Earlier this year, state-sanctioned Christian bodies in Qingdao city of eastern China established a first-of-its-kind committee to promote “sinicization of Christianity”, in line with the socialist principles of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Not only that but the Party now seems to be wanting to export its brand of sinicized Christianity internationally. In this regard, a conference titled “Training Meeting for Key Pastors of the Northeast China Christian Region” was held from June 27 to 30 in Changchun, of the Jilin province.
The development has come in the wake of President Xi Jinping re-urging the state-run religious groups to develop religions in the Chinese context, during the 20th National Congress of the CCP in 2022.
Sinicization or Han-ization?
Sinicization is the process of strengthening the Han Chinese culture within and without mainland China. People of non-traditional Chinese descent are exposed and encouraged, sometimes even forced, to adopt the Han Chinese culture. Han is the majority ethnic group (92%) in China, historically and culturally linked to ancient agriculturists, the Huaxia people of mainland China. Throughout China’s history, Han has represented the country’s primary cultural identity. The CCP has been aggressively promoting sinicization of religions for some time now, as a tool to strengthen its own leadership and to strictly control and monitor minority ethnic and religious groups. Consequently, many view sinicization as a process of imperialism. Through this state-sponsored process, the aim is that various minority ethnic groups, including Mongolians, Muslims, Christians, Tibetans, and others are absorbed into this mainland culture, while their own cultures are systematically erased.
Xi’s “New Era” for China
Nearly every Chinese dynasty has implemented Sinicization in its own way. But under Xi, this process has gathered unprecedented momentum. Since 2015, “sinicization of religions” has become a primary focus of China’s religious policy, as part of Xi’s vision for a “New Era” for China. In 2016, during an annual religious conference, Xi addressed the need for “building a socialist theory of religion with Chinese characteristics”. He stressed that it was essential that “religions adhere to the direction of Sinicization”. The most striking expression to the policy was given in 2017, in Xi’s report at the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress. An excerpt reads as follows: “We will fully implement the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society… socialist values need to be integrated into the emotional identity and the behavioural habits of each person.”
No leeway for local religions
It has been reiterated in various seminars and events that all religions in China, not just those of foreign origin, must work towards more “Chinese” religious values, symbols and practices of the faith.” For instance, the official website of the Daoist Association now states: “To adhere to the direction of sinicizing Daoism is a necessary choice for making Daoism keep pace with the times, innovate, and develop. We firmly uphold the party’s leadership and the socialist system, and we carry forward the fine traditions of Daoism patriotism.”
Similarly, the president of the Buddhist Association of China recently said in an interview that “religion should escape the limitations of tradition in order to modernize and sinicize.” In a similar vein, the Islamic Association of China head Yang Faming emphasized the importance of extending sinicization to Islam, saying, “We must allow traditional Chinese culture to permeate Islam and jointly guard the spiritual homeland of the Chinese people.”
Further, the revised regulations impose heavy fines on organizers of “unofficial” religious events. The procedures for registering unofficial structures are strict. The state’s power to prohibit and punish religious activities deemed unlawful is asserted almost without any limitation.
Also, a series of bureaucratic reforms have brought the state organs responsible for religious affairs under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD, in turn, has become quite vocal about how the CCP’s approach to religious work is changing in Xi’s “new era”.
Christians under attack
The churches’ demolition campaign in Zhejiang, which later extended to parts of Henan and Hebei, forcible closure of several popular underground churches and restrictions on circulation of Bible, especially online, have been well documented.
In Zhejiang, under the direction of a close ally of Xi, as many as 12,000-17,000 crosses were forcefully removed. A document entitled “Principle for Promoting Chinese Christianity in China for the Next Five Years (2018–2022)” states: “Contents of the Bible that are compatible with the core values of socialism should be deeply researched in order to write books that are popular and easy-to-understand.”
Meanwhile, the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement have declared the establishment of a joint group to promote the sinicization of Chinese Christianity. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement is the official government supervisory organ for Protestantism in China. Slowly, Three-Self churches are being transformed into ideological indoctrination centres for Xi-style Communism. In various provinces, Party officials have introduced and implemented “Sinicization of Christianity Training Course” for all government-controlled churches.
Erasure of Islamic diversity
Nearly 130 million Chinese people fall into one of the 56 ethnic groups. Of these, 10 are Muslim groups, including, in descending order by size, the Hui, who account for nearly half of China’s Muslims, followed by the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Salars, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Bonan, and Tatars.
China's efforts at cultural control are most heavy-handed in case of ethnic Uyghur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, a Turkic minority, have been detained in camps and thousands of Xinjiang mosques have been destroyed.
But Uyghurs are not the only targets. In 2019, China passed a law aimed at Sinicizing Islam in five years. The campaign has since moved beyond Xinjiang to other provinces, notably Ningxia. Muslims all over the country have been put in trying conditions. Religious teachings in Arabic are forbidden and Arabic signage from restaurants and shops are removed.
Also, at many places, Muslim architecture has been “localized”. For instance, the domes and minarets of the famous 700-year-old Dongguan Mosque, belonging to the Hui Muslims, were lopped in 2021 off to make them look “Chinese”. Since 2018, thousands of mosques across the country have faced a similar fate. According to the authorities, domes represent " Saudi and Arabic influence".
Clearly the state’s Islamophobia has caught up with the Hui community as well, who were earlier touted as a model minority, as they speak Chinese. Hui Muslims have lived in the country for more than 1,300 years. Now, to prove their Chinese roots, they have made a version of Islam accessible to Confucians and Daoists by adopting their spiritual concepts and terms. Some Hui sects have even incorporated Chinese practices into their worship, such as burning incense.
Also, the Islamic Association of China has started a “Four Enters” campaign, aimed at “promoting Islam’s adaptation to a socialist society” by requiring mosques to hold national flag raising ceremonies, lectures and speech contests at mosques, among other political activities.
Meanwhile, in 2022, Wang Yang, former chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, told leaders of the Islamic Association of China that they shouldn't be "ambiguous in their political stance of listening to the Party and following the Party at any time”. Many now think that Beijing's campaign could lead to the practice of Islam, and several other religions, going completely underground.