A comparatively new expression, “xie jiao and illegal missionary activities,” may guide the new crackdowns
by Hu Zimo
Bitter Winter reported last week on the December 3–4 National Conference on Work Related to Religious Affairs, the first such conference since 2016, personally presided over by President Xi Jinping, who delivered the keynote speech.
In China, religion is above all a matter of police, and Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi immediately followed up with a high-level meeting of security officers on how to implement Xi Jinping’s speech at the conference.
Zhao took from Xi’s speech the notion that when it comes to religion, police work is ideological work, and officers should earnestly study Marxist theory of religion to avoid serious mistakes.
While Zhao’s speech was largely a summary of the one Xi pronounced at the conference, what was interesting was his repeated use of the expression “xie jiao and illegal missionary activities” (邪教和非法传教活动的), which is not absolutely new but was never so much emphasized. Readers of Bitter Winter understand what xie jiao are: groups perceived by the CCP as anti-Party and subversive, banned by using an old label from Imperial China meaning “heterodox teachings” but conveniently translated in CCP English language documents as “evil cults” for the benefit of Western readers, with the implication that these are not really religions but “cults.”
Apart from the five authorized religions, all religious activities are illegal in China. And even for the five government-controlled religions, proselytizing is illegal. This was a key point of the 2016 conference on religion, reiterated in 2021. However, so far there has been a key difference between being active in a xie jiao and performing other illegal religious activities. Members of xie jiao are considered criminals and sentenced to jail penalties under Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code. Being active on behalf of an illegal religion not listed as a xie jiao is not a crime per se, although it can be punished in certain circumstances.
The repeated use in Zhao’s speech of the expression “xie jiao and illegal missionary activities,” where “illegal” would not even be necessary since missionary activities are all illegal, seems to imply that after the National Conference of 2021 religious proselytization in general will be treated as severely as propagating a xie jiao. In fact, Zhao instructed public security to carry out a “severe crackdown on xie jiao and illegal missionary activities” (对邪教和非法传教活动的严打高压态势).
Time will tell whether the distinction between xie jiao and other “illegal” religious activities will become blurred in the future—of course not in the sense that xie jiao will be treated less severely, but that other forms of independent religion and proselytism will be repressed as mercilessly as the xie jiao.