by Michael Sainsbury
When news began to break in early December that China’s ruling Communist Party had started a programme of burning books that deemed ideologically unsuitable, it was natural to wonder whether this may be the beginning of a new front in the escalating programme of religious repression.
Even the spectre of book burning will be sending shivers through religious communities, most particularly Christians and Muslims across China, whose combined numbers probably amounts to more than 100 million people. And, after all, online sales of the Bible, Qu’ran and other religious books were banned in 2018.
Observers have been drawing comparisons between Xi Jinping’s China, with its intolerance of debate, repression of minorities and dissidents, the collection of private information about all of its citizens and its military adventurism (most notably in the South China Sea) to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
In May 1933, Nazi student groups in Germany carried out public burnings of books they claimed were “un-German” in 34 university towns and cities. The Jews were a prime target of Nazi intolerance and censorship.
In 1953 one of the 20th century’s most prescient science fiction writers, Ray Bradbury, published the novel, Fahrenheit 451. It depicts a future where books are banned with the aim of creating a compliant population. The title comes from the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns.
It is undoubtedly a compliant population that Xi Jinping is after. The party’s so-called Great Firewall of China famously censors unwanted outside influences from the Internet—which includes major international news sites, unflattering commentary about China and, in particular, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leaders.
Outside—most pointedly western—influences are consistently named as a threat by the country’s leaders and something that the Chinese neither want nor need. The fact that it fails to see the stupendous irony in continuing to hail its system as the distinctly Marxist-Leninist, is one of the central delusions of the communist China.
Xi has identified Christianity and Islam as western religions, even though both emerged from the Middle East, not the West. These religious influences are to be tamed and hence introduced his polity of Sinicising religions in recent years, even writing it into the Communist Party manifesto.
Sinicisation is nothing like the Catholic Church’s policy of inculturation, which aims to adapt faith in the local culture and customs. Rather, sinicisation seeks to push the state squarely into religious life as baldly re-stated recently by Bishop John Fang Xingyao, the president of the Catholic Chinese Patriotic Association, the Communist Party-run body that controls the official Church in China.
He told a recent conference: “Love for the homeland must be greater than the love for the Church and the law of the country is above canon law.”
The process of sinicisation, which has brought all sorts of ignominies on Chinese Catholics, has continued apace in 2019 and Catholics in China can expect little change in the new year.
These have included bringing photos of former leader Mao Zedong, who drove the Church out of China (the Vatican cut ties with China in 1951) and Xi Jinping into churches, closing churches down and in some cases demolishing them by enforcing obscure sections of local property laws and the continuation of a long campaign of cross removal.
Churches are asked to fly the Chinese national flag, priests and some bishops continue to be harassed, illegally detained and barred from celebrating masses on significant feast days and other important occasions.
Such bishops remain unrecognised by CCPA, despite the Vatican trying to patch up its relations with Beijing with the still-secret September 2018 deal on the normalisation of the appointment of bishops.
Beijing has recognised only two of these bishops so far and precisely how many remain in limbo—appointed by the pope, sometimes in secret to protect them from official harassment—remains unknown.
Still, in June 2019, the Vatican took the unusual step of requesting that Beijing cease harassing clerics and bishops in the both the unofficial Church who did not want to sign up to the official Church.
But this appears to have fallen on deaf ears as better control of all China, including Catholics, was a clear imperative behind Beijing’s willingness to sign a deal with the Holy See.
The level of enforcement of sinicisation varies significantly across the country’s 31 provinces and four municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing) and between official and unofficial sections of Catholic and Protestant Churches.
The other overall thematic that should strengthen Chinese Catholics is that there is little communism left in China. With its moneyed and cosseted Party elite and massive wealth gaps, book burning repression, and the fast escalating national surveillance systems used to track its entire citizenry, China is a modern fascist state.
Churches and mosques have fallen squarely into category of venues that the authorities want closely monitored. Officials have long had cameras installed. Multiple reports say these are being upgraded with facial recognition software. Fingerprinting has been reported at some churches, and so we can expect to see more of this, too.
But by far, the most tragic victims of this religious repression have been ethnic Muslim Uyghurs, as well as other central Asian Muslim ethnic minorities. Their numbers in a string of concentration camps—referred to by the Chinese government as re-training camps—is estimated to be to one to two million by human rights groups, with the help of satellite technology.
The recently-leaked thousands of pages of documents and speeches by Chinese leaders, including Xi, document the brutality of camps designed to cleanse their inmates of their religion and culture. That at least 150 have been killed so far in the process has horrified the world which, primarily because China’s economic clout, has been averting its eyes from history’s biggest human rights catastrophe.
The growing fear of China’s underground Catholics, Protestants, and other unofficial Muslims is that they may well be next. UCAN/La Croix