Chinese President Xi Jinping this week asked religious groups to pledge their loyalty to the state and warned that religions in China must be independent of foreign influence. At a time when China’s Christians now outnumber the membership of the Communist Party, some say there is an intensifying crackdown on religious groups.
China’s Communist Party is officially atheist and has long seen religion as a threat to its rule.
Chinese citizens are barred from attending religious services with foreigners, and missionary work is banned. China also rejects foreign appointments at churches, such as those made by the Vatican.
But despite all the controls, religious belief is spreading. There are an estimated 100 million Christians, more than the total membership of the Communist Party. Among Communist Party members too, there is a surge of interest in Buddhism and other beliefs.
Speaking at a high-level meeting earlier this week, President Xi said, “active efforts should be made to incorporate religions into socialist society.”
Sources with firsthand experience in China of how authorities are cracking down say that there is no question that under President Xi Jinping, the government has steadily increased its surveillance of religious groups.
Christian aid workers also feel they are under greater scrutiny, with threats of detention or deportation.
“The leadership becomes nervous when the growth of Christianity becomes obvious, or when any social movement experiences exponential growth, such as Christianity is experiencing right now,” one source said.
One of the ways the government is trying to co-opt religion is by using its push to establish the rule of law or what some call "rule by law." In the province of Zhejiang a massive effort is underway to remove crosses from churches.
Bo Fu, a pastor and founder of China Aid, a group that provides legal aid to Christians in China says that over the past year or so, nearly 1,000 churches in Zhejiang, most of them state-sanctioned, have either been demolished or had their crosses forcibly removed.
“The crackdown and persecution against Christianity, in particular, has really accelerated to a level that is perhaps the worst in two decades," Fu said. "The kind of crackdown on government sanctioned churches is the worst since the Cultural Revolution.”
Fu said some believe the crackdown is an attempt by the Communist Party Secretary of Zhejiang, Xiao Baolong, to win favor and possibly a higher-ranking position in the government. Fu says he believes it is more of an effort by authorities to try and experiment with ways of containing Christianity in a part of the country where membership is strong.
“To use Zhejiang as a kind of experiment to see how much response from the local religious community, especially the local Christian community and how much response the international community will have. It is kind of a testing case for the next step, to apply it on a national level," he said.
Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based China analyst, says President Xi’s focus on rooting out foreign influence is old rhetoric. He says the one new twist seems to be a focus on the positive role that religious leaders can play in promoting a harmonious society.
In his remarks Xi acknowledged the contribution of religious people and says he will encourage them to continue working for China's economic, social and cultural development as well as unity of ethnic groups and unification of the country, according to Xinhua.
Sisci says that in the past, the party has mentioned the positive role religious leaders can play, but President Xi’s remarks are different.
“Here we go a step further, saying that religious figures, priests or whomever they are, have to play a bigger role, this to me is more important that foreign forces," Sisci said.
He says that while the statement can be viewed from both a positive and negative perspective, depending on one’s point of view, he sees an opportunity for more freedom with the focus on rule of law and the role that religious leaders are being asked to play.
That said, he adds, the old forces will still try to contain any new thinking on religion.