Officially, Article 36 in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees freedom of religion for all Chinese citizens, but this is just paperwork. Currently, different religious groups all over China are having trouble with the government because authorities are violating religious freedoms across China as the leadership seeks to assert control in a country that is officially known as an atheist.
President Xi Jinping recently visited Xinjiang, where he lauded the “achievements made in various tasks in Xinjiang” and urged officials to do more promoting the sanicization of Islam. The first time the Chinese leader publicly spoke of sinicization was at a conference in Beijing in 2015, during which he also declared that the Communist Party could give active guidance to religions so that they could adapt themselves to socialist society, adhere to the direction of sinicized religion, and increase the standard of the regulations controlling religion.
Sinicisation manifests in the demolition of domes, crosses, and minarets and their replacement by Chinese-styled tiled roofs and Buddhist-styled pagodas. It involves congregations going underground, mandatory patriotic education for Christian and Muslim clergy, and also entails party-approved sermons and prayers. It is better to be discreet and keep religious affairs behind closed doors.
The encroachment on religious customs and spaces extends beyond the ethnic minorities in western China. The Hui are a group of about 11 million Chinese-speaking adherents of Islam scattered over much of China. Hui mosques and cemeteries across China have been demolished or subjected to “renovations” in recent years. Members of Hui communities are prohibited from using the Arabic script on religious sites; religious leaders are forbidden from preaching about some topics in religious sermons; and definitions of halal food derived from religious authorities are replaced by state definitions. An expert on the Hui Socia-Religious studies at the University of Manchester told Al Jazeera that most Hui communities can only respond to Xi’s sinicisation programme by keeping their heads down and weathering the storm the best they can.
Similarly, Muslims in Xinjiang reported to have been detained for attending religious events, praying, wearing a headscarf or having a beard. Over 1 million Uighur Muslims have served time in a detention camp. At the same time, upwards of 16,000 mosques have been damaged or destroyed in Xinjiang since 2017. Religious festivals are often banned more frequently and government employees, teachers and students, are barred from participating in religious activities.
For those religious communities that recognise a religious authority beyond China’s borders, sinicisation is also about weakening ties to such an authority to protect the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Christian communities have had similar experiences. Thousands of Crosses were torn down from churches throughout Zhejiang Province. The authorities have also broken up congregations that have not been approved by the state, while church leaders have been arrested and jailed.
Recently, as Pope Francis’s plane cruised above China en route to Mongolia for the first papal visit in history, the head of the Catholic Church dispatched a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which he extended well wishes to Xi and the Chinese people. But despite this, two people were allegedly detained by the Chinese authorities for organising a group pilgrimage from China to Mongolia in connection with the pope’s visit. Usually, whenever the pope is on official assignment, he sends a greeting from the papal Airplane to the heads of state of the countries he flies over.
Over the years, Xi has regularly called for the “sinicisation” of religions in China. However, it is necessary to note that sinicisation has occurred in China for centuries. But President Xi’s sinicisation means something different. A Researcher about ChinIse local traditions, customs and religions concluded, “The communist god is a jealous god that does not want anyone to compete with its power”.