A new report exposes the five authorized religions’ “complicity in the government’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
by Massimo Introvigne
According to sociologist Fenggang Yang’s famous distinction, China’s religion is organized according to three “markets.” The “red market” includes the five authorized religions: five government-controlled bodies that constitute the only legal religious organizations in China. They are the Three-Self Church for Protestants, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Catholics, the China Daoist Association for Daoists, the China Islamic Association for Muslims, and the China Buddhist Association for Buddhists.
The “black market” includes the groups singled out by the regime and banned as “xie jiao” (“heterodox teachings,” sometimes translated as “evil cults”), which are mercilessly persecuted. In the middle lies the largest segment of China’s religious life, the “gray market” of communities that refuse to join the five authorized religions and are regarded as illegal although they are not banned as xie jiao: Protestant house churches, Catholic conscientious objectors who refuse the Vatican-China deal of 2018, independent Daoist and Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques. Under Xi Jinping, life has become increasingly precarious for those in the “gray market” too.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent U.S. bipartisan commission whose members are designated by the congressional leaders of both parties and appointed by the President. On December 29, it has released a new report on “State-Controlled Religion and Religious Freedom Violations in China,” which focuses on the role the five authorized religions play in the Chinese system of anti-religious repression. We are thankful for the repeated references to Bitter Winter, including to an important article by Marco Respinti that exposed China’s strategy for installing a Dalai Lama of its own when the current 14th Dalai Lama will die.
The report denounces the five authorized religions’ “complicity in the government’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” It carefully explains how the five organizations exist not to promote religion but to control, limit, and transform it into a propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This role is not secret, the report notes. It is clearly spelled out in the by-laws of the five organizations, in Xi Jinping’s speeches, and in the 2020 “Measures on the Administration of Religious Groups.” The five bodies are defined as “patriotic religious organizations,” “with an express purpose to ‘unite and guide’ members of their respective religious communities to ‘support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system.’”
In practice, the report explains, this means that they “assist or work with the CCP and government in promulgating, implementing, and enforcing state laws, regulations, and policies—often at the expense of the religious communities they claim to represent.” They are asked to offer their support in tracking down, denouncing, and persecuting the xie jiao and other forms of “illegal” religion, and they do it zealously.
They lead their affiliates to study the CCP documents and the writings and speeches of Xi Jinping. They make sure that authorized places of worship are “forced to display Communist propaganda posters, including images and quotes of Communist leaders such as Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong, although the display of such images violates religious principles of some religions. Moreover, state-sanctioned clergy members are forced to incorporate CCP ideology and policies into their sermons or speeches.”
While the five authorized religions play their negative role throughout the whole of China, the report notes that their complicity with the CCP is specially obvious in Xinjiang and in Tibet. There, they assist the Communist Party in its repression of genuine expressions of Islam and Buddhism, and try to hide it through propaganda disseminated internationally. In Tibet, the China Buddhist Association is increasingly taking the lead in the CCP strategy aimed at installing a fake Dalai Lama of its own when the present Dalai Lama will die.
The report concludes that “State-controlled religious organizations remain an integral part of the CCP’s institutional control of religion. These organizations are expected to be absolutely loyal to the CCP, to serve as conduits and endorsers of state propaganda, and to facilitate the implementation of the CCP’s religious policies—notably the deeply coercive policy on the sinicization of religion.
The integral involvement of these state-controlled religious organizations in such repression renders them complicit in the CCP’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations. On the other hand, these religious organizations are also ironically victims of the CCP’s religious policy; they are deprived of genuine practice of religion without state interference, and any perceived disloyalty and public disagreement with the CCP and government leads to severe punishment.”
The USCIRF report never mentions the Vatican. However, by recommending that after the 2018 agreement (renewed in 2020 and 2022) Catholics join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the Holy See is implicitly criticized for directing Chinese believers to become part of an organization exposed as an accomplice of brutal violations of religious freedom.