A Three-Self Church report to the 20th Congress explains that the new concept of “Sinicization” of Christianity means accepting the “Marxist view of religion.”
by Zhang Chunhua
The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party opens on October 16, and the government-controlled Protestant Three-Self Church contributes to it with a report on how Christianity is being “Sinicized.” Published on October 8, the report is signed by Pastor Xu Xiaohong, the Chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee.
The document reviews the efforts made by the Three-Self Church to accomplish the “Sinicization” of Chinese Protestant Christianity, and proposes a road map for the future. Its main theoretical point is an explanation of how the concept of “Sinicization” has evolved throughout the history of the People’s Republic.
In the last few years, the Three-Self Church has lionized the figure of theologian Zhao Zichen (known in the West as T.C. Chao, 1888–1979), as the main founder of the doctrine of Sinicization. The Exhibition Hall on Zhao in Deqing county, Zhejiang province, has been solemnly visited this year by the Three-Self Church’s main leaders, and pilgrimages continue to be organized there.
Zhao is celebrate for his anti-missionary and anti-American stance, yet we are now told that the doctrine of Sinicization today has evolved with respect to his writings. Zhao’s idea that Christianity in China should be separated as much as possible from foreign and Western influences and styles is proclaimed as still valid. If anything, it needs more radical implementation. For instance, Xu praises the work done in Sinicizing the architecture of Christian churches, which in practice means destroying or downsizing crosses and other specific Christian features and making places of worship more similar in their external appearance to secular halls and in some cases to Taoist or Buddhist temples.
However, Xu also explains that breaking the relationship between Chinese and Western Christianity is necessary but is not sufficient. The question is with what will Chinese Protestantism replace the discarded Western contents. A generic reference to Chinese culture would not be enough. Here, Xi Jinping’s thought on the Sinicization of religion (there is a Xi Jinping thought for everything) comes to the rescue. As explained by the President in his speech at the December 3–4, 2021 National Conference on Work Related to Religious Affairs, and summarized by Xu, today “Sinicization” does not mean only adapting religion to Chinese culture. It means making religion compatible with “the Marxist view of religion” and “Socialist religious theory with Chinese characteristics.”
One could object that Marxism is an atheistic ideology. Xu is aware of this problem, although he carefully avoid the use of the world “atheism” in his report. He believes that when adapted to “China’s specific reality,” and the tradition of the CCP (by which he means mostly Deng Xiaoping’s views), Marxist theory of religion does not call for its immediate demise. Religion can survive for an indefinite time, provided that—as Xi Jinping stated in the 2021 conference—it accepts that its role in China is to persuade believers they should support the CCP, and understands that it “should not interfere with social life” and stay away from the education of the younger generations.
Xu admits that these aims are not yet totally clear to all Three-Self pastors. For this reasons, while the 2018–2022 Sinicization five-year plan is coming to a conclusion, Xu announces a new “Five-Year Plan for Promoting the Sinicization of Christianity in China (2023–2027),” which will include more standardized sermons to be preached in all churches. He hopes that the Plan will lead Chinese Protestant Christianity to “unite more closely around the Central Committee of the Party with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core.”