Academic journal article China Perspectives

New Wine in Old Bottles

Academic journal article China Perspectives

New Wine in Old Bottles

Article excerpt

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Aseries of events in Xi Jinping's first term signal an intensification of the government's policy toward religion. The first of these has been a renewed emphasis on united front work, of which religion is an integral part. In May 2015, Xi Jinping held what may have been the most significant united front work conference in three decades. Prior to the conference, for the first time since 1982, two sub-national leaders (fuguoji UBIS)-Sun Chunlan (a Politburo member) and Wang Zhengwei (a vicechairman of the National People's Political Consultative Conference)-assumed the positions of department head and a deputy position, respectively, after the former head of the United Front Work Department was purged during Xi's anti-corruption campaign. A second, simultaneous sign was that the name of the conference was changed from the National United Front Work Conference to the Central United Front Work Conference. Both these moves indicated that Xi was placing a new emphasis on united front work, which Mao had praised as one of the three principal magic weapons, along with armed struggle and party building, in the Communist Party's revolutionary victory.

The importance of united front work had for a great part of the PRC's history been reduced due to its focus on coalition-building, which no longer fits the political framework, given the political dominance of the Communist Party. The renewed emphasis and expansion demonstrates Xi's recognition of an increasingly complicated and diverse society (Groot 2016) and of the challenges this pluralism poses to his reign in "a new era" in which China is "closer, more confident, and more capable than ever before of making the goal of national rejuvenation a reality."(1)

In April 2016, Xi Jinping became the first Party Secretary since 2001 to attend the annual National Religious Work Conference. At that meeting Xi called for the Party to consolidate its united front with religious communities and to unite and organise religious believers to strive for his Chinese Dream. Speaking to an audience of religious work officials, he pronounced the grand strategy of religious sinicisation laid out in the Central United Front Work Conference and asked the attendees to confront the issues of foreign infiltration and religious extremism as well as to meet the challenges that had arisen from the Internet.(2)

Officials preparing a revision of the "Regulations on Religious Affairs (2005)" that had begun in 2014 quickly responded to Xi's instruction. Their draft was made public in September 2016, and nine months later, in 2017, the State Council passed the new Regulations, scheduled to take effect in February 2018. Wang Zuo'an, Director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), emphasised that the revision was under the direct supervision of the Centre and that it aimed to "put in practice the spirit of the National Religious Work Conference."(3)

When he took office, Xi Jinping inherited a variety of challenges in the religious sphere that he perceived to be detrimental to his ruling objectives. These issues included widespread commercialisation of Buddhism and Taoism; extremism and anti-Chinese (ni zhongguohua ä^Bíh) sentiment among the Muslim minorities and Tibetans; a persisting belief in the Holy Order among Chinese Catholics; and the proliferation of house churches among Protestants. The root cause of all these problems, Xi believed, was what he considered the failure of the religions to accept and become integrated into "fine traditional Chinese culture" (Zhonghua youxiu chuantong wenhua Especially troublesome, in Xi's view, were Christianity

and Islam, whose followers' lack of confidence in Chinese culture has apparently primed them to absorb Western values and extremism.(4)

The term sinicisation (zhongguohua ФВ!κ), officially introduced at the Central United Front Work Conference in 2015, connotes a state initiative

to press religions in China to incorporate Chinese characteristics into their beliefs and practices. …

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