China’s Xi launches his own Cultural Revolution

JONATHAN MANTHORPE  
August 13, 2014

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Xo Jinping (official photo)

Xi Jinping is not content with being the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong. He also wants to play God.

Xi’s ruling Communist Party announced last week it will write its own version of “Chinese Christian theology” to ensure adherents abide by the country’s party-imposed political culture. The attempt to take control of religion in China is part of a broad campaign by Xi to establish “cultural security.” The aim is to outlaw and control all foreign influences that might undermine the communists’ one-party rule. The campaign, endorsed by the National People’s Congress last November, is seeing unrelenting crackdowns on the media — especially foreign journalists — academics, foreign businesses, and civil society organizations as well as Christian churches.

Chinese in their millions have been seeking a spiritual element in their lives by becoming Christians or following traditional religions such as Buddhism since the Communist Party in the 1980s abandoned any pretence of being an idealistic social movement. The most reliable estimates are that there are about 70 million Christians in China, most of whom are Protestants and about 12 million of whom are Catholics.

As well as re-writing Christian theology and liturgy, the Communist Party is engaged in a more direct assault on religion. About 1,000 South Korean Protestant Christian missionaries, who aimed to work among the hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees in China, have recently been either expelled or refused entry visas.

This campaign also swept up the Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Garrat, who were arrested last week for “stealing state secrets.” Their café at Dandong near the border with North Korea was used as a meeting place for Christians and missionaries.

The campaign has also involved the destruction or defacing of some churches by local officials.

At the same time, Beijing is continuing its relentless campaign to eradicate the quasi-Buddhist organization Falun Gong, which was declared an “evil cult” and outlawed in 1999. Thousands of the group’s adherents have been detained and many killed. There are numerous allegations that Falun Gong prisoners have been used to harvest body parts for surgical transplants.

It was Falun Gong that gave the Communist Party a vivid demonstration of the threat religion poses to its power. In 1999, about 15,000 of the group’s followers gathered one Sunday morning outside the party leaders’ Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing to protest persecution. This was only a few weeks before the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, and security in the capital was meant to be exceptionally tight. But the Falun Gong followers, many of them middle aged former stalwarts of the Communist Party, came from all over China without the security authorities detecting what was happening.

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The frontispiece of Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata in 1666 shows Francis Xavier (left), Ignatius of Loyola (right) and Christ at the upper centre; below Matteo Ricci (right) and Xu Guangqi (left) are depicted, holding a map of China and apparently discussing the evangelization of China. Image: Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany, via Wikimedia. Public domain.

Since then, the Beijing authorities have struck out mercilessly against any national movement that might become organized opposition to the Communist Party.

China first came into contact with Catholicism in the 1290s, and Catholic missionaries became highly influential at the imperial court, as well as being a major conduit to the West of knowledge about China. In the 19th century China, with its huge population of potential converts, became a target for western Protestant missionaries. That ended when the atheist communists came to power in 1949 and expelled all foreign Christian missionaries. However, the communists swiftly realized they could not so easily eradicate religious beliefs. In the late 1950s Beijing decided to take control of religion and established “patriotic” churches managed by the state. This led to a continuing battle with the Vatican. The Communist Party insists on appointing Catholic bishops and selects people it knows will not challenge the party’s authority. The Vatican tries to maintain its supremacy by appointing its own bishops and cardinals in China, many of whose identities are kept secret for their own safety.

Beijing’s efforts to control Christian churches has led to much observance going underground. The last three decades has seen the rise of “house churches” where services are held in secret.

China’s abandoning of Marxist economics and opening up to state-controlled capitalism has inevitably led to massive foreign cultural influences. It is these that Xi is now trying to rein in through the doctrine of “cultural security.”

One of the most frustrating aspects of the cultural invasion for the Communist Party has been its lost ability to control the media or to dictate the daily news message. Control of the Internet and social media is a continuing challenge to which Beijing applies huge resources and tens of thousands of censors.

 Beijing has always been sensitive about its international image and has never hesitated to punish journalists who portrayed the country in ways the Communist Party dislikes. That approach has intensified recently as Beijing flexes its muscles as a growing world power. This reinvigorated campaign against foreign media can be traced back to two stories published in the United States in 2012. One was a New York Times investigation of the extraordinary wealth of the extended family of then Premier Wen Jiabao. The other was a similar dissection by the Bloomberg news agency of the family wealth of incoming President and Communist Party boss Xi.

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United States president George W. Bush at Kuanjie Protestant Christian Church in China, 2008. Photo by Chris Greenberg, U.S. government, public domain

Access to Bloomberg’s web site in China was blocked and the company warned to watch its future conduct. Early last year a general warning was aimed at the foreign media when press credentials and work visas were withheld for reporters from Reuters, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg and The New York Times. These and other companies have denied they agreed to tone down their coverage of China in return for continued access to the country.

Foreign academics, particularly Americans, who have a record of criticizing China’s human rights record, subjugation of ethnic minorities or dynastic political system may now find themselves on a blacklist kept by the Ministry of State Security and denied visas to visit China.

Xi’s campaign to control China’s cultural security is also reaching into the world of business. The Communist Party is increasingly sensitive about access to financial information, especially since the party became nothing more than a Masonic lodge for corrupt and vastly wealthy family business empires.

Companies, most of them foreign, attempting to do research for due diligence reports or investment risk assessments are often finding themselves the target of cyber attacks. Sometimes the attacks are more straightforward. There are increasingly frequent reports of Chinese employees of foreign financial companies and even foreigners themselves being arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges of breaking Chinese laws. These usually stem from trying to gather what would be regarded elsewhere as perfectly legitimate financial information.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

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