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Thomas Harvey

The sinicization of religion in China - Will enforcing conformity work?

In a major speech in 2016, President Xi Jinping called for the ‘sinicization of religion’. For the Chinese Communist Party, the rise of religion, especially Christianity and Islam, represents an existential threat to its political health.

Image: Lausanne Movement LGA

In the history of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), President Xi Jinping is the first paramount leader to give prominence to religion in word and deed. In a major speech in 2016, Xi called for the ‘sinicization of religion’.

He noted that, given the rise of religion among the Chinese people, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must ‘guide the adaptation of religions to socialist society’. In its academic sense, ‘sinicization of religion’ refers to the indigenization of religious faith, practice, and ritual in Chinese culture and society. For Xi, however, ‘sinicization’ is profoundly political. It requires religious leaders and institutions demonstrably to embrace State Socialism and the leadership of the CCP.

Ideological, legal, and bureaucratic, Xi’s ‘sinicization’ campaign is one part of a pervasive ideological re-education and remoulding campaign that recalls the campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s to anchor Chinese national identity firmly within the ideology and rule of the CCP. Among religious groups where the primacy of that identity is resisted, ‘sinicization’ has even entailed the imprisonment of vast numbers of Uighur, Kazakh, and Hui Muslims as well as intractable Christian leaders. Accordingly, ‘sinicization’ is no mere slogan, but a religious policy to enforce three key priorities of the CCP:

- to streamline the bureaucracy for efficient oversight and control of all non-Party spheres and institutions;

- to revive the sway of Party ideology over all aspects of life in China; and

- to remove any ‘contradiction’ that might challenge Party ideology and rule.



In March 2018, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) put in place the necessary ideological, legal, and bureaucratic structure to enforce ‘sinicization’ of religion. It reduced the plethora of official departments that have multiplied with growth of religious followers and affiliated churches, mosques, and temples. For Protestants, the China Christian Council (CCC), the Three-Self Patriotic Association (TSPM), Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), and the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) have seen their oversight powers transferred to the Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD).

This has effectively swept clean the differing and overlapping bureaucracy that had diffused and diminished the state’s ability to control Christian growth and influence. Under the new religious policy, the old bureaucracies live on, but now in name only, as their powers over churches and church leaders are now firmly in the hands of the UFWD.

With control of all non-party institutions under the UFWD, the state now has a direct conduit speedily to enforce policy and control—or even end any relationship with overseas individuals and organizations they deem a threat to official ideology, security, or state control. This has allowed the UFWD to enforce religious oversight locally so as to cut off national and international connections that had been encouraged through the auspices of the TSPM and CCC. This leaves registered churches controlled locally or at best regionally with little access to international Christian networks. Thus, even as the UFWD now enforces national religious policy, its control will be enforced directly in given localities.



Behind Xi’s drive to ‘sinicize’ religion, lies the larger ‘contradiction’ for the CCP in the burgeoning of civil society. After Liberation, the CCP needed the assistance of the educated urban middle classes but did not trust their loyalty. Brutal ideological campaigns were effective, but they increasingly eroded the Chinese economy until in 1978 Deng Xiao Ping unleashed non-Party bourgeoisie, capitalists and intellectuals who had survived Mao’s ‘thought reform’ to revive the economy.

This required the UFWD to accommodate an increasingly independent bourgeoisie. Ever since, legions of entrepreneurs, academics, religious groups, Chinese studying abroad, lawyers, and others have formed associations and adopted new belief systems that view CCP ideology as hopelessly hackneyed. As multi-national and Overseas Chinese corporations have poured into China, many Chinese now have foreign bosses and can ignore Party apparatchiks. They move freely both in and out of China on business apart from government oversight and control.

The result has been the emergence of intellectual, religious, business, literary, and artistic communities that only grudgingly nod to Party ideology. This has proved both a blessing and a curse to CCP fortunes. The strong economy dampens dissent, but the rise of civil society diminishes and even questions the CCP’s ideological sway.



Mao feared the infiltration of ‘hostile foreign forces’ hidden within non-Party associations and especially churches. The job of the UFWD was to identify ‘enemies’, eliminate them, and in doing so pressure religious leaders to submit to CCP decree and embrace Party ideology. With the recent UFWD ascension and Xi’s personal seal on ‘sinicization’, it now appears that Deng’s period of accommodation has come to an end. Indeed, these changes provide evidence of Xi’s conviction that, if the rule of the Party is to survive, it must instigate radical ideological renewal.

Xi and the Party view the implosion of the Soviet Union as the result of Soviet failure to use the levers of government to champion Marxism and Leninism and subjugate their ideological rivals, many of whom lay hidden in religious vestments. Thus, for the CCP, the rise of religion, especially Christianity and Islam, represents an existential threat to its political health, and ‘sinicization’ is the necessary remedy.

The seriousness of this move by Xi to rein in religion and civil society is not to be under-estimated. Its impact is already being felt by foreign businesses, intellectuals, artists, religious leaders, and their institutions both in and beyond China. Like the purges and incarceration of suspected political enemies in the 1950s, ‘sinicization’ is now the ideology and policy that drives the mass incarceration of up to two million Muslim Uighurs, Hui, and Kazakhs in Xinjiang re-education camps, as well as the detention and re-education of Chinese Christian pastors. Further, the restoration of the original UFWD is an attempt to restore the CCP’s ideological sway through ‘thought reform’ and the stifling of international religious influence.



Thus, as ideology and policy, ‘sinicization’ lies behind recent raids on unregistered churches, the arrest and imprisonment of their pastors, and the destruction of churches and crosses in calculated interventions to remind Christians that the CCP will tolerate no ideological rivals. ‘Sinicization’ lies at the heart of pressure upon registered churches openly to express loyalty to the government. Replacements of paintings of Jesus with portraits of a benevolent ‘Uncle Xi’ in churches are a signal that worship of State and Party is now in order. The call for new translations of the Bible and the removal or revision of verses that challenge the ultimate hegemony of the state highlight the lengths to which the Party is going to bring the burgeoning Christian movement in China to heel.



‘Sinicization’, as one part of a wide-ranging attempt by the CCP to rein in the growth and influence of civil society, carries huge risks for Xi and the Party. China today is very different from China of the 1950s. Then, the limitations of print media, an imposed ‘Bamboo Curtain’ permitting only a handful of officials to travel outside China, and the exuberant embrace of CCP ‘Liberation’ by the populace made stifling dissent and enforcing ideological conformity relatively straightforward. 

Today, China’s international links, both public and private, are not only vast, but they are necessary for China’s continued economic strength and growth. Further, trying to assimilate a diverse, technocratic, and expansive bourgeoisie risks dampening the very communications, international connections, and entrepreneurial initiative necessary to drive China’s economic engine. Although the mass incarceration of Kazakh and Uighur Muslims has not raised any serious criticism from Muslim political leaders, as Xi’s One Belt and Road Initiative gains traction, the ‘sinicization’ of Islam could prove a serious bump.

On the other hand, advanced technology makes it easier for the Public Security Bureau to monitor and crush dissent:

- Facial recognition software in tandem with ubiquitous video monitoring allows the security services to identify and track an individual’s movements and note with whom they associate and where.

- Harvesting of biometric data, smartphone scanners, voice analysis, and satellite-tracking systems for vehicles allow for surveillance round the clock.

- The introduction of 5G technology will only enhance the ability to monitor all aspects of lived reality not only in China but around the globe.

In the past, unregistered churches had been able to disappear into the massive urban-scape of China’s cities. With the new technology the ability to ‘hide’ will be greatly diminished—and with it the ability to evade the effects of ‘sinicization’ on church and mission.

Nonetheless, when it comes to suppressing Christianity, technology is a double-edged sword. The churches of China today are not the peasant churches of old. Exponential growth in major urban centres has attracted young, educated, and tech-savvy church members, who, so far, have made their way in the ever-changing virtual world of the worldwide internet. Both registered and unregistered churches are now connected internationally, and it has been difficult for the government to seal China off from communication through the worldwide web.

Even if the government were able to outpace individuals, it runs the risk that the very attempt to control China’s international connections and communications with the outside world will diminish China’s international influence, economic growth, and power that it seeks to export in Asia and throughout the world. Thus, using technology to stop technological engagement may, in the long run, cause the engine that drives China’s economic rise to seize up and fall behind its international competitors.

Indeed, the use of satellite technology alerted Western news organizations to the growing archipelago of Chinese internment/re-education camps in remote areas of Xinjiang. At first the Chinese authorities denied the existence of the camps, only later to argue that they were being used to check terrorism in the region.



For the last 30 years, Beijing has increasingly allowed the Chinese churches more autonomy, even allowing unregistered churches to meet openly—and even question CCP rule. Xi’s policy of ‘sinicization’ is already forcing unregistered churches to revive smaller clandestine meetings to avoid the panopticon of the State. ‘Sinicization’ appears likely to be even more troublesome for officially recognized Christian churches as China’s relatively evangelical Christians turn to unregistered churches in pursuit of orthodox Christian teaching.

Given the above, the actual effect of ‘sinicization’ could well be to nurture the very religious autonomy that it was designed to crush. Further, given the bureaucratic demise of the TSPM and CCC, it will effectively cut off the very Chinese engagement that has served official propaganda that it guarantees freedom of religion and that its international representatives are authentic representatives of Chinese Christianity. Instead, international news outlets will turn to reports coming from Christian dissenters who will continue to make the world aware of the ongoing persecution of faithful Christians in China. 



Certainly, the current attempt to control religion in China will change the way of life for Chinese Christian churches, but it is unlikely to cut off their continued growth and influence.  Given their and civil society’s ability to adapt quickly, it is doubtful that the UFWD attempts at assimilation will do more than compel loyalty of the lips, but not the heart, of the Chinese people.


Thomas Harvey is currently Academic Dean of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Oxford UK. From 1997 – 2008 he served as Senior Lecturer of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. Learn more about this flagship publication from the Lausanne Movement at www.lausanne.org/lga



Editor’s Note: See article by Joann Pittman entitled, ‘The New Normal for Christianity in China’, in May 2019 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-05/the-new-normal-for-christianity-in-china.

Editor’s Note: See article by David Ro entitled, ‘China’s Conflicting Signals’, in January 2016 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2016-01/chinas-conflicting-signals.




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