By Courtney Grogan
As the Chinese government tightens control over Christian groups in the country, experts caution that Beijing is positioned to further restrict religious freedom, using the model of government-run social media.
While introducing more restrictive rules on religious practice, President Xi Jinping’s repeatedly stated goal has been the “Sinicization” of religions, or to diffuse “religious theories with Chinese character” into the five official religions supervised by the government, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
On March 22, China instituted a major change in its religious oversight by abolishing the State Administration for Religious Affairs and shifting direct control to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). As a result, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will now be under the day-to-day direct supervision of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is similar to another bureaucratic change in China earlier this week, that gave the CCP direct control of movies, television, books, and radio.
“They are folding the state into the party … It is one thing when the party does that with regards to the media, but there is something particularly ironic now in the sense that you have a department of an avowedly Marxist atheist communist party that is going to be managing religious affairs,” said Freedom House’s Senior Research Analyst for East Asia, Sarah Cook.
“Now the Bishops’ Conference is even less explicitly autonomous and more clearly directly managed by an atheist communist party department,” said Cook. This change could result in more pressure for religious entities in China to make clear that their first and foremost allegiance is to the party and not to their religion.
The UFWD is the CCP’s “soft power” instrument for “winning the hearts and minds” for China’s political goals at home and abroad, according to the Financial Times. It seeks to manage groups outside of the CCP, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjian, ethnic minorities, and religious groups.
The UFWD is “basically trying to make sure that these entities are also in some way following the party line even though they are not part of the communist party itself,” explained Cook.
China has long been known for its strict control of information, through means including internet access restriction and the creation of alternative social media platforms that are completely controlled by government surveillance and censorship.
So while Twitter is inaccessible in China – blocked along with Google, Facebook, and YouTube by “the Great Firewall” – one can express himself in 140 characters or fewer on the Chinese website “Sina Weibo” instead, as long as the message is not critical of President Xi Jinping.
Critics fear this model could increasingly be adopted in the realm of religion as well.
The Vatican has been in negotiations with Xi’s regime on the appointment of bishops. Some speculate an agreement will resemble the Vatican’s deal with Vietnam, in which the Holy See picks bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the episcopal conference, which, as of this week, is more directly controlled by the CCP.
As the Vatican considers the possibility of a deal with the Chinese regime, China-watchers are warning technology companies that engaging directly with the Chinese government could lead to their complicity with censorship and surveillance, or lead to the arrest of Chinese citizens.
One early example of this was Yahoo, which provided sensitive information about writers to the Chinese authorities. More recently, Apple removed VPN software that helped Chinese citizens circumvent its Great Firewall from its China App Store.
Formerly, technology “companies had good faith that by going in there [China] they really were helping to provide these open platforms for communication … It would be very difficult to make that argument right now,” explained Shanthi Kalathil, the director of the International Forum for Democracy Studies at a panel on PEN America’s new report on social media censorship on March 19.
“All of the trends are pointing in a negative direction. The intent of the Chinese government is clear that anybody that does go in will absolutely not have the space to provide what these companies may profess to be providing on paper. We know enough now about both the censorship machine as well as Xi Jinping’s intentions – I think that’s been made quite clear,” continued Kalathil, referring to the increase in censorship, surveillance, and punishment of Chinese social media users in the past three years.
China has increasingly used its control of domestic social media alternatives to criminalize internet users who express dissenting opinions.
In China, people talk about how “it used to be that we afraid that our account would be closed or our posts would be deleted. Now we are afraid that we are just going to be taken away. Some are sentenced to administration detention for a few days, but there are a good number of people who have been sentenced to very long prison terms,” Cook said at the panel.
The trends in freedom of religion are similarly pointing in a negative direction under Xi Jinping.
An analysis published by a Chinese Communist Party think tank scholar in 2012 identified both religion and “internet freedom” as future threats to China’s rise. The years that followed saw crackdowns on both freedom of the internet and religious freedom.
No member of the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to practice a religion. In March, the same parliamentary meeting that gave Xi Jinping lifelong rule also granted the atheist Communist party direct oversight of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
According to the latest reports, a deal between the Vatican and Beijing could be signed as early as next week.