Under President Xi Jinping, China’s Communist Party is cracking down on religious freedom in rural areas. Christians in southeast China have complained that the local poverty relief program will withhold funds unless families remove posters of Jesus, crosses, or gospel couplets and replace them with pictures of Xi.
“Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their saviour. … After our cadres’ work, they’ll realise their mistakes and think: we should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help,” said Qi Yan, chairman of the Huangjinbu people’s congress in southeastern Yugan county and the person in charge of the poverty relief drive.
Local officials boasted on a local social media account about converting Christians (about 10 percent of the population in Yugan county) into believers in the party. They bragged about having “melted the hard ice in their hearts” and “transformed them from believing in religion to believing in the party.”
The social media post mentioned that more than 600 villages had “voluntarily” gotten rid of the religious texts and paintings in their homes and replaced them with 453 portraits of Xi, the South China Morning Post reported. The social media post disappeared a few days after it was posted, but local officials and villagers confirmed the campaign did take place.
A local man in Yugan with the last name Liu said that in recent months his fellow villagers had been ordered to remove religious artifacts from their homes. “Some families put up gospel couplets on their front doors during the Lunar New Year, some also hang paintings of the cross,” Liu told the Morning Post. “But they’ve all been torn down.”
Liu insisted that many did not tear down their posters willingly. “They all have their belief and, of course, they didn’t want to take them down. But there is no way out,” he said. “If they don’t agree to do so, they won’t be given their quota from the poverty-relief fund.”
Qi, the official, insisted that the funds were not contingent on recipients removing the posters. “We only asked them to take down [religious] posters in the centre of the home. They can still hang them in other rooms, we won’t interfere with that,” the official said. “What we require is for them not to forget about the party’s kindness at the centre of their living rooms.”
“They still have the freedom to believe in religion, but in their minds they should [also] trust our party,” the official declared. Christians can believe in their religion, but the Communist Party’s “kindness” must be commemorated “at the centre of their living rooms.”
Qi framed the entire project as a way to combat poverty in rural China, a key goal for President Xi. “Many poor households have plunged into poverty because of illness in the family. Some resorted to believing in Jesus to cure their illnesses,” he explained.
“But we tried to tell them that getting ill is a physical thing and that the people who can really help them are the Communist Party and General Secretary Xi,” the official added. Christians do believe that faith in Jesus can cure diseases, but most also accept modern medicine, believing that God can work through science and technology as well.
Qi explained that Huangjinbu is home to about 5,000 or 6,000 Christian families, about a third of the total Christians in Yugan. He said the township government had distributed more than 1,000 portraits of Xi, all of which had been hung in residents’ homes.
This is far from the first time China under Xi has cracked down on religious freedom. In April, the Communist Party banned the use of Islamic names like “Jihad,” “Islam,” and “Mohammed” in Muslim-majority Xinjiang province. In September, it became clear that the party had effectively banned performances of Handel’s “Messiah.”
In 2015, China’s Communist Party removed crosses from atop Christian churches for “safety reasons.” They further claimed that pastors and church leaders “are very supportive” of the removals…
In October, Xi told the Communist Party Congress that religion should be “Chinese in orientation.” At that congress, Xi’s communist doctrine became enshrined in the party’s constitution, putting him on the same level as notorious Communist dictator Mao Zedong.
China’s Christian population may now outstrip the membership of the Communist Party. According to sociologist Rodney Stark and co-author Xiuhua Wang in A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China, there has been a 7 percent increase in Christians every year in China. In 1980, there were approximately 10 million Christians there. In 2007, that number had climbed to 61.1 million. By 2030, they estimated, there will be 294.6 million Christians — nearly the entire population of the United States.
Current estimates suggest there are 100 million Christians in China, while there are only about 90 million members of the Communist Party.