A procession of Chinese Catholics. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

February 17, 2021   5 mins

Religious freedom in China is facing the most severe crackdown since the Cultural Revolution — and most people don’t even realise. Yes, in the past year, the plight of the predominantly Muslim Uighurs has drawn increasing attention. At least a million, perhaps as many as three million, have been incarcerated in prison camps, where they face systematic torture, rape, slave labour and forced sterilisation. Likewise, the continued persecution of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual discipline in the Buddhist tradition, has inspired worldwide condemnation.

But far less known is the brutal, and intensifying, repression of China’s Christians. For while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime has always repressed religion in general, Christianity has always been its biggest target. This is partly a result of the Party’s promotion of atheism, as well its nervousness towards any gathering of people that it does not control. But it is also rooted in its fear that Christianity represents a “foreign” threat to its way of life, albeit one that the CCP hasn’t quite worked out how to deal with.

Under Mao Zedong, the Party attempted to eliminate Christianity altogether, though it succeeded only in driving the church underground. Indeed, as Deng Xiaoping started to open up the economy in the 1980s, the regime realised that the Church could not be eradicated so sought to control it instead; re-establishing state-approved church institutions for Catholics and Protestants that had been shut during the Cultural Revolution, while continuing to persecute underground congregations.

There then followed a period of varied relaxation in which, while there was never religious freedom, the situation for some Christians did improve, depending on the attitudes of provincial authorities. Some local leaders turned a blind-eye to gatherings of unregistered churches, as long as they did not directly challenge the CCP. In other places, even large unregistered “mega churches” were permitted; Beijing’s Zion Church operated for years with hundreds of worshippers, while the Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi province attracted a staggering 50,000 members.

But now China is in a fourth era — one of severe repression, propaganda and central control. Since he became President in 2013, Xi Jinping has taken an active interest in policy on religion, and initiated several national-level conferences dedicated to its “Sinicisation”. They culminated in the introduction of new regulations in 2018; today, even churches within the state-controlled institutions face new restrictions. Officially, the regime estimates that there are 50 million Christians in China today, though the real figure is believed to be at least double that number.

Every church is now forced to demonstrate its loyalty to the CCP by displaying portraits of Xi Jinping and party propaganda banners alongside, or even instead of, religious images. Surveillance cameras are installed at the altar, recording all who attend, while under-18s are prohibited from going into places of worship at all. Meanwhile, Christians on low incomes have been pressured by officials to give up their faith, with threats that their state support could be withheld.

Most dramatically, thousands of crosses have been torn down and some churches have not only been closed, but demolished. In 2018 alone, the Golden Lampstand Church was dynamited, Zion Church was forced to close and the Home of Christ Church in Shantou, Guangdong province, was shut after the authorities called it an “illegal religious organisation”.

Christmas and the Bible are now in the regime’s sights, too. In 2019, the CCP announced its intention to produce a new translation of the Bible, which would bring it into line with the party’s “thought” by reinterpreting key passages. Last Christmas, they banned all festive activities, with the exception of attending government-sanctioned churches and family gatherings at home. Even so, groups of so-called “Pro-Mao” citizens reportedly marched through the streets in subsequent days, proclaiming anti-Christian messages. Some universities prohibited students from celebrating the holiday and banned them from attending off-campus events.

But in many ways, the CCP regards Christianity as an external threat — as a “foreign” force intent on undermining the country’s way of life. We can see this in the publication last November of a new draft document on regulations for foreigners’ involvement in religious activities. In effect, the new measures prohibit Chinese religious adherents from participating in activities organised by foreigners in China, and criminalise proselytisation — or even religious education and training — completely.

This wariness towards Christianity’s “foreign” elements partly explains why in Hong Kong, where the rule of law is being dismantled by the CCP, religious freedom is particularly under pressure. Consider the case of pastor Roy Chan, whose Good Neighbour North District Church was raided by police last year, an act of retaliation for Chan’s decision to support young pro-democracy protestors. “Beat me, not the kids,” Chan said at the time. And he was beaten — not just by the police but by HSBC which, under pressure from the authorities, have frozen the assets of the church, pastor Chan, and his family.

But while some religious leaders in in the city continue to speak out against this crackdown, others, including Hong Kong’s current Apostolic Administrator, Cardinal John Tong, are not showing similar courage. When the President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences Cardinal Charles Bo tried to mobilise a prayer campaign for Hong Kong last year, the diocese actively discouraged it. A few weeks later, Cardinal Tong issued an instruction to clergy to “watch your language” in homilies, and the diocese has since published religious textbooks with guidance on how Hong Kong students can “contribute to their nation” — a clear pro-Beijing slant. Whether it wants to or not, the diocese is undoubtedly feeling — or at least anticipating — the CCP’s pressure.

Yet none of this dissuaded the Vatican from renewing its two-year-old agreement with the regime in China over the appointment of bishops in September 2020. First negotiated in 2018, the text of the agreement remains secret but it essentially allows the Chinese Communist Party to nominate bishops, for final approval by the Pope. In the Vatican’s mind, the aim was to better protect Catholics in China and bring the state-approved and underground churches together, but it has had the opposite effect.

Even when it was first mooted, a precondition for the deal should have been the release of all imprisoned Catholic clergy, at a minimum. Instead, not only was that not secured, but several brave underground Catholic bishops who had stayed loyal to Rome for decades, who had been in and out of prison or risked arrest many times, were forced by Rome to stand aside in favour of Beijing’s preferred bishops.

Only two months after the deal was announced, bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, was arrested for the fifth time in two years. He was released, but continues to face harassment. Meanwhile, in January last year, Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong, Fujian Province, who had already been demoted to the position of auxiliary bishop to make way for a Beijing-appointed prelate, was forced by the authorities to leave his residence, which was then shut down. The 61-year-old cleric ended up sleeping in the doorway of his church office and only after an international outcry was he permitted to return to his apartment, albeit with the utilities cut off. Then in June 2020, 70-year-old Augustine Cui Tai, coadjutor bishop of the underground church in Xuanhua, was arrested again — having already endured 13 years in detention. Since then, there have been countless others like him.

And so as the world rightly focuses more on China, on accusations of genocide against the Uighurs and breaches of an international treaty in Hong Kong, we must not forget the images of dynamited churches, destroyed crosses, Communist propaganda in holy sanctuaries and jailed priests.

Wang Yi, the pastor of Early Rain Church in Chengdu, warned over two years ago that the regime had launched “a war against the soul”. A year later he was sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting to subvert state power”. But as Pastor Wang made clear in his one of his offending sermons: the CCP has “established for themselves an enemy that can never be detained, can never be destroyed, will never capitulate nor be conquered: the soul of man.”

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. As East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, he specialises in Burma, Indonesia, China and North Korea.