China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) occupies a place high in the annals of human savagery. Mao Zedong’s purges sought to purify Chinese communism and ended in catastrophic failure, leaving as many as 20 million Chinese dead and the nation’s stability in doubt.
The disaster provided incentives for change, some productive. China’s economy was unleashed in the 1980s by the quasi-capitalist policies of Deng Xiaoping, who declared, “to get rich is glorious.” But the Cultural Revolution also spurred Mao’s successors to greater success in suppressing religion.
Mao had overreached, attempting to eliminate all religion. He understood, as had Stalin and Hitler, that religion (some religions in particular) poses a threat to the totalitarian state by encouraging fidelity to a greater authority. Churches were desecrated, looted, and turned into factories and storerooms. Priests, pastors, and nuns were tortured, raped, murdered (some were burned alive), and imprisoned in labor camps. Lay Christians were paraded through towns and villages with cylindrical hats detailing their “crimes.” Millions died terrible deaths, including by starvation. Tens of millions were brutalized, their lives destroyed.
But Mao’s depredations could not kill religion. Today there are an estimated 300 million religious believers in China. The Cultural Revolution merely confirmed that even totalitarianism cannot destroy mankind’s religious impulse. In a riff on Deng’s economic realism, Mao’s successors grudgingly acknowledged the truth with a new strategy—one that continues to this day. The strategy concedes that trying to kill religion is not realistic, but that religion poses a mortal threat to communist rule and must be controlled. To this end, Chinese scholars have studied religions for decades, and party leaders have experimented with mechanisms of control.
In 2016 China’s current president, Xi Jinping, showcased the fruits of these efforts. In a speech that year he called for the “sinocization of religion,” the coercive transformation of China’s religions into an arm of the Communist Party. The results, played out in a series of official regulations since then, are a toxic blend of Mao’s ruthlessness and sophisticated 21st-century surveillance techniques—in effect, an updated religious Cultural Revolution.
The regulations are sweeping in their scope: “Religious organizations must adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, . . . [and] adhere to the directives on religions in China, implementing the values of socialism.” No one under the age of 18 may attend any religious service or event whatsoever. “Underground” Catholic and Protestant churches, which have existed since the Cultural Revolution, are to be eliminated and Christians required to join the communist-controlled “Catholic Patriotic Association” and Protestant “Three Self Movement” churches.
To ensure his policy is implemented, Xi has placed the State Bureau of Religious Affairs firmly under party control and initiated a policy of surveillance, communist-style “reeducation,” and terror. The latest set of regulations, which go into effect February 1, make utterly clear (lest anyone in China or the West missed the point) the subordination of all Chinese religions to the Party and the state:
Religious organizations must spread the principles and policies of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as national laws, regulations, rules to religious personnel and religious citizens, educating religious personnel and religious citizens to support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, supporting the socialist system, adhering to and following the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics (Article 17).
The government tracks religious and political opponents with informers, DNA records, and facial recognition technologies. Over a million Uighur Muslims have been imprisoned in “reeducation camps,” which torture, brainwash, and warn. Tibetan Buddhism is targeted with population replacement and violence against Buddhist monks and nuns. China’s policy of murdering Falun Gong practitioners, and harvesting their organs for sale, continues.
Underground churches are being eliminated by intimidation, arrests, imprisonment, and torture. Physical churches are being shut and, in some cases, bulldozed. In the Catholic archdiocese of Fuzhou, over 100 churches have been closed since August.
Video surveillance cameras are being installed in churches. Bibles are being “amended.” Priests and pastors who resist joining the official churches are under growing pressure. Reverend Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church was sentenced to nine years in prison on trumped-up charges. His real crime was criticizing Xi online: He had reported that official church services now begin with songs praising the Communist Party, followed by bowing to giant portraits of Xi.
U.S. Congressional hearings and reports, as well as statements by Sam Brownback, ambassador for religious freedom, have called out Xi’s “war on faith,” but to little avail. President Trump could add this issue to his trade negotiations, but there is little sign he will do so.
The most baffling, and most feckless, response has come from the Holy See. In 2018 Vatican diplomats negotiated an agreement intended to unify the underground and official churches. The accord has been a disaster. China’s Catholics are demoralized and confused by this decision that abets the most virulent anti-Catholic policy in the world. In a letter sent earlier this month to the College of Cardinals, Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen nailed the issue: “[C]an we passively witness the murder of the Church in China by those who should protect and defend her . . . ?”
The answer is that we cannot.
Thomas Farr is President of the Religious Freedom Institute. He was the first Director of the State Department office of international religious freedom.