Last month, the Vatican and the Chinese Communist party announced the renewal of a two-year agreement on the appointment of bishops in China. Under the deal in 2018, the Catholic Church lifted the excommunication of bishops hand-picked by the atheist CCP and formally recognized them. Besides interfering in such appointments, Beijing subjects Chinese Catholic congregations to state regulation and the reeducation of what it considers insubordinate priests. These methods are evidence of the party’s efforts to cull Catholicism of the traditions, doctrines, and practices that have defined the faith for millennia. Anyone who prizes religious freedom worldwide should be disturbed.
Why is Beijing so hostile toward those looking to practice their faith according to their conscience?
Like all communist party-states, the CCP maintains a general contempt for religion, viewing it as an existential threat to its absolute control over Chinese society. We should take them at their word: the CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations clearly states that religious organizations must ‘educate and guide religious staff and religious citizens to support the leadership of the CCP and support the socialist system’.
Beijing has set an explicit goal of eliminating all religion from China, but it recognizes that such radical change takes time. The result is draconian restrictions placed on faith and the politicization of religious teachings, with the hope that, gradually, such life-draining constraints will deprive faith of its ability to speak to people.
Beijing’s goal of eliminating religion stems from a broader quest to impose ideological uniformity on China, and increasingly, the rest of the world as it interacts with China. As Xi Jinping is fond of saying, ‘the party leads everything’. The CCP aims to maintain its monopoly over the ability to set standards on how people think or act. To achieve that, it must eliminate all significant expressions of difference: cultural, ethnic, religious, linguistic, political, artistic and beyond.
Deviation from those standards is a challenge to the CCP’s authority — the ultimate crime in communist China.
The most horrifying consequences of the CCP’s drive for conformity can be seen in Tibet and Xinjiang. The peoples suffering under Beijing’s authority there are not ethnically Chinese, much less communist. As a result, Tibetan Buddhism remains subjected to heavy restrictions, such as ubiquitous surveillance, forced indoctrination classes, and the display of Xi and other communist leaders in sacred spaces — not simply because Buddhism is a religion, but because it forms the core of a historically distinct Tibetan civilization and identity. For that reason, the CCP seeks to control the identification of the next Dalai Lama, a potential deathblow to the faith.
For Uighurs, Xi’s authoritarianism similarly extends across all elements of life. The CCP forbids them from following traditional dietary restrictions, performing daily prayers, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, going on Hajj, reading the Qur’an and teaching their faith to their children. The list goes on and on. For those who are neither ethnically nor culturally Chinese, the CCP’s goal is nothing less than comprehensive cultural erasure — in the case of the Uighurs, likely genocide.
In Xinjiang, the CCP is not willing to wait for gradual change. Since 2017, the CCP has incarcerated more than a million Uighurs and other Muslims in re-education camps. The documented atrocities are stomach-churning: torture, forced labor, sexual assault, forced abortion, and forced sterilization.
More generally, the CCP hopes that if it can control a people’s language, it can control how they think. In Xinjiang, this means that use of the Uighur language is restricted and frequently smeared as an expression of terrorist sympathies. Similar efforts exist to supplant Tibetan, Mongolian and Korean as well, with Chinese authorities replacing bilingual education programs with an exclusively Chinese-language curriculum and removing textbooks from classrooms that run counter to CCP dogma. In schools today, even the use of regional Chinese languages such as Cantonese and Shanghainese is forbidden.