As more Chinese turn to Christianity, the state is torn between embracing its benefits and the desire to assert control.
China says Western forces are trying to use Christianity to influence its society and even “subvert” the government, warning Christians there to follow the Chinese model of the religion.
China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago, the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.
The government has cracked down on Muslims as well as underground churches, both Protestant and Catholic, even as it seeks to improve relations with the Vatican.
In a speech on Monday, Xu Xiaohong, head of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, said there were many problems with Christianity in the country, including “infiltration” from abroad and “private meeting places”.
“It must be recognised that our movement’s surname is ‘China’ and not ‘Western’,” Xu said, according to remarks reported on Tuesday by the United Front Work Department, which is in charge of co-opting non-communists, ethnic minorities and religious groups.
“Anti-China forces in the West are trying to continue to influence China’s social stability and even subvert our country’s political power through Christianity, and it is doomed to fail,” he said, speaking to parliament’s largely ceremonial advisory body.
“For individual black sheep who, under the banner of Christianity, participate in subverting national security, we firmly support the country to bring them to justice.”
Only by eliminating the “stigma of foreign religion” in China’s Christianity can its believers benefit society, he added.
“Only by continually drawing on the fine traditions of Chinese culture, can China’s Christianity be rooted in the fertile soil of Chinese culture and become a religion recognised by the Chinese themselves,” Xu added.
“Only by continuously carrying forward and practising the core values of socialism can our Christianity truly be suited to socialist society.”
China has been following a policy it calls the “Sinicisation” of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.
Restrictions on religion have attracted particular concern in the United States. Last week, during a visit to Hong Kong, the US ambassador for religious freedom called on Beijing to end religious persecution.
What China calls a de-radicalisation programme in the far western region of Xinjiang has also caused widespread anger in Western capitals and among rights groups, who say authorities have been placing Muslims there in internment camps.
The government says they are vocational training centres where Xinjiang’s Uighurs and other Muslims are sent to learn about the law and the Mandarin language.
Yang Jie, an imam from Xinjiang, told the same advisory body on Monday that some adherents had poor “religious and civic awareness”, which made them vulnerable to “the temptation and incitement of religious extremist forces”.
“They mistakenly believed that their religion came before their citizenship and that certain illegal acts were a firm expression of faith,” Yang said.
“This wrong view and behaviour has seriously affected social stability, ethnic unity and religious harmony, and has vilified the social image of the Muslim community and must be resolutely stopped.”