In order to qualify as “Beautiful Villages,” they should report that illegal (and preferably also legal) religious activity has been eradicated.
by Liu Wangmin
Many believe that their village is beautiful, but in China “beautiful village” has a different meaning. There is an official “Beautiful Village Policy,” which is part of a broader policy to create a “New Socialist Countryside (NSC),” which was included into the eleventh Five-Year Plan in 2006. The “Beautiful Village” concept was first experimented with in some provinces, went national in 2013, and is personally promoted by Xi Jinping since 2015.
The NSC policy evokes bad memories for older Chinese. It was part of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the greatest human-made catastrophe in history, which caused according to different estimates from 15 to 55 million deaths. Xi Jinping insists that there is now a new and different NSC policy. However, the general concept remains rooted in Mao’s era. Villages are proclaimed “beautiful” if they conform to parameters decided in Beijing, not at the local levels. There is a complicated system of points. 1,000 points are available, and in order to be declared a “Beautiful Village” one should come close to the maximum. There are a number of advantages in becoming a “Beautiful Village,” including for local leaders aspiring to be promoted.
The Beautiful Village Policy is sold to foreigners as China’s answer to the worldwide concern for ecology, and for protecting historical heritage. However, under the banner of preserving history what is really happening is a “museumification” of religious buildings. They are protected or even restored, but holding religious rituals there becomes forbidden, and they are converted into museums, sometimes displaying contents connected with the glories of the local Communist Party, which have nothing to do with the previous functions of the building.
“Beautiful Villages” have to follow the yearly directives of the “Central Documents” of the Ministry of Agriculture. They focus on the three precepts of “listen to the Party, love the Party, and follow the Party,” as reiterated in the 2021 Central Document.
“Beautiful Villages” are supposed to be free of illegal religious activities. The 2021 Central Document asks to “intensify the crackdown on illegal religious activities in rural areas and overseas religious infiltration activities, and stop the use of religion to interfere with rural public affairs.” Also, “feudal superstitions” should be eliminated, which is a code word for Feng Shui and divination.
In fact, these directives were also included in the Central Documents for the previous years. In 2018, it was ordered to “increase the crackdown on illegal religious activities in rural areas and overseas infiltration activities…, stop the use of religion to interfere in rural public affairs…, and continue to rectify the disorderly construction of temples and indiscriminate religious statues in rural areas,” with “rectify” meaning “demolish.” The 2019 and 2020 Central Documents explicitly mentioned the need of totally eradicating the presence of the banned religious movements labeled xie jiao, such as The Church of Almighty God and Falun Gong.
“Legal” religion, part of the five authorized religions, is also a victim of the Beautiful Village Policy. Villagers in the province of Henan told Bitter Winter that in fact, to come close to 1,000 or at least 900 points and be awarded the coveted “Beautiful Village” label, local authorities ask that no religious activity at all survives in the village. One villager reported that some village chiefs in fact cheat, and declare that religion has been eradicated in their villages while this is not true.