China steps up political control over religious venues, sermons and activities

Religious venues must support Xi Jinping's 'sinicization' campaign and are banned from overseas.
By Gao Feng for RFA Mandarin
2023.08.03
China steps up political control over religious venues, sermons and activities Monks stand near a mural featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Tibet Autonomous Region Buddhist College near Lhasa in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, May 31, 2021. Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP
Photo: RFA

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is stepping up control over religious venues that will ban ties with overseas organizations while forcing them to deliver 'patriotic' education to believers.

According to new rules taking effect from Sept. 1, monasteries, temples, mosques, churches and other religious activity venues are required to support the leadership of the Communist Party of China and leader Xi Jinping's plans for the "sinicization" of religious activity.

"No organization or individual may use religious activity sites to conduct activities that endanger national security, disrupt social order [or] damage national interests," a copy of the rules published on the website of the party's outreach and influence arm, the United Front Work Department, said.

Managers of religious venues, who will be thoroughly vetted by religious affairs officials, must "love the motherland and support the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system."

The rules form part of an ongoing political campaign to "sinicize" religious activity that has already included the hanging of portraits of Xi Jinping in churches, a ban on Christmas celebrations and enforced demolition work at major mosques and churches to remove domes and crosses.

Venues must submit detailed plans for activities for approval in advance, and have a duty to "educate religious citizens to love the motherland" and comply with sinicization policies, according to the guidelines.

Police patrol as Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after the morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, June 26, 2017. Ben Dooley/AFP
Police patrol as Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after the morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, June 26, 2017. Ben Dooley/AFP

They must also keep files on all staff or residents detailing their religious and social activities and any contact with overseas organizations or individuals.

Meanwhile, the government has some pointers for the content of any sermons or teachings.

"The content of sermons shall be appropriate for the Chinese national situation ... and embody socialist core values."

Venues will be required to engage in nationalistic and patriotic education, and promote the use of Mandarin in religious activities and writings.

Venues must "integrate Chinese culture and embody Chinese style in terms of architecture, sculpture, painting, decoration and so on," according to the guidelines, which warn "it is forbidden to build large open-air religious statues outside temples and churches."

Wider crackdown coming

Meanwhile, crowdfunding from religious believers to build or extend venues now appears to be a thing of the past.

"It is prohibited to invest in, contract and operate religious activity sites or large open-air religious statues," the guidelines say.

Management teams are expected to "stop illegal religious activities and cult activities, resist religious extremism, and prevent foreign forces from using religion to infiltrate [their organization]."

The rules include a ban on accepting teaching posts from overseas religious groups or institutions without prior authorization, and on accepting donations from overseas.

“Sinicized Buddhism is just a form of organizational brainwashing in disguise," says a Buddhist monk in China who gave the religious name Shi Daoguo, Credit: Provided by Shi Daoguo
“Sinicized Buddhism is just a form of organizational brainwashing in disguise," says a Buddhist monk in China who gave the religious name Shi Daoguo, Credit: Provided by Shi Daoguo

Religious groups are also banned from carrying out unapproved activities outside their pre approved, scheduled programs, and against hosting unapproved religious activities in a site not approved for such activities.

A Buddhist monk who gave the religious name Shi Daoguo said the new rules won't be good news for religious believers in China.

"Buddhism is a religion of wisdom, which should train people to think independently," he said. "But sinicized Buddhism is just a form of organizational brainwashing in disguise."

"It can't lead people to free or independent thought."

Shi Daoguo said he is already under close surveillance by local officials, who have cut off his religious credentials and his income after he started to speak out against the sinicization of his religion.

"All of my documentation has been revoked, and my phone is being monitored," he said. "They can cripple you financially, making it very difficult for you ... without any formal affiliation with a religious venue or any donations, there is no income."

Buddhist monks are generally expected to renounce material wealth and rely on laypeople to provide their food and other necessities through donation.

Chang Chia-lin, a professor at the Institute of Mainland China at Taiwan's Tamkang University, said the new rules represent the triumph of politics over spirituality.

"One another level, it means that politics trumps religion, so that if you break these rules, they can take legal action against you," Chang said. 

"I think that these religious venues will be forced to obey the government after Sept. 1 ... either the State Administration of Religious Affairs or the United Front Work Department."


Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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