Similar to the infamous national reputation system, used for mass surveillance and control of citizens, churches face closure for “defying” government regulations.
by Jiang Tao
Standardized assessment enters places of worship
A county under the jurisdiction of Zhengzhou, the capital of the central province of Henan, recently implemented a system of “standardized assessment of religious venues” for state-approved places of worship, according to which, each venue with a score under 70 points (out of 100) will be considered a “substandard” and can be closed down.
The assessment lists more than 50 violations for which churches can lose points and face various forms of punishment, such as the dismissal of the person in charge.
Three points can be taken if church clergy members leave the county without prior approval, five points can be deducted for not raising the national flag or when video surveillance equipment inside the church doesn’t work properly, and eight points – for not proactively giving “sinicized” sermons.
Similar assessment practices, reminiscent of the infamous social credit system, have been implemented at some churches in other places and are becoming more and more prevalent in the country. Promulgated in 2014, the social credit system will be fully implemented in 2020 throughout China. The system, which factors in all daily activities in determining one’s credit score, has already been depriving citizens of their freedoms, as those deemed to have been “discredited” face unfair treatment – from being denied to buy plane or train tickets to not being able to become a civil servant.
Restricted in every respect
The 2019 Scoring Form for the Standardized Management and Assessment of Buddhist and Taoist Activity Venues in Xiaoshan District, issued by the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Hangzhou city’s Xiaoshan district in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, lists dozens of breaches that may incur the deduction of points. For example, 15 points will be taken for not promoting the core socialist values in the venue, and five points will be lost for having religious publications that are not published by state-designated publishing houses.
In July, a Three-Self church in Zaolinzhu village of Zhongmu county, under the jurisdiction of Zhengzhou city, was deducted ten points for using a hymnbook published by an unauthorized publishing house and five points because the church’s Chinese national flag was “old and tattered.” Around the same time, a Three-Self church in the county’s Menzhuang village incurred a five-point deduction because its bathroom wasn’t clean.
Caochang Church in the county lost ten points because it didn’t have a sterilizing cabinet or an icebox on the premises. More points were taken because believers who cooked meals for the congregation didn’t have a health certificate.
A church member explained to Bitter Winter that sterilizing cabinets and iceboxes are hardly ever used, but to avoid further point deductions, the church decided to buy them, despite tight finances.
In August, after an inspection, local officials demanded to install two fire escape doors in the wall of Caochang Church that faces a large pit, and there are no paths or roads that could help people escape in case of fire. Regardless that the requirement was absurd, to avoid point deductions, the church had no choice but to comply and arrange for fire escape doors that lead nowhere.
It appears that the point deduction system has become one more tool for the government to harass and control believers. Even obviously unreasonable requirements cannot be rejected.
“If such inspections continue, the church will have to be closed down and ‘rectified,’” a co-worker from another church in Zhongmu county told Bitter Winter worriedly. He revealed that within just nine days, officials from various levels of government conducted four inspections, and in July – seven.
More patriotism and politics, less God
“The government demands us to participate in studies of the policies passed by two Chinese Christian Councils. If we’re absent from these classes or don’t sing the national anthem before a gathering, the church will have points deducted. We are required to place our love of the country before the love of God. This is wrong, contrary to what the Bible requires,” said a young Three-Self preacher from Zhongmu county.
The order to become “more patriotic and political” is also at the top of requirements not to be violated in the Zhengzhou county document, according to which, two points will be deducted for each missed opportunity to educate believers on national religious policies, patriotism, and traditional culture. Ten points are taken for disseminating “false information that damages the harmonious relationship between the government and the Church” or for expressing dissatisfaction with the authorities.
The highest amount of points will be lost for “foreign-related” issues that are regarded as “betraying the Party and defecting to the enemy.” If a clergy member is found engaging in religious activities that could be associated with abroad, 20 points will be deducted per instance. If a church has established a religious venue with foreign ties, it will be immediately designated as a “substandard religious venue” and shut down.
A church is also deemed “substandard” if “incidents that are detrimental to the state’s interests, national unity, or social stability occur.” Any episodes related to the spread of “inappropriate” information online or involving religious groups and movements listed as a xie jiao may also lead to the closure of churches.
Fearing that their churches could be shut down because of low points, some Three-Self believers no longer dare to hold private gatherings at home, since they could lose ten points for their church for holding “unregulated religious activities.” Some Three-Self churches prohibited their congregations from commenting about government actions on social media, warning “to think it through before making any comments.”
“All 100 points will soon be completely deducted, and the church will be shut down before the end of the year,” an elderly Christian lamented. “The state is applying the system used for government institutions to regulate and sanction churches. This isn’t going to work. We cannot cease our gatherings or sever our relationship with God out of fear that the government will deduct points.”