The arrest and secret trial of four Chinese Christians for selling audio Bibles in December 2020 in Shenzhen, China is the latest illustration of how serious the communist government of China is on stamping out Christianity in its current form from the country.
The exercise, being implemented by mercilessly crushing human rights, is part of President Xi Jinping’s determined efforts to reinterpret Christianity and the Bible according to socialist and communist values.
The four Chinese face jail terms of up to five years. A fifth Chinese Christian, the owner of a company that produced and sold digital Bible players, also faces a similar prison time. Their lawyers and families are being pressured by Chinese authorities to keep the judicial matter quiet. The authorities are intent on ensuring that the matter does not get highlighted in the Western media. However, it did leak and was taken by the Christian media in the United States, much to China’s embarrassment.
Under the sinicization of religion policy of Mr. Xi, the authorities have since 2018 launched a “crusade” to keep Chinese Christians at home and away from churches and pastors. Thousands of churches have been either closed or demolished or transformed into offices. Christian priests need licenses to practice their religion. Christians need prior permission of the authorities to hold a religious congregation. Even then, they can congregate only at specified places, not necessarily churches, by the licensing authorities. The latest onslaught is in the form of pressuring Christians to post online messages that they have renounced the faith.
But the biggest anti-Christian campaign the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has launched relates to a literal ban on the Bible. Anyone carrying a Bible faces immediate arrest and a jail term. Visitors entering China also face the same punishment. Except licensed priests, nobody is expected to own a Bible. Now they can only be sold in state-affiliated church bookshops. The people cannot print the Bible, record it onto CDs or publish it on the Internet. The CCP encourages people to spy on Christians to identify those who might be hiding or illegally storing Bibles.
In the churches that still stand in China, walls are defaced after the authorities wiped out the verses from the Bible painted on them. Instead, they have been ordered to put up official posters that feature verses which reflect the principles of socialism like prosperity, Communist Party-loving, dedication and patriotism.
The CCP also did the unthinkable— bringing out the Communist version of a portion of the Bible. In 2019 the government declared it would bring out an official, communist translation of the Bible as part of an exercise of evaluating all religious texts to look for content that does not conform to communist ideology. Such content will be declared “incompatible with socialist values” and amended accordingly.
Well-known Italian sociologist of religions and China watcher Massimo Introvigne wrote in Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights, in its recent edition: “Mobilizing Jesus for the CCP propaganda is blasphemous and offensive to Christians. Yet, we can expect more such distortions as religious scriptures are gradually ‘sinicized’.”
But what Mr. Introvigne could not have imagined was the CCP changing a popular story from the Bible itself. UK-based Church Times reported the controversy last October: “The book uses the story of the woman caught in adultery who is presented to Christ by the crowd, from chapter 8 of St. John’s Gospel.” In the story, the crowd wanted to stone the woman to death as per their law. “But Jesus said, Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone. Hearing this, they slipped away one by one.”
In St. John’s Gospel, the story concludes: “When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, ‘Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?’ She said, ‘No man, Lord.’ And Jesus said unto her, ‘Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more’.”
The newspaper reports the punch line thusly: “The textbook version, however, states: ‘When the crowd disappeared, Jesus stoned the sinner to death saying, I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead’.”
Catholics in China rose as one in protest, but to no avail. They petitioned the Vatican to intervene, but it refused to do so. Incidentally, and ironically, the Vatican around the same time decided to renew its controversial deal with China in which China formally recognizes the authority of the pope within the Roman Catholic Church and his final say over China’s bishops and in return the Vatican recognizes the legitimacy of the bishops previously appointed by the Chinese government but ex-communicated by the church.
President Xi Jinping is expected to bring in policies to further target Christians just as the Uighur and Hui Muslims are being robbed of their religion. While the Muslims are being forced to erase everything — culture, language, rituals and custom — including religion, Chinese Christians are being spared all that; they will be eventually forced to follow Christianity as interpreted by the Communist Party.
Mr. Xi was behind a document released by China’s state administration for religious affairs that said the biggest task in the field of religion is to promote “Chinese-style Christianity and theology” by re-interpreting the Bible. This document, “Principle for Promoting Chinese Christianity in China for the Next Five Years (2018-2022),” was launched in Nanjing in 2018. Mr. Xi may come up with the next phase of sinicization next year.
Why is China so worried about Christianity? Experts on China say Xi Jinping is getting back at the Christians for the “exploitation” of China by the Christian West since the time the first European seafarers touched Chinese shores over 600 years ago. Rep. Christopher Smith, threw a hint about Mr. Xi’s anti-Christian mentality during his deposition before the Congressional Executive Commission on China in 2015. He referred to Mr. Xi’s visit to the U.S. several years ago and asked a single question: “Why do so many Chinese students studying in the United States become Christian?”
Mr. Smith told the Commission: “… religion was on President Xi’s mind that day. Chinese authorities are frightened by the simple proposition that individuals have the right to live out their beliefs openly and peacefully without fear of intimidation. It is counterproductive because religious restrictions make China less stable. Repression can exacerbate extremism and cause instability. … targeting peaceful religious citizens undermines the legitimacy of the state because it reminds even non-believers of the state’s capricious power.” His words proved prophetic.
The Wall Street Journal observed in late 2020 that Mr. Xi was wary of the growing Christian population in China. The Journal article read: “From an estimated three million believers at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the number of Protestants in China is now believed to exceed 100 million, with another 10 million to 12 million Catholics.”
Is that at the root of President Xi’s fear of Christianity? He himself is tight-lipped on the issue. His thoughts can only be interpreted through his government’s anti-Christian actions. The Wall Street Journal says this fear is not an isolated fear. China’s rulers witnessed how “the strong example of Pope John Paul II contributed to the collapse of communism in Poland.” They were aghast at the role “South Korean Christians played in that country’s transition to democracy.” In recent times, Chinese authorities were angered by the “local Christians’ prominent role in the Hong Kong democracy movement.” Mr. Xi appears determined to “correct” the wrongs in a hurry.
• Jianli Yang is president and founder of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.