In order to predict China’s future policies, numerous methods are viable, such as reading periodic white and blue books, or following the mainstream media, all of which are directed at relevant propaganda units. In addition to them, in China, which has its own centralized state tradition, president’s speeches are extremely resourceful as well. Xi Jinping’s messages on China’s future policies about religion at the national conference on religion, held in Beijing April 22-23, was no exception.
The official figures show that there are over hundred million people believing in a religion in China. Although it seems that most numbered religion is Buddhism, it is not wrong to say that besides Christianity, spreading rapidly through domestic and foreign missionaries, Islam, with its large population, are the two religions in which the party’s attention is most concentrated.
China, which follows a domestic policy with a priority of security and stability, is trying to renew the policies of Islam and Muslim minorities after the recent events. On the other hand, Christianity, which entered China almost at the same time as Islam, continues to spread very rapidly.the number of Chinese Christians was estimated around 70 million in 2003, the growth was so fast that in 2010 some predictions were around 130 million. The number of Bibles published in China in 2010 alone is more than 51 million. Such rapid increase causes the issue to be one of the priorities for the party. According to the official sources, there are 56 nationalities in China, in which 55 of them are minorities and separatist groups are a major problem for the state. Besides the increasing popularity of Christianity among the Chinese wealthy, the risk of manipulation of the Muslim population by Salafi groups, and the signs of separatists seek for power by shifting to Salafi side are forcing China to take new measures on the religion issue.
One of the main characteristics that distinguish China as a state is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the state can be regarded as a single unit. The CCP is considered above everything and it is important for China’s political structure that the CCP should have the control of each and every individual, institution and even thought existing in China. As the name suggests, the “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” order provides a wide room for maneuver in interpreting things, and the CCP derives its undisputed leadership from exclusively being in a position of guarding the unity and the stability of the country. All institutions and ideologies are exposed to the approval or disapproval of the state by the degree of their adoption in practice to the CCP principles. This is a critical point for being able to make sense of China’s political reflexes and Xi Jinping’s messages.
At the national conference of religion, the word “yindao(引导)” that Xi used for the first time regarding religion, means that the state will be more active in religious affairs and will take initiative. Plus the Chinese official news agency Xinhua stating the speech as “Xi calls for improved religious work” marks the beginning of a new era about religious affairs.
Despite former Chinese leaders and Xi Jinping himself gave similar speeches about the issue before, but the usage of the word “yindao”, meaning to guide, to direct, was the most crucial detail of the speech. At the beginning of his speech Xi said religious affairs carry “special importance” in the work of the CCP and the central government, adding “we must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists.” This suggests China’s great concern over domestic religious issues and the grounds of China’s future policies on the issue.
In China, aside from emphasizing the authority of the party, the relationship between the state and religion have been referred with the word “zhidao(指导)”, suggesting a relatively passive attitude. China’s core ideology Marxism and materialism distant relation with religions and Mao’s divine cult that particularly shaped throughout the Cultural Revolution can be listed as the background of such attitude toward religions. The large gap between people and religions later caused religious communities, like Falun Gong from 1999, to emerge, which were hostile to the central government. Later, starting from Hu Jintao’s era traditionally Chinese beliefs like Taoism and Buddhism were escalated by the state. Especially Confucianism was highly promoted by the period of 2008 Beijing Olympics and peace messages from Confucius were shared. However this has never been the case for Islam and Christianity, which are not traditionally Chinese. The Taiping Rebellion, Vatican’s global requests from the Catholics, Al-Qaeda and ISIS’s rapid spread among Chinese radicals etc. have consolidated Beijing’s position on both religions.
On the other hand, except for few terrorist attacks, the success of China in stability, the continuity of development during global economic crisis in 2008-2012 , superiority on foreign exchange reserves and the aids made to the Western countries led West to question”Chinese Model” , this also increased confidence of China.
But as a reaction to the global and in Chinese soil movement toward religion, on the one hand, the CCP by Ramadan debate or dismantling of cross from buildings in Zhejiang, reminded its leaders their position which had distance from religion. On the other hand, It tried to redesign religions to make them contribute to stability. This forced CCP to maintain both conservative and innovative policies together.
According to this, government is trying to establish a balance by practicing embracing policies in one region and pressuring another one. Here “yindao” indicates that more fine-tuning will be done to establish such a balance.
Xi Jinping said that CCP is going to “actively lead” religions to guide them to align with socialist society. With this leadership China awaits that all believers to follow law, protection of the socialist system and CCP’s leader position, continuity of socialism with Chinese characteristics, spreading Chinese culture to the world, harmonizing religious principles with Chinese culture, backing of reform and open door policies and contribution to the Chinese dream which is referred by “great resurrection of Chinese race”. By explaining “yindao” phrase further in his talk, he said that “Chineseification” of religions in China is an important task. It has been emphasized that religious staff and believers should be trained according to socialism, and that the principles that could contribute to China’s development in every religion should be identified and taken forward. It is stated that the above mentioned leadership will cover the “religion-related” issues, which will include the relations between the CCP-government-religion, society-religion, between different religions, religions in China and foreign religions, non believers and believers. Xi while stating that in the following period, China will resist to the infiltration of religion and the radical ideas, also pointed that the Internet will be kept under more strict control and contents will give proper messages.
China is preparing to take more initiative in religion with the emergence of leadership in the new era. We can understand that religious groups who stand up against the Chinese government will have a more difficult time, and that the state will become more sensitive about extremist ideas. On the other hand, we can predict that the more transparent and non-violent communities will enter into the interests of China and be supported more than the old or the radical ones.