it). At the time, in Poland, out of a population of 35 million, almost percent owed allegiance to the Church. Hong Kong government estimates reveal that in 2020, out of a total population of 7.2 million, the strength of the Protestant and Catholic faiths were 500,000 and 403,000 respectively.
National security quest
Renewed efforts to push the sinicization of religion on the island appear to have been motivated by an assessment that Hong Kong could become useful to the West as a beachhead against the CCP. This can be demonstrated by the political and security dynamics of the island. While in the past personalities linked to the civil administration or from trade and industry came to the head of the special administrative region, today, people close to the establishment or from the security services are increasingly more appreciated. The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO), an agency that supports Beijing in dealing with issues related to the island, is headed by Xia Baolong, who incidentally was responsible for demolishing Christian churches on the continent. Xia is an ally of Xi Jinping, and Xia’s newly appointed HKMAO deputy, Wang Linggui, is a national security expert.
Another facet that emerges is the ability of an atheistic CCP to co-opt even the teaching of the pious. The Church has followed a policy of “inculturation,” which seeks to incorporate elements of local culture into the faith. The CCP seems to take inspiration from it, but in reality, “Sinicization” underlines the primacy of the Party-state in the prerequisites of religion. Additionally, the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government – an agency that was established by Beijing in Hong Kong under the National Security Law – has called national security one of of the main requirements for the stability and stability of the city-state. long-term development of the “one country, two systems” framework in which it is governed. The need to tame the tastes of the activist cleric also stems from the priorities of the new Hong Kong administration.
Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city-state’s mini-constitution, it is incumbent on the Hong Kong administration itself to enact laws to prohibit acts that endanger national security. During the election campaign, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, John Lee, had indicated that the enactment of legislation, which would complement the national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020, was his priority. On previous occasions, such as in 2003, when the administration attempted to legislate Section 23, it drew protesters to the island. Lee’s predecessor, Carrie Lam, also toyed with the idea but dropped the issue as it remains a political hot potato. Religious freedom attrition in Hong Kong will continue as it gravitates toward greater political unity with Beijing and security dominates political discourse on the island.
[i] Tony Judt, Post-war: a history of Europe since 1945 (Penguin, 2005), p. 589.