The headlines out of China last week sounded ominous. In strident language not heard in a long time, the head of China’s Protestant church gave a speech supporting the government’s policy of reducing Western influence on religion and making it “more Chinese,” a process dubbed sinicization in English.
This sinicization campaign has been going on for a few years. While outsiders have observed it with growing alarm, many believers in China understand that though the government may have a political agenda, it might also provide opportunities for outreach.
The Chinese National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, convened at the beginning of the month in Beijing, and Premier Li Keqiang delivered his annual work report speech. According to the National Catholic Reporter, he reiterated the government’s commitment to “fully implement the [Communist] Party’s fundamental policy on religious affairs and uphold the sinicization of religion in China.”
The following week, Xu Xiaohong, chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which oversees Protestant Christianity in China, spoke on his support for the policy and vowed to press on with its own five-year sinicization plan. Xu claimed that anti-China forces were using Christianity to subvert state power.
“[We] must recognize that Chinese churches are surnamed ‘China’, not ‘the West,’” he told delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “The actions by anti-China forces that attempt to affect our social stability or even subvert the regime of our country are doomed to fail.”
With the conclusion of the government meetings in Beijing, it’s a good time to take a closer look at this issue of sinicization and the surrounding context, or in this case, contexts: political, rhetorical, and historical.
The current campaign to sinicize religion originated in a speech by Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the National Religious Work Conference in April 2016. According to The Diplomat, Xi stated that in order to “actively guide the adaptation of religions to socialist society, an important task is supporting China’s religions’ persistence in the direction of sinicization.”
This task is part of a broader Communist Party campaign to reassert control over all aspects of Chinese society. One area of particular concern for the party-state has been what it sees as the growing influence of Western culture and ideas. Since Xi came to power in 2012, similar crackdowns have been directed against other sectors, such as media and education.
While religious activities are seen as a normal part of civil society in the West, they are increasingly viewed in China as a threat to national stability, particularly if there is any foreign involvement. The push to sinicize religion is not confined to Protestant Christianity. All five government-sanctioned religious bodies—Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—have been required to work out sinicization plans.
Last April, the China Christian Council and Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the associations that oversee Protestant Christianity in China, released a document titled, “Outline of the Five-Year Working Plan for Promoting the Sinicization of Christianity in our Country (2018–2022).”
The stated aim of the document is to “deepen the establishment of theological thought in the new era, promote the harmonious and healthy development of the church, exert a positive role for Christianity and practice core values of socialism. Further, to continuously improve the width and depth of adaptation to the socialist society,” according to a helpful translation from UCA News. The release of this plan, it states, is “an important basis for advancing the work on the sinicization of Christianity in the next five years.”
Political scientist Carsten Vala, in The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China, writes about the importance of what he calls the public transcript—public displays of conformity to the official agenda. Once an official agenda has been announced (in this case, sinicization), all sectors within society must publicly display that they are “following the line,” and their public transcripts must conform. This is helpful for us to understand the rhetorical context for the documents and remarks coming from Chinese Protestants.
Those who have lived in China for a time already recognize this. Within days of the party-state laying out its vision, the language from the directive makes its way into public discourse and is eventually adopted by all segments of society.
When former President Hu Jintao announced the goal of building a harmonious society, everyone rushed to issue plans on how they were going to achieve it; so much so that it didn’t take long for people to tire of hearing the word harmony.
“This requires that religious professionals engage in religious practices in accordance with and in service to the highest interests of the state and the overall interests of the nation,” he said, “that they interpret religious doctrines for social development.”
In China, there is often a gap between rhetoric and reality, something its citizens are also keenly aware of. As Westerners, we tend to take official pronouncements at face value, assuming that implementation will immediately follow. Those engaged in “China-watching” need to pay more attention to what actually happens more than what is said.
Still, the trends are worrying, and there’s evidence that some local officials are translating the rhetoric into reality. This accounts for recent reports of directives to remove crosses from churches, hang pictures of Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong in sanctuaries, and replace posters of the Ten Commandments with lists of socialist values. Some instances may be the result of a local official trying to make a name for himself, but these moves could also represent the central government’s efforts to “test” measures before implementing them more widely.