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Reading Tea Leaves from the 2021 National Religious Work Conference


Divining meaning from openly available publications is something of an art form in the study of Communist regimes. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Kremlinologists combed group pictures of the top leaders to guess who was politically in power and who was out by where they appeared in the photos. For religion in China, reading boring reports from the latest Communist Party conference on religious “work” feels a little bit like this, a little like reading tea leaves. It’s also hard not to fall asleep when the language is so rigid and repetitive and so many phrases seem to lose meaning as they blur together. So why is it worthwhile spending any time on this at all?

In fact, the work conferences for China’s religious affairs officials are where the real work of governing starts. The tone and emphasis, the language, and the concepts in the major speeches are all scrutinized by officials for how they should go about their daily work. Such national gatherings kick off a cascade of meetings at lower levels where officials who “manage” religion on the ground scrutinize top leaders’ speeches, policies, and other documents. So, if we want to get a preview of what will happen and what has happened in the recent past, “reading the tea leaves” can pay off. In this blogpost, I compare the speeches given by Xi Jinping in 2021 and in 2018 at the respective national religious affairs conferences.

A Primer: What Is “Religious Work”? What Is the “United Front”?

First, we need a quick overview of key terms. Three key offices engage in religious affairs: each religion’s associations, the Party’s United Front Work Department, and the government’s State Administration of Religious Affairs—the national-level office for the subsidiary offices that are called the Religious Affairs Bureaus. The United Front is the most important for us to explain. Its name derives from a battlefield concept in which Communists seek allies among supporters who cannot become Communists but willingly unite against the Party’s enemy. 1

“Religious work” is what officials do to ensure that religious groups, individuals, and activities obey Party and state regulations as well as try to direct them to be patriotic (“loving the country, loving their religion”). It encompasses a number of activities that are formal, such as registration of a new congregation, and informal, such as calling pastors on the phone to check on them. The overall goal is to “actively guide religions to adapt to socialist society,” which means to follow the line set by the Party and the state and uphold the Party’s political leadership. And, in the Xi era since 2012, it means further that religious believers should seek to integrate religious teachings with traditional Chinese culture.

From 2018 to Now: The Ascendancy of the United Front and Increased Crackdowns

Looking back, the 2018 conference marked a major turning point. First, a Chinese Communist Party organization absorbed the government’s offices for religious work. Prior to 2018, the Party’s United Front Work Department set the major direction for religious affairs but left day-to-day governing work to government officials of the Religious Affairs Bureaus (RAB). This distinction gave a bit of bureaucratic leeway in how religions were handled. That changed in 2018, when Xi directed the United Front to absorb the RAB; in dealing with foreign organizations and governments, however, the Party continues to use the name of Religious Affairs Bureau to preserve outward appearances.

The United Front Plays a Larger Role in China’s Affairs at Home

The United Front receives no mention at all in the 2021 speech, almost like an elephant in the room. Perhaps it is so clearly established that the Party overtook the government’s role and so it needed no further discussion.

Outside observers have debated whether this bureaucratic change really meant tighter religious control. A second trend answered that question. Since 2018, the Party-state has shuttered major urban house churches, for example. These are Protestant congregations that met openly, gathered hundreds or even thousands of participants, and refused registration as official Three-Self congregations. The 2018–2019 period saw Beijing’s Shouwang and Zion churches, Chengdu’s Early Rain church led by Wang Yi, Guangzhou’s Rongguili church, as well as others closed down. Of course, these urban congregations are not representative of all house churches (as articles in the winter 2021 ChinaSource Quarterly point out), but in the last two to three years even smaller and less prominent house churches have also felt increased pressure from the Party-state while official churches have been closed and their staff dismissed as well.

Much of Xi Jinping’s speech at the 2018 conference had focused on preparing grassroots bureaucrats to carry out policies and warning them to be resolute atheists; it also cast a wide net by calling on a broad range of seemingly unrelated, Party-approved organizations to keep religion in check, from the Women’s Federation to the workers’ unions. The speech is filled with verbs like analyzing, preparing, and understanding, but mentions “Sinicization” only twice. Sinicization was still relatively young as a concept, so this isn’t entirely surprising.

From 2021 Onward

Looking forward, Chinese President and Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping’s speech at the 2021 National Religious Work Conference opens by declaring great progress in religious work that ensured believers were patriotic. Still, Xi points out areas for improvement. Particular phrasing that is new in 2021 suggests that lower-level officials have been too harsh or careless in their handling of religious activities (Xi says to “work patiently and meticulously”) and should remember that religious believers are not enemies but that they share the same “fundamental political and economic interests” as non-religious people.

Sinicization: A New Concept for “Nationalizing” Religions

“Sinicization” or “making [more] Chinese” is the big new concept that appears in Xi’s speech. Skeptics might ask, “Haven’t Christians been Chinese for a long time?” After all foreigners no longer head congregations, hold control over church purse strings, or decide China’s church matters. Chinese do all these things and have done so for decades. But the Chinese Communist Party has developed Sinicization as a new way to attempt to “nationalize” its churches, to bring them under CCP oversight, contrary to the basic nature of Christian churches which is to be part of a global church. Nationalization means severing ties between the church in China the global church that are not approved and overseen by the Party.

The Party has long been concerned about Christianity’s overseas ties and aimed at the political goal of ensuring that religious believers and their congregations stay in line. But what is new is that Xi’s Sinicization deepens the Party’s efforts to shape Christianity by way of encouraging religious groups to be integrated with traditional Chinese culture and guided by “core socialist values.” While appearing quite familiar to a Western audience, the core socialist values of “prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity, and friendliness” actually have very different meanings to Western liberal democratic human rights.

Sinicization, Xi points out, also increases religious people’s support and connection to the Chinese Communist Party, its socialist system, and so on, when officials carry out the correct kind of education among religious believers. These education campaigns should explain the CCP’s history, the history of the People’s Republic of China, and of the reform period, all with the goal of enhancing “national security.” Whether speaking of socialist or “historical” reeducation, the Chinese Communist Party aims to draw Christians into a tighter embrace.

Xi also offers a new twist on familiar terms. “Three Self” or “three autonomies” is one such term. Originally, it meant that Chinese religions had to operate independently of overseas influence, as in “self-propagation” (evangelism without foreign missionary work), “self-governance” (without foreign mission boards), and “self-sustenance” (without overseas financial support). Left unmentioned, of course, was that it would operate with considerable Party involvement. In his 2021 speech, Xi spoke of “strengthen[ing]” the “self-education, self-management, and self-discipline” of religious leaders, to ensure their activities are circumscribed within Party-state bounds—three new twists on autonomy. Moreover, he goes on to embellish the language of the Chinese Constitution on how “religious activities shall be carried out within the scope provided by laws and regulations” by adding that religious activities should not harm “good customs” (a nod to Chinese culture?) nor interfere with “judicial, [and] administrative functions and social life” (the Constitution only notes no interference with education).

Online Activities and the COVID Era

In the COVID era, as the Chinese government aims for a zero-covid situation, Chinese cities have been in a strict lockdown whenever even a few COVID cases appear. That makes President Xi’s mention of increased restriction on internet religious activities even more consequential. Inside China, congregations have moved to online worship services but any religious activity online that is not officially licensed now appears to be banned; new regulations take effect on March 1, 2022 (in Chinese), that will permit only official churches and associations to offer any religious worship or content online.

In addition, immediately after the religious work conference concluded, China’s national police called a meeting (in Chinese) to discuss cracking down on “cults and illegal missionary activities [or evangelism].” Missionary activities or evangelism have always technically been illegal, but this is the first time that it has appeared in the same breath as cult activity, which is punishable as a crime. Could it be that missionary activity and evangelism are being considered as deserving harsher punishment? (Ironically, Chinese researchers have just published work that finds that missionary activity in China, however, leads to better societal outcomes, such as higher education levels, better healthcare, and improved disaster relief.)

“Reading the tea leaves” tells us quite a bit, namely that China’s religious groups are not immune to the effects of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism and that for now we can expect religious affairs authorities to continue to apply pressure on religious leaders and believers.

Endnotes

  1. First introduced in China in the 1930s to justify Communist cooperation with the Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese invaders, Xi Jinping has greatly expanded the power and importance of this Party organization. Scholar Anne Marie Brady writes of how Xi sees the United Front as a “magic weapon,” central to the CCP’s political interference efforts overseas (and especially active in New Zealand and Australia).
Carsten T. Vala

Carsten T. Vala

Carsten T. Vala is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. He published a book on the rise and fall of public house churches like Beijing Shouwang church in 2017 (The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God Above Party?), and …View Full Bio


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