This month’s meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, convened March 5, will likely confirm a constitutional change eliminating term limits and allowing President Xi Jinping to stay in power beyond 2023.
Xi, who assumed office in March 2013, has overseen a national campaign to demolish churches and remove more than 1,000 crosses from China’s churches during his first five year term as president, leaving human rights advocates wondering what his latest consolidation of power means for the future of religious freedom in China.
“Under President Xi, the overall level of religious freedom in the country has decreased,” Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, told CNA.
“This downward trend fits into a broader pattern of increasing human rights abuses under President Xi, accompanied by and manifested through a shrinking space for civil society, a heightened sensitivity to perceived challenges to Party rule, and the introduction of legislation that curtails civil and political rights in the name of national security,” Rogers continued.
Just one week prior to China’s annual congress, local government authorities forcibly removed the crosses, statues, and bell towers from a Catholic church in Yining city Feb. 27, according to a Union of Catholic Asian News report.
On Dec. 27, another Catholic church more than 2,000 miles away in Shaanxi province was completely demolished despite having previously obtained the necessary legal permits from the Religious Affairs Bureau, according to Asia News.
The local religious affairs bureau “dispatched dozens of officials and heavy machinery to a local Catholic church. Smashing crosses and confiscating statues, the Eucharistic altar, and other religious artifacts such as the vestments and seating, they demolished the building,” reported China Aid.
The cross-removal and demolitions are a part of a national campaign launched in March 2013 when Xi Jinping assumed power in China.
“By mid-2016, crosses had been removed from the rooftops or fa√ßades of least 1,500 churches, and over 20 churches had been demolished,” wrote Freedom House scholar, Sarah Cook, in a special report, “The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping,” published Feb. 2017.
In a speech on China’s religious policy in April 2016, Xi told Chinese Communist Party leaders that they must “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” and said that religious in China must “Sinicize,” or adapt to the Chinese way, reported the New York Times.
“It remains somewhat unclear what party leaders mean by Sinicization in practice, but some superficial changes have been observed. One of them involves “localizing” the architecture of churches, in effect reducing their public visibility,” analyzed Cook.
“Under Xi … new legal mechanisms have codified previously informal restrictions. Crackdowns on unregistered and even state-sanctioned places of worship and religious leaders have increased, with several clerics receiving long prison terms,” continued Cook, “Constraints on children’s ability to participate in religious life have multiplied.”
Churches in China must display a sign in the entrance prohibiting the entrance of minors under the age of 18 as of regulations implemented this February.
“On 1 Feb 2018 revised regulations on religious affairs came into effect which have widely been seen as adding further restrictions on religious life. The regulations continue the practice of protecting only groups legally registered with the state-sanctioned religious associations. Registration is mandatory, not optional, making religious groups who oppose government oversight “illegal”. These amendments appear to codify the increased scrutiny and pressure on religious activities in China,” Rogers told CNA.
There are an estimated estimated 60 to 80 million Chinese Protestants and around 12 million Catholics in China, split evenly between registered and unregistered churches in both groups, according to the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s 2017 report.
“Security forces across the country detain, torture, or kill believers from various faiths on a daily basis. How a group or individual is treated depends in large part on the level of perceived threat or benefit to party interests, as well as the discretion of local officials,” according to the Freedom House study in which Cook concluded the following:
“Looking toward the future, Xi and his colleagues face a critical choice: Do they recognize their errors and loosen religious controls, or do they press ahead with a spiraling pattern of repression and resistance that might threaten the regime’s long-term legitimacy and stability? Their decision will be critical in determining the ultimate cost of the ongoing battle for China’s spirit.”