China’s efforts to sinicize – or “make Chinese” – all official religions in the country have gained momentum in recent months. Evidence of this acceleration is, literally, blowing in the wind.
As a result of new official mandates, religious communities across the country are installing new infrastructure and instituting new rituals to demonstrate their patriotism. At the center of the current controversy is the national flag, suddenly occupying a more prominent place on churches and temples than traditional symbols of religion.
Critics say the new mandates impose severe costs – both financial and spiritual.
According to the legal representative from a government-approved Protestant Three-Self church in Dandong city, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, officials from provincial, municipal and district-level Religious Affairs Bureaus ordered all churches to raise the national flag and sing the national anthem on civil and religious holidays. If a church were to refuse, its preacher would be dismissed from duty and the church would be forcibly shut down. Bowing to this pressure, multiple Three-Self churches began to fly the national flag starting in August.
For many believers, this demand from the authorities forces them symbolically to place the state before God, disregarding what their churches may teach about the state and politics.
The administrator of a Buddhist temple in Dehua county, in the southeastern province of Fujian, reported that the temple spent 6,600 RMB (about 960 USD) to erect three flagpoles in accordance with government regulations. In addition, every time officials from the Religious Affairs Bureau conduct an inspection, the temple must pay for their fuel (350 RMB or 50 USD per vehicle) and lunch expenses (more than 2,000 RMB or 290 USD).
Chinese temples generally have few financial resources available. The finance director of the Dehua temple reports that he had to get financial assistance from other nearby temples to buy the flagpoles and feed government officials. Though he feels helpless, the finance director admits, “There is nothing we can do, we must comply.”
Since at least 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pushed a policy of sinicization, in order to make religions conform to Chinese politics and culture, and to make them “compatible with a socialist society.” The policy takes various forms – from “localizing” religious architecture to “sinicizing” religious doctrine.
As part of the policy’s implementation effort, the Sixth Joint Conference of the Country’s Religious Groups held on July 31 this year, issued a joint statement calling for nine specific practices to be adopted, including:
- Organizing activities to study the Chinese constitution, flag law, and rituals surrounding the flag
- Organizing flag-raising ceremonies at all churches and temples on National Day, Labor Day, New Years, Day, Chinese New Year, and other important religious festivals and commemorations
- Having government-appointed religious officials inspect flag installations and supervise flag-raising ceremonies to ensure all is done with appropriate dignity.
A Buddhist monk from Shuangzhou Temple in Shangrao city’s Guangfeng district reports that the local government demanded all local temples erect a flagpole and raise the Chinese flag before National Day. Any temples that do not comply will be put on a blacklist. As a result, his temple had to spend 16,800 RMB (about 2430 USD) to build a flag raising platform. The monk also reports that since 2005, the temple was required to pay 2,000 RMB (about $290) per year to the government. He was told that, if this payment is not made, the temple will be ordered to close down.
So far, at least 66 temples in Guangfeng district have installed flag infrastructure and instituted flag-raising ceremonies.
Installing flag infrastructure and instituting flag raising rituals may not be enough to satisfy state authorities, as believers at Chenghuang Temple in the central province of Hubei found out recently.
In early August, officials from the Religious Affairs Bureau of Shishou city arrived at this Taoist temple to conduct an inspection. The inspectors determined that the flagpole was not tall enough, and ordered that it be raised by four meters. Temple leaders rushed to alter the flagpole to avoid being shut down. They also had to install a “system plaque” (a wooden frame on which political slogans are posted), spending over 1,700 RMB (about $250) in all.
On October 1, Religious Affairs Bureau officials returned to the temple and ordered the leader of the temple to convene all the worshippers. The whole community was required to hold a flag-raising ceremony and sing the national anthem in a loud voice, under the supervision of the government officials.
Worshipers at the temple were upset by the forced display of patriotism. One believer complained, “We’re just reciting scripture, worshipping Buddha, and cultivating our moral character. We don’t get involved in worldly affairs. The government officials forced us to betray our consciences.”
A monk summed up the effect of the government’s actions on believers when he said, “First, the government makes you raise the national flag, breaking down your psychological defenses so that you obey the Party’s leadership. The second step is to start gradually infiltrating and controlling you, ultimately achieving their aim of completely eliminating religious belief. The Party moves step-by-step because it knows that believers would resist a sudden change. However, make no mistake: the end goal is the end of religious belief.”
Reported by Lin Yijiang and Piao Junying