The ruling Chinese Communist Party has issued new guidelines banning its members from following any religion, even after they retire from official life, official media reported on Friday.
"Amid rapid economic and social development and an aging population, we have seen ... the numbers of retired officials grow every year," an "opinion" issued recently by the party's personnel arm said.
"We have seen a number of new issues and problems emerging to do with the outlook, actions and the management of services linked to retired officials," an explanation of the opinion posted on the website of party mouthpiece the People's Daily said. "We need to respond to and manage those problems."
It added: "There is an urgent need to grasp accurately the overall situation and trends among retired officials."
Retired military personnel have long been cited by officials and activists as a highly sensitive sector of the population, who might swing a tide of public opinion in their favor and against the party, because of their proven loyalty to their country.
President Xi Jinping has also launched an ideological campaign targeting any activity seen as "importing" values and cultural practices from overseas.
Xi has cited religion in particular as a means by which "hostile foreign forces" seek to exert a subversive influence in China.
‘Turning to religion’
Beijing-based democracy activist Zha Jianguo said the party is probably reinforcing its requirement that its members in particular remain atheists in the face of a growing number of religious believers within its own ranks.
"From the point of view of the Communist Party, it's traditional for the party to require that its members not follow any religion," Zha told RFA.
"But in the past couple of decades, more and more of them have been turning to religion," he said.
He said the party in particular fears religious believers as "the enemy within."
"There are more and more underground churches and house churches, which they see as a threat," Zha said. "If they are to control this threat outside the party, then they also have to control their own members and officials."
But a retired party member and former government official who asked to remain anonymous said the "opinion" reflects a crisis of faith at the heart of the party.
"If you are a party member, then it's reasonable to expect you to follow its leaders," he said. "But the party itself is having a crisis of faith [in its own ideology], so it can't afford to allow these people to go off and believe in other faiths."
"If this wasn't the case, then they would just let people believe what they want to believe,” the former official said. “They are only trying to hold onto [their atheism] because it's in crisis."
The "opinion" comes on the heels of a months-long campaign by religious affairs officials in the eastern province of Zhejiang to tear down publicly visible crosses from churches in the region, which is known as "China's Jerusalem" for its high concentration of Protestant believers.
Associate professor Ying Fuk Tsang of the Chinese University of Hong Kong divinity school said the party carried out an extensive survey of religious practices around the country, which yielded some worrying results.
"They found the numbers of party members holding religious beliefs or taking part in religious activities to be of great concern," Ying told RFA on Friday. "At the same time that they were demolishing crosses, they also did a lot of atheist ideological work among party members and retired officials."
"They also held inquisition-style meetings, so they have a record of who the believers are," he said. "Then, they told them that they wouldn't be punished if they renounced their faith."
"[If they refused], they forced them to resign from the party,” Ying said. “They were demolishing external crosses, but also demolishing symbolic crosses from within party ranks."
Ying said that many of the Communist Party's 80 million members have no faith in its political ideology.
"They didn't join the party because they believed in communism; they did it to be part of a privileged group," he said, saying the campaign is similar to the purges of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement carried out by former president Jiang Zemin.
"That's why so many of them have wavered and started to get religion, and it's that process that the party sees as a threat, because it has created a situation where you have conflicted loyalties," Ying said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Si-yuen for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.