The Xi Jinping Cohort and the Chinafication of Religion

By: Max Oidtmann

March 16, 2020

Regulating Religion in China

Many other observers of contemporary China have accurately noted that a cascade of new policies (zhengce政策), laws and regulations (tiaoli 条例), authoritative opinions (yijian意见), “important speeches” (zhongyao jianghua重要讲话), and other unpublicized directives have profoundly circumscribed the activities of religious organizations and eliminated the legal gray zones that have for decades allowed independent religious organizations to, if not always flourish, at least eek out an existence in niches large and small across Chinese society. It is clear that the era of official tolerance for private religious faith and apolitical (or perhaps mildly civically minded) religious groups has now ended. Governance in the Xi Jinping-era is governance by campaign, not routine, and in a campaign society, everything is political.

But it is insufficient to argue that the party is pursuing an all-out war against autonomous religious groups and individuals simply because it fears threats to its monopoly on political power and its dominance of functions that in other countries would be left to civil society. The CCP’s legitimation story does not hinge solely on a claim to be the only group capable of delivering social services, domestic stability, and international respect. The CCP is also a self-appointed cultural hegemon. Its raison d’être lies in its claim to be the supreme arbiter of morality, taste, art, beauty, fashion, etiquette, and, above all, patriotism. It is, according to its own claims, more “woke” than any other group. The CCP is therefore an identity politics juggernaut. But, as such, it is fundamentally brittle, and leaders such as Xi Jinping fear it will shatter the moment alternative cultural arbiters can establish themselves. It is this recognition that catalyzed Xi Jinping’s very first and most enduring campaign: the anti-corruption drive that began in 2012. It is this same fear that inspired the “Religious Affairs Regulations” of 2017 and the new “Measure for the Administration of Religious Groups” in 2019. 

The idea that China’s religious communities needed further “Chinafication (中国化)” is an outgrowth of the fear I’ve just described. Incorrectly translated almost universally as “Sinicization,” the purpose of “Chinafication” is not simply the assimilation of minority groups into the Han, but rather the creation of a new supra-ethnic identity animated by loyalty to the PRC state and the messianic world-historical mission of the CCP. The Xi Jinping cohort have revived the somewhat moribund phrase zhonghua minzu (中华民族) to serve as a unifying label for the “Chinafied” people of the PRC. This momentous shift was signaled by revisions to the preamble of the PRC constitution in 2018 that replaced the phrase “Chinese people of various ethnicities” (zhongguo gezu renmin中国各族人民) with “the Chinese people” (zhonghua minzu). 

The attempt to create a new state-centered national identity helps explain why the “Chinafication” campaign has not only targeted Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism, but also popular religion with its diverse and varied strands of religious Daoism and indigenous Buddhism. The project also requires a concurrent effort at constructing a new orthodoxy—a unique moral tradition—for the nation’s people, the zhonghua minzu.  The result is the “Socialist Core Value View” (shehuizhuyi hexin jiazhiguan社会主义核心价值观, less clumsily translated as, “a value system with socialism at its core”)—a pastiche of phrases from Confucianism, Daoism, Marxism, and Maoism; a sprinkling of optimistic tarts from the global rhetoric of economic development; and a healthy dose of Legalism to underline the consequences of disloyalty and disobedience. What is remarkable is the implicit assumption of the CCP that “socialist core values” are not only compatible with all the officially sanctioned religious traditions but also can be integrated into the day-to-day teaching of these doctrines.

The logic of “Chinafication” is rife with contradictions and misapprehensions, so much so that even CCP ideologues have struggled to establish consensus about it means in practice. But then again, there is nothing historically unusual about great political projects built from ideologically contradictory materials. The CCP’s efforts most closely resemble the efforts of the Bolsheviks to give some meaning to the idea of “Soviet man,” an invention that attempted to solve the same problem that the CCP faces—i.e. welding Marxist-Leninism, multiethnic borderlands, and a domineering core civilization together into a coherent national identity. 

What will the “Chinese”—zhonghua minzu—find in the socialist core?  Probably the same contradictions that Homo Sovieticus found: an identity of anticipation and endlessly delayed gratification (for most), cloaked in a formal, yet gossamer sheath of “tradition.” Chinafication holds perhaps even less appeal for the non-Han minorities. But the degree to which the USSR nearly pulled off a similar project suggests that the odds of the PRC doing so, with its much stronger economy and globally competitive technology sectors, should not be discounted.

The practical effect of the new religious regulations will be two-fold: 1) to immediately drive underground a large number or religious groups, individuals, and religious events that had previously to had a semi-visible, semi-legal presence in Chinese society; and 2) vastly increase the responsibilities and size of the local government bureaucracy. The latter effect will be intentional, but, in my opinion, is poorly thought out. The tidy world imagined by these new laws is profoundly divorced from reality. Not only will the CCP’s attempt to regulate religious organizations, events, and sites require far more cadres and entail far greater costs, but the simultaneously vast and petty nature of the work will overwhelm even the great host of government organs and party departments charged with handling religious affairs. The long-term outcome will be deeper opposition to the state and cynical burn-out among the rank-and-file cadre-class, further undermining the whole CCP enterprise and paving the way for vicious cycles of corruption and purges in the future.

Let me explain with some specifics. First, the implementation of these regulations and measures has required extraordinary coordination across both the party and the state, and the wide range of government organs that are suspended in between. For example, the 2017 regulations stipulate that religious organizations must register with the local civil affairs (minzheng) departments, following the same procedures as all other social groups. Simple, right? However, in practice registration requires coordination between multiple organs since religious groups will necessarily also be attempting to register religious sites, get approval for specific religious ceremonies, rituals, and festivals, print or circulate religious materials, open bank accounts and certify accountants, and credential their leadership, etc. Meeting these other objectives of course requires approvals from local, regional, provincial, and in some cases even national-level branches of an exponentially increasing set of offices: everything from village or district committees and urban planning and approval bureaus to minority and religious affairs organs and even environmental and safety offices—not to mention security agencies and propaganda bureaus. 

The fact that some of the key “religious policy” directives have been co-authored and issued by sometimes up to twelve different government and party organs itself is a signal of the kind of debilitating confusion that exists within the top levels of the government about where paperwork should be filed, in what order, and about who ultimately has responsibility for religious affairs. And let’s keep in mind that the regulations are universal. They apply not only to dissident Protestants that the PRC would like to drown in paperwork but also to the entirety of popular religion, a vast array of quite conspicuous yet mostly inoffensive “tradition” whose followers represent a vast constituency that the CCP can’t afford to alienate in its entirety. 

The 2019 “Administrative Measures” will only make these problems worse. Article 25 decrees that local religious affairs departments will become the “administrative bodies” for registered religious groups, managing, for instance, their finances and approving religious ceremonies. In many respects this Measure was taken as a response to the bureaucratic chaos that the first round of new “Religious Affairs Regulations” had unleashed. The CCP had to find some way to create a funnel point for the cadres to handle the questions and requests that were flooding in at all points of the bureaucratic compass. But since the CCP had already committed itself to the “Chinafication” of religious groups, it could only double down on the bureaucracy and attempt to hand the day-to-day hands-on management of religion over to the lower rungs of the religious affairs department. 

In the breech, the CCP has repeatedly proven that it has a resilient capacity to govern, but I struggle to imagine how the CCP will locate enough cadres with sufficient experience to staff the vast number of positions that will be required to comprehensively administer local religions organizations. Moreover, who will pay for this expansion? The already overburdened budgets of local governments have little wiggle room to take on this added responsibility. Left with few dedicated (or competent) human resources, it is likely that “Chinafication” will remain only an empty slogan, especially when it comes to rural China’s vast landscape of Daoist and Buddhist religious sites.

The most likely outcome of the CCP’s legal-bureaucratic fantasy will be a farce. Yes, Protestant house churches will be fractured and driven underground, and Chinese Muslims will continue to face the humiliating task of whitewashing their mosques of Arabic calligraphy and tearing down domes and other “un-Chinese” architectural features, and struggle to educate their children in the faith of their ancestors, but the vast majority of religious organizations will soldier on, with their registration and operating requests only half approved, while local officials wring their hands in mutual self-recrimination and worry about whether they are more likely to be punished by their superiors for foot-dragging or be hounded out of town by villagers infuriated that their temple to the Dragon King had its fair suspended.  

Moreover, it is important to properly understand what the new religious affairs “regulations” and “measures” of the past several years really are. They are “administrative laws” and “measures,” not a criminal code. They are aspirational statements—blueprints for an imaginary body politic—that are far less coercive than they first appear. They urge the bureaucracy to establish procedures and routines, but offer few specifics and fewer consequences. Most articles contain the word “should” and oversight is unclear. Although religious organizations will certainly expose themselves to official harassment and possibly police and prosecutorial action if they do not register or follow other instructions, the sections on “legal liability” are characteristically vague and do not provide sanctioning guidance. Since these are fundamentally administrative regulations, they are implicitly directed first and foremost at the bureaucracy itself. The cadres themselves, therefore, are as likely to be in breach of the law as religious citizens. 

In order to understand the everyday experience of religion in China, it is wholly insufficient, therefore, to focus our attention solely on the texts of white papers, administrative regulations and codes, and other public-facing government documents. The lived reality is quite different. And in order to understand where China is going in terms of religious policy, there is no substitute for a historical appreciation of the actual functioning of specific bureaucracies and administrations, and the individual experiences and generational differences of the cadres who staff them. Far too much scholarship on religion in contemporary China is limited to close reads of government propaganda with little to no investigation of conditions in the field and especially the interface between local administration and local religious groups, even when this was possible. Sadly, given the growing hostility of the CCP to all forms of foreign social science or historical research, this lacuna is unlikely to be corrected soon.

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