Long distrustful of religion for its potential to erode public support for the Party, Beijing has in recent years been paying special attention to Christianity as the faith has been gaining followers in China. In Zhejiang—a region where Christianity has a long history—over 1,200 crosses have been removed from churches, and several places of worship have themselves been demolished since 2013; while officials bill the drive as a beautification campaign targeting illegal structures out of “safety concerns,” activists see it as a means to regulate Christianity’s spread. In 2014, the State Administration for Religious Affairs announced plans to promote a Christianity “compatible with the country’s path of socialism.” At The Diplomat, Cal Wong examines the deep-rooted official anxiety behind the crackdown in Zhejiang, and notes fear among Chinese Christians that the regional campaign could foreshadow a national policy:
In his 2015 article in The Guardian, religions reporter Andrew Brown made the observation that, much like King Henry VIII, who sought to gain control of Catholicism in England, the Chinese government seeks to control Christianity in China. Unlike the fifteenth century English king however, Christianity is now no longer a centralized belief system under one universal pontiff (or even two). Rather, Protestantism, the overwhelmingly dominant force in Chinese Christianity, is a scattered myriad of independent, nodal leaders. “The decentralized structure of this form of Christianity helps it to grow and spread, but also makes it much harder for governments to cut lasting deals with it,” Brown wrote.
For its part, the Chinese government is trying to implement some semblance of structure. It has had a long-standing battle with the Vatican for control of Catholics in China. As far as Protestants go, the government has sanctioned its own governing ‘church’ known as the “Three-Self Patriotic Church” — only those who belong to this organization can officially register as Protestants. Despite the official state-sanctioned title, unrest has been felt within this organization too, with the majority of crucifix removals are coming from its institutions.
[…] So far, the cross-removal campaign has been limited to Zhejiang Province in China’s east, home to the country’s largest Christian population. But many fear that this is just the beginning of ever increasing persecution and restrictions on the practice of the Christian faith. [Source]
Reporting last month for the Daily Beast on the arrest of Zhejiang pastor Gu Yuese, who had publicly opposed cross removals in the region, for embezzlement earlier this year, Brendan Hong also outlined ongoing official efforts to regulate Christianity:
Beijing now attempts to regulate Protestant and Catholic churches by demanding local leaders answer to the Chinese government instead of the Vatican or other religious authorities. In the past, the Party would groom individuals within Chinese churches to act as the government’s proxies. But the state-church face-off has become increasingly tense as Beijing now wants to force its way into the pulpit too. CCP religious affairs officials want their own time slots during Sunday worship to educate churchgoers about the Party’s religious policies and regulations. The idea is not popular among parishioners.
[…] As the CCP becomes increasingly vocal against foreign influence, or is at least quick to blame foreign powers for domestic woes, Christianity is seen by Beijing as a hazard to the Party’s dominance in the political fabric of China even though the churches seem to hold no such agenda.
[…] Church leaders like Gu have cultivated massive followings, particularly along the central eastern coast where many churches are located. House churches, though illegal under Chinese law, continue to spread and gather new members by word of mouth. One hundred million Christians among nearly 1.4 billion people in China may seem like a small slice of the population, but that’s sufficient to rattle the CCP’s existential foundations. After all, it wasn’t so long ago—roughly around the time of the American Civil War—when Imperial China was rocked by a pseudo-Christian uprising that resulted in 20 to 30 million deaths. It was the Taiping Rebellion, led by a man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Beijing’s mistake is thinking that the churches of Zhejiang are hungry for power, and that miscalculation is costing the CCP in what they perceive as a battle for China’s soul. [Source]
In April at a national conference on religion, Xi Jinping warned of the ideological dangers posed by religion; in his tenure as president Xi has also overseen a campaign against Western values in academia, and more recently one warning of the dangers posed by returning overseas students and foreign spies.
Christianity is not the only faith that has found itself increasingly under fire amid mounting official anxiety. In parts of Xinjiang, an ongoing “war on terror” has targeted the religious practice of the predominately Muslim Uyghur minority. Hui Muslims, known to be granted more religious autonomy than Uyghurs, recently saw new restrictions levied on school prayer in Gansu. Buddhism also faces legal and political hurdles as temples struggle to obtain licenses. Despite its official atheism, the Party has asserted its right to oversee a centuries-old Tibetan Buddhist tradition, insisting on naming the 80-year-old Dalai Lama’s reincarnation after the exiled spiritual leader dies. After the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized China for “systematic, egregious and ongoing abuses” against religious practitioners last month, Beijing responded with protest.