China Reveals What It Wants to Do with Christianity

Bulldozer death of pastor’s wife draws attention, but president’s long-awaited speech on religion will impact Chinese Christians much more.

In an environment in which the CPC is moving aggressively to rein in all expressions of civil society Xi’s message on religion comes as no surprise. His vision for reasserting control over religion—an area the CPC finds particularly difficult due to the diversity and complex history of China’s various religious communities—combines legal means with tightened supervision over religious doctrine and organizations.

 

The widely reported death by suffocation of Ding Cuimei, the wife of a pastor in China’s Henan province, has shocked Christians worldwide. Ding and her husband were buried as they attempted to prevent their church from being bulldozed by developers.

Ding’s husband managed to crawl to safety, but she did not. Their case highlights again the lack of legal protection for China’s Christians.

In Beijing, meanwhile, a less noticed but more significant event provides insight into how China’s atheistic regime plans to deal with the country’s growing Christian population, projected to become the world’s largest within the next couple decades.

At a long-awaited national conference on religion, held April 22-23 in Beijing, China’s president Xi Jinping called on leaders to take the initiative in reasserting Communist Party of China (CPC) control over religion.

Xi’s speech, his first specifically on religion since coming to power in 2012, delineates a clear hierarchy in which religion is subordinate to state interests. According to Xi, uniting all believers under CPC leadership is necessary to preserve internal harmony while warding off hostile foreign forces that may use religion to destabilize the regime.

Xi’s insistence is not new, nor is it simply a function of China’s Communist rule. Since imperial times, state power has been seen as ultimate. It is, and has always been, the prerogative of the Chinese state to define orthodox belief and to set the boundaries for religious groups whose doctrines fall outside official limits.

In an environment in which the CPC is moving aggressively to rein in all expressions of civil society Xi’s message on religion comes as no surprise. His vision for reasserting control over religion—an area the CPC finds particularly difficult due to the diversity and complex history of China’s various religious communities—combines legal means with tightened supervision over religious doctrine and organizations.

Under the banner “rule by law,” Xi Jinping has overseen the drafting of new legislation and regulations governing nearly every sphere of life, from recreational dancing to national security. Curiously absent has been legislation dealing with religion.

In his recent speech, Xi made several references to regulating religion through law. Now that the first national conference on religion under Xi has been concluded, it is likely that a new law on religion is not far off.

For China’s Christians, such legislation could be a two-edged sword.

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