Magazine article The Spectator

Christmas in China

Magazine article The Spectator

Christmas in China

Article excerpt

The Communist party tolerates Santa but clamps down on Jesus

If you think capitalism has blinged up Christmas, you should see what the Communists are doing to it. At this time of year, Chinese cities are dressed up like one big Oxford Street, but with lights that put London's in the shade. Christmas Eve has become the biggest shopping day of the year. At the school where I taught last year, every classroom had at least three Christmas trees: one outside the door, one inside the door and one at the back. Tinsel ran up staircases, fake snow adorned all the windows. The Chinese have even developed their own Christmas traditions: revellers give each other elaborately packaged apples, and Father Christmas is always pictured playing the saxophone.

It's quite impressive for a country where the public celebration of Christmas has been an offence since 1949. While this is clearly a prohibition honoured more in the breach than the observance, as far as festive tat is concerned, the proliferation of plastic Santas ought not to obscure the very real anxieties the festivities continue to cause the Communist party. Officially, its problem is with a bonanza of unprincipled western garishness distracting young Chinese from the Confucian delights of Chinese festivals. In reality, they're worried that too many people are genuinely celebrating the birth of Christ.

So far, the problem is containable. Many young Chinese are not even aware that it's a religious celebration; indeed, my students had only the haziest conception of who Christ actually is. I was impressed by their knowledge of stockings, Christmas food and the lyrics to 'Jingle Bells' but amazed by their total ignorance of what it was all in aid of. But the way things are going, they might find out.

The spread of the faith is something that even the government can't quite control. In 1949, there were about four million Chinese Christians; there could be as many as 100 million today, an increase out of all proportion with even China's exponential population growth. In fact, it now has more Christians than members of the Communist party. Christianity is the country's second most popular organised religion after Buddhism; by 2030, China is predicted to have overtaken the US not just as the world's largest economy, but as the home of the world's largest Christian congregation.

The general threat posed by all this is obvious: Christians answer to the Almighty, not to Xi Jinping. To some extent, this is being tackled head-on: Christian villagers in Jiangxi province are being encouraged to replace images of Jesus with portraits of Xi to access a poverty alleviation initiative. A few years ago, the city of Wenzhou banned school Christmas celebrations, saying they wanted to refocus attention on Chinese culture. At one university in the city of Xi'an, students were forced to attend a three-hour screening of patriotic documentaries on Christmas Eve and urged by banners to 'oppose kitsch western holidays'.

But they protest too much. The party's policy is to simultaneously tolerate and complain about Christmas's materialistic trappings, in the hope that they suppress (or at least disguise) genuine religiosity. Its concern is explained not just by the rise of churchgoing, but the denominational shift. …

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