Churches Under Pressure Ahead of Christmas
Christmas celebration is coming under increasing official scrutiny in mainland China as the government tightens religious controls. Authorities in Langfang, Hebei issued a notice on December 15 prohibiting the display of Christmas lights and decorations in public areas including schools and shopping malls. The notice also banned the selling of Christmas products by street vendors and encouraged locals to report anyone “spreading religion” in public spaces. Zoe Low at South China Morning Post reports:
Father Christmas will not be visiting one northern Chinese town this year as officials there have ordered the removal of all festive decorations and banned shops from holding sales to “maintain stability”, according to a notice circulated on social media.
The statement from the city management office in Langfang, Hebei province, also appealed to the public to report anyone “spreading religion” in parks and squares, though it did not specify which religion.
[…] The statement by Langfang officials said that anyone caught selling Christmas trees, wreaths, stockings or Santa Claus figures in the city would be punished.
“Shops are strictly prohibited from holding Christmas performances or promotional sales,” it said.
A worker at the management office said in an interview, however, that the ban was not specifically aimed at festive products, but rather the sale of goods on the street.
“We don’t allow shops to place their products out in the street, even if it is fruit or perfumes,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “It’s not just during Christmas.” [Source]
Although Langfang’s Christmas ban is presented as part of routine stability maintenance procedures, it takes place against a backdrop of deepening religious crackdown and ongoing efforts to contain the “explosive” growth of Christianity in the country. Unauthorized worship is especially targeted, particularly that organized by unofficial “house churches” that are not sanctioned by the state. Several such churches have been raided in recent months. More than 100 worshippers from the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu were detained in December. The church’s pastor Wang Yi and his wife have been arrested on allegations of “inciting subversion of state power.” The incident came after authorities shut down Zion Church in Beijing in September. The move was taken after church leaders refused a government order to install security cameras to monitor service activities.
Police action against unauthorized religious activity has continued to intensify, with the ban on Christmas displays being one of the many signs of growing persecution. Tiffany May at The New York Times reports:
This is not the first time a city in China has clamped down on Christmas merriment. Last December, Hengyang, a city in Hunan province, issued a stern notice asking Communist Party officials and their relatives to “resist the rampant Western festival.” The China Communist Youth League in Anhui wrote on social media last year that “Christmas is China’s day of shame” and represents a latter-day invasion by the West.
Critics see Langfang’s plans as an ingratiating move by a smaller city to curry favor with the Chinese government, particularly in light of Beijing’s recent crackdowns on Christians and Muslims.
“The ban on Christmas decorations in Langfang is part and parcel of the Chinese government’s tightening control over religion,” said Yaqiu Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Though many nonreligious Chinese celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, she said the ban on Christmas displays reflects “increased hostility” toward signifiers of Western culture and Western values.
China happens to be the manufacturer of roughly four-fifths of the Christmas lights sold in the United States, something highlighted by Ronghui Chen’s well-known photographs of factory workers in so-called “Christmas villages” devoted to making the decorations. That fact prompted Vox recently to call President Trump’s tariffs on these particular Chinese imports a “trade war on Christmas.” [Source]
Across the country in Guangzhou, the doors have also been sealed on the Rongguili Church, another un-sanctioned community.
On Saturday, a children’s Bible class was interrupted by the arrival of dozens of police officers.
Witnesses said they declared the church an illegal gathering, confiscated Bibles and other materials and shut the doors.
Officers took names and addresses and ordered everyone present to hand over their phones.
[…] Human Rights Watch said the raids at Early Rain and at Rongguili Church were a further sign that under President Xi Jinping, China is seeking to tighten control over all aspects of society.
“As major holidays in many parts of the world – Christmas and New Year – are approaching, we call on the international community to continue to pay attention to the situation of China’s independent churches and speak against the Chinese government’s repression,” said the group’s Hong Kong-based researcher Yaqiu Wang. [Source]
The government clampdown has, however, neither deterred kids in China from sending letters to Santa nor stopped mainland tourists from visiting his residence in Lapland. From Grace Tsoi at Inkstone:
One Christmas, 12-year-old Wang’s classmate died of cancer. It was the first time one of her friends had passed away, and she wasn’t sure how to feel. Wang had written a letter to Santa the year before, so she decided to sit down and write another. This time, she shared her feelings.
[…] Wang is among a fast-growing number of people from China who are writing to Santa. The Santa Claus Village’s main post office in the Arctic Circle receives some 500,000 letters annually from across the world, the majority of which are from Greater China, the office says, a region that also includes Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
Last Christmas, Santa received a record 16,500 letters from mainland China, making up 15% of the approximately 110,000 letters from the region. In 2014, Greater China overtook the United Kingdom, Italy, and Poland for sending the most letters. Santa’s rising popularity, however, is a stark contrast to China’s ongoing war on Christmas.
[…] Statistics from Visit Rovaniemi, which promotes the city as a tourist destination, show that registered overnight stays from Chinese visitors have rapidly increased in the past decade, from 3,300 visits in 2010 to 32,349 last year. Sanna Kärkkäinen, managing director of Visit Rovaniemi, said the city set up an account (link in Chinese) for Santa on Chinese social network Weibo, and incorporated the Alipay payment system in 2016 to cater to Chinese tourists. [Source]
In a separate Inkstone piece, Tsoi explains that for the vast majority of Chinese youths, Christmas is not about the birth of Christ but an occasion to shop and spend time with friends.
These days, many young people, religious or not, celebrate Christmas.
“I celebrate Christmas. I usually go out to have dinner with friends, buy Christmas cakes or Christmas-themed desserts. I also exchange Christmas gifts with my best friends,” says Stella Wang, a 28-year-old Beijinger, who isn’t a Christian.
Seizing on people’s festive moods around and during the occasion, shopping malls adorn themselves with Christmas decorations and lure in shoppers with seasonal sales.
Independent China scholar Gary Sigley says the rising popularity of Christmas has little to do with religion.
“It has more to do with the culture of consumption and the novelty of a foreign festival,” he tells Inkstone.
[…] Instead of spending the festival with their families, young Chinese people who observe it see it as an occasion for socializing.
“They don’t want their lives to revolve their families only. They want to build relationships outside of their families,” says Yang Ling, an assistant professor at Xiamen University who studies youth culture. [Source]