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Goodbye, SARA


On March 22, at the close the National People’s Congress session in Beijing, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China announced a massive overhaul and restructuring of the Chinese government bureaucracy which give the Party more direct control over various aspects of the government. Xinhua News Agency reported it this way:

The CPC [Communist Party of China] exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in the country, and the reform is meant to strengthen the Party's leadership in all areas and improve the structure of the Party organization, according to the plan.

The plan says that some state institutions previously under the leadership of the State Council have been dissolved or integrated into a new agency under the leadership of the CPC Central Committee, such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, and Ministry of Supervision and National Bureau of Corruption Prevention.

Of particular interest to those serving the church in China is the inclusion of the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) in this restructuring. Until now, SARA has been a department under the State Council (a government institution). Under the new plan, expected to be implement by the end of 2018, SARA will be abolished and the responsibility for supervising and managing religious affairs will be given to the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a Party institution. In other words, religious organizations, such as the China Christian Council/Three-Self Patriotic Movement (CCC/TSPM) and the Catholic Patriotic Association will report directly to the Communist Party of China.

The United Front is a somewhat shadowy organization (at least to outsiders) that has historically been tasked with managing relationships between the Party and non-Party entities in Chinese society, as well as overseas Chinese. Writing in the Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Marcel Angliviel de la Beaumelle describes the UFWD:

While most observers have focused on united front work in Taiwan, the scope of the department’s mission is both foreign and domestic. Within China, the UFWD plays a vital policy development and coordination role, especially for ethnic and religious minorities. Abroad, the UFWD has had a hand in developing political and business ties with overseas Chinese, bringing investment and research benefits, as well as helping the CCP shape foreign views of China. Xi Jinping’s repeated urging that the Party make use the UFWD as a “magic weapon” to realize the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People makes it clear that he sees it as an important tool for the CCP. 

Time will tell what this will mean on the operational level, but for now, we can certainly say “good-bye SARA.”

Image credit: Joann Pittman, via  Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Senior Vice President of ChinaSource. She is the editor of ZGBriefs and Chinese Church Voices, as well as a regular contributor to ChinaSource publications. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and most recently,... View Full Bio