On Wednesday, China’s President Xi Jinping gave a 3.5 hour speech, laying out a comprehensive — and nigh totalitarian — view of the Communist Party’s control over all aspects of Chinese life going forward. His remarks also threatened religion in the country, undermining hopes of collaboration between Xi and Pope Francis.
“Ideology determines the direction a culture should take and the path it should follow as it develops,” Xi declared. He stipulated that religion must be “Chinese in orientation,” and guided by the party to adopt to socialist society.
Xi’s speech was pivotal, as it opened the 5-year gathering of the Communist Party, which is expected to name him the leader for the next five years. There are even rumors that Xi will buck tradition, refusing to promote a next-generation leader to take his place at the party’s helm at the end of the next five years.
The Chinese president set out his new book, an ideological contribution to the Communist Party’s intellectual canon: “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” One official at the gathering described it as the “third milestone” in the party’s “ideological innovation,” following Mao Zedong’s Thought and Deng Xiaoping’s Theory.
The ideological focus is no accident. In the run-up to the 5-year congress, popular talk shows and costume dramas were taken off the air by order of the government, turning the media to focus on propaganda and anti-Japanese war films, The Washington Post reported.
These remarks seemed to spell doom for hopes of a formal rapprochement between the Chinese government and the Vatican. The Communist Party does not recognize Pope Francis’ authority over the estimated 12 million Roman Catholics in China.
Xi’s demand that religion be “Chinese in orientation” only scratches the surface of his ideological attempts to dominate the country. Last month, the Communist Party ordered schools to intensify efforts to promote “Chinese traditional and socialist culture,” The New York Times reported. The government is pushing indoctrination in Communism and Chinese patriotism.
Some parents and educators have attacked such lessons as an anachronistic distraction from an essential modern education in math, science, and the liberal arts. Even math classes are drenched in Communist Party history, with students being asked to calculate the distance of the Long March, Mao’s 1934-1936 retreat across China, for example.
“Today’s life is rich, blessed, happy and joyous,” Xie Hong, a fourth-grade teacher, told her students. “Where does our happy life come from? Who gave it to us?”
“It comes from the blood of revolutionary martyrs! From the Red Army!” 9-year-old Li Jiacheng declared, to applause from the classroom and a broad smile from his teacher.
Communist Party schools tell students that loyalty to the party can help them overcome personal difficulties and live a meaningful life, deep needs usually addressed by religion.
This helps explain what Xi meant when he said religion must be “Chinese in character.” Whatever students believe, it must not conflict with the ideology of Communist utopia. Chinese citizens may visit the tombs of their ancestors, they may attend state-sanctioned churches (which face increasing restrictions), but they must root their personality and their hope for ultimate meaning in the Communist Party and their Chinese heritage.
Such a totalizing cultural push emerges in various ways, like the banning of performances of Handel’s “Messiah,” for example. Christians aren’t the only ones facing a form of persecution, of course. China’s government banned Islamic names in the heavily-Muslim western province of Xinjiang.
Even in the face of these crack-downs, Christianity is exploding in the Middle Kingdom, perhaps even inspired by the persecution to reach more people with the gospel. Could Xi’s push to enforce Communist ideology actually end up further enflaming the religious minority that looks to Jesus as its king and heaven as its ultimate home? Something similar happened in the Roman Empire…