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SPF China Observer


No.8 2018/08/11

Why Does the Xi Jinping Administration Advocate the “Sinicization” of Religion?

Naoko Eto (Associate Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO)


 Chinese society has undergone dramatic changes in the five years since Xi Jinping became secretary general of the Communist Party of China in the fall of 2012. The mechanism for the control of free speech based on laws and institutions has mushroomed. The Xi Jinping administration has enacted various forms of legislation while touting the “rule of law,” including the Counter-espionage Law (2014), the State Security Law (2015), the Anti-terrorism Act (2016), the Foreign NGO Management Law (2017), and the Cyber Security Law (2017). This statutory system is aimed at complementing the dictatorship of the Communist Party with a focus on systematically managing various actors, though the Communist Party remains the final arbiter. In other words, they are the rules to preserve the stability of society and, at the same time, strengthen and institutionalize social control by the state.
This trend in social control has also been directed at religious groups. In addition to the Central Committee holding the National Conference on Religious Work for the first time in 15 years in April 2016, the revised “Regulations on Religious Affairs” (enacted on August 26, 2017) were promulgated on February 1, 2018, further institutionalizing the management of religious activities. [1] The series of measures by the Xi Jinping administration does not merely strengthen repression, in my opinion, but uniquely “Sinicizes” religious activities. In addition, institutional design has been carried out that is consistent with the Communist Party’s united front work policy, and it is also clear that the policy leverages the influence of religious groups on ordinary citizens. [2] This paper examines the characteristics and limitations of China’s religious policies, which have started to face complications.

What does the “Sinicization of religion” hope to achieve?

 A key phrase in the religious policy of the Xi Jinping administration is the “Sinicization of religion.” This phrase was first used by Xi Jinping at the Central United Front Work Conference in May 2015. The conference was held by the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) at a national level for the first time in about nine years. Because of the sense of crisis concerning changes in the domestic and international climate, the conference decided to strengthen its control to make socially influential groups and individuals conform to the policies of the Communist Party. [3] Here Xi Jinping announced, as a means to govern the people, 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. [4]
At the April 2016 National Conference on Religious Work, Xi presented the policies that would involve the Party and the state in religious activities. Here Xi Jinping proposed that “religious affairs carry special importance in the work of the CPC and the central government” and that the “relationship of national security and the unification of the motherland” has a place within “socialist religious theory with Chinese characteristics.” This can be interpreted as an instruction to incorporate religion itself into the Party’s theory and interpret it. [5] Furthermore, in his speech, Xi Jinping boldly put forth a posture to “lead” religion, [6] emphasizing that the leadership would come from the Communist Party. Similarly, in a symposium on “adhering to the direction of Sinicization of religion in China” held by the State Administration for Religious Affairs in September of the same year, director Wang Zuoan made it clear that religious groups should follow the guidance of the administration, stating, “Religion must be conscious of identity in politics, conscious of cultural integration, and conscious of adaptation in society”. [7]
Subsequently, the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs were enacted and promulgated. While the Regulations on Religious Affairs guarantee the “freedom of religious belief” (Article 2) under the constitution, Article 3 takes a domineering position, stating, “Religious affairs shall be administered under the principles of protecting legitimacy, stopping illegitimacy, containing the extreme, resisting penetration, and cracking down on criminals.” In addition, Article 4 states the obligations of religious groups, religious institutions, premises for religious activities, and religious citizens thus: “(They) shall comply with the Constitution, laws, regulations and rules, practice the core socialist values, and maintain national integrity, ethnic solidarity, religious harmony, and social stability,” prohibiting any interference in national security, the social order, or state education system. While the 2005 revision consisted of seven chapters and 48 articles, this latest revision increased the regulations to nine chapters and 77 articles. These new regulations served to prohibit the construction of large statues other than those at temples, Taoist temples, and churches, [8] prohibit religious activities in educational institutions outside of religious institutions, [9] and prohibit unauthorized participation in overseas training and conferences and so on. [10] From the new provisions that granted things such as the status of a legal person to premises for religious activities, [11] namely, recognizing the corporate status of an incorporated foundation as in Japan, we can speculate that the administration supports “legitimated” religious activities. [12] Overall, however, the revision constituted a strengthening of the regulations. [13]
The “Sinicization of religion” is being laid out in parallel with such developments. Even at the 19th National Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping stated the policy of “Sinicization of religion” and “providing active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.” The chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Yu Zhengsheng, [14] repeated the same wording at the first session of the 13th National CPPCC, held in March 2018.
What does the “Sinicization of religion” mean? As a matter of fact, the term “Sinicization” has been used since the 1930s in the context of United Front work as the “Sinicization of Marxism.” Mao Zedong gave an address at the sixth plenary session of the sixth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in October 1938 entitled “The New Stage of Development of the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance and the Anti-Japanese national United Front” that is known for advocating the “Sinicization of Marxism,” combining Marxism with the practice of the Chinese Revolution. [15] In recent years, Xi Jinping has promoted the policy of the “Sinicization, modernization, and popularization of Marxism” [16] and has accepted interpretations of Marxist principles according to the circumstances of China. Expanding the interpretation of Marxism in this way can be considered the Communist Party’s attempt to find consistency with the challenges China faces due to massive changes and socialist ideology.
Based on this understanding, what can occur in the name of “Sinicization of religion” is important. First, it is approved to reinterpret religious activities and their philosophies in accordance with China’s practical problems. Religious activities are also required to improve those problems of Chinese society. In fact, the idea to let religion produce a “positive effect” on society has been expressed since the 17th National Congress in 2007. [17] For example, Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, made the following comments at the aforementioned symposium. He asked religion to adapt to Chinese society and serve as an important social foundation: “Adhering to the direction of Sinicization of our religion... is an important mission that proactively guides religion to adapt to socialist society, and is a strategic measure to solve prominent problems in our religious sphere, and is an inevitable requirement for our religion to demonstrate a positive effect in the progress of the development of society.”
What is interesting is that the “Sinicization of religion” has a role in solving the “prominent problems” of contemporary religion. Xi Jinping identified these “problems” at the 19th National Congress as “infiltration, subversion, and sabotage, as well as violent and terrorist activities, ethnic separatist activities, and religious extremist activities,” which are, in fact, an extremely diverse set of problems. From here, I will examine the issue of “Sinicization” by considering religious problems in the real world.

The politics of religious problems in China

 Religions in China are steadily expanding. According to the white paper on “China’s Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief” (White Paper on Religion) released by the State Council Information Office on April 3, 2018, [18] there are nearly 200 million followers of religion. Assuming that the data is correct, this means that one in six or seven citizens believes in some kind of religion. Officially, China recognizes the “five great religions” of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and their followers are permitted to engage in activities under their respective state-endorsed “patriotic religious associations.” However, the reality is that there are numerous religious groups that are active but not officially approved. This might be the result of various ideas flowing into Chinese society through the Internet and other places where ideological vacuums have occurred in society due to the regression of socialist ideology, in addition to the increasing numbers of poor and socially isolated people in Chinese society. [19] In other words, religion in China has been closely linked to social problems.
Because religious activities in society are expanding and diversifying, the so-called “religious problems” are also multifarious. The major issues alone are broad and diverse, such as the problem of the “commercialization” of Buddhism and Taoism (religious activities carried out to make a profit), emerging religions in rural areas and among the poor, the independence and human rights issues of Tibetans (involving conflict with the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile), deterring Muslim extremists and terrorism, the issue of Uyghur independence, issues surrounding Catholic religious leaders (such as confrontation with the Vatican over the right to appoint bishops), and the issue of managing underground churches.
Furthermore, the response by the administration (political pressure) also varies depending on the target. According to Freedom House, between November 2012 and November 2016, religious persecution of Christians, including Protestants (excluding Catholics) and Uygur Muslims, was high, while that of Hui Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists was moderately high. [20] On the other hand, members of the Communist Party are banned from religious activities, as the party is supposed to be based on Marxist atheism. Even at the National Conference on Religious Work, while Xi Jinping stressed that “one can never seek their own values and beliefs in religion,” the reality is that some Party members are devoutly religious, and how to crack down on them is also a problem.
Although it also coincides with the above group of problems, religious issues are deeply connected with the problems of domestic governance. At the top of the list is the problem with the Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities, which the Xi Jinping administration has been fixated on since its inauguration. [21] In January 2013, shortly after becoming the top leader, Xi Jinping held the “Buddhist View of Life Study Group” hosted by the Buddhist Association of China in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. This was triggered by the frequent self-immolation suicides by Tibetan Buddhist monks protesting against the government since the 2008 Tibetan unrest. Moreover, in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in June 2014, the authorities warned of the potential for terrorist violence during a conference on adhering to moderate forms of Islam and abandoning extremism. These cases are part of the political problems that began with social discontent and differences in political thought that surfaced with “religion” as a catalyst.
As they demonstrate, religious problems in China overlap with politically sensitive issues. History contains several examples in which religious groups revolted and threatened the government of the time, such as the White Lotus Rebellion (1796–1805), the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864), and the Falun Gong followers in April 1999 surrounding the Zhongnanhai (the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China and the State Council and residence of dignitaries). This is why the Communist government is keenly cognizant of and fearful of religion. In the reform of Party and state organizations announced in March 2018, the main department in charge of religious policy was transferred from the State Administration for Religious Affairs of the State Council to the CPC Central United Front Work Department. This had the purpose of strengthening the Party’s initiative once again, and thus the regulations on religious activities are expected to be implemented even more strictly. And the strengthening of control can be said to coincide with the rising consciousness of the sense of crisis in the Communist Party.
Looking at the series of measures from this point of view, two characteristics stand out. The first is that an even clearer approach has been taken to eliminate foreign influences as far as is possible. [22] This is also a consistent policy of the Communist Party administration, fearing a reoccurrence of the Tiananmen Square protests, which were said to have been a “conspiracy of domestic anti-government movements and international hostile forces.” The Regulations on Religious Affairs has traditionally stated, “All religions shall adhere to the principles of maintaining their independence, relying on themselves, and holding their respective religions on their own. No religious group, religious institution, premise for religious activities or religious affairs shall be dominated by foreign force.” [23] Xi Jinping himself has also repeatedly expressed the “principle of independence and self-sufficiency” in religion, and has often warned of “infiltration activities” using religion from overseas. However, as the White Paper on Religion advocates religious international exchanges in referring to the Belt and Road Initiative, there is also the expectation for encouraging the “Zouquchu” (going abroad) of religion [24] and improving the perception of China in the international community. The second is that while legally stipulating suppression and banning activities for organizations that do not comply with Party policies, the administration is trying to support religious activities that are consistent with policy and actively use them for social management. Indeed, various religious organizations carry out philanthropic activities and have played a role in helping to aid vulnerable people in society. [25] If the aim is to solve social contradictions, the effect of granting corporate status to premises for religious activities with approximately 140,000 registrations in 2017 and approving their activities will not be insignificant.


 While the Communist government silences religion in political affairs, it proactively uses religion in social problems. The government also commonly employs these policies in response to foreign NGOs and prominent bloggers. What is distinctive in all cases is the selective use of the carrot (support for activities) and/or the stick (crackdowns) based on whether each actor follows the policy of the Communist government, and the urging of each actor to voluntarily comply with regulations. Promotion of such “self-regulation” is an extension of the management policy that the Communist Party adopted in the past while suppressing mass discontent. At the Central United Front Work Conference in 2015, Xi Jinping declared, “The essence of managing religious activities is public work.” This statement can be taken to mean that he was applying the techniques of traditional public control to religion. However, even if the various social management measures taken to date were effective, there is room for doubt as to whether these methods are having their intended effect in religious affairs. Faith often demonstrates a very strong resistance to political pressure. There is no denying the possibility that a punishment-based policy drives the unauthorized activities of religious groups further underground and helps radicalize them. Furthermore, if certain religious activities are severely restricted, the international community, not to mention domestic and international religious circles, could condemn this as infringing on the freedom of religion.
 How should the expanding and diversifying religious activities be controlled in the system of governance dependent on the Communist party dictatorship? The answer for the Xi Jinping regime—regardless of what kind of resistance was expected—was for the Communist Party to incorporate religion [26] into the Chinese system to “lead all”, [27] namely the “Sinicization of religion.” However, it is unlikely that the coerced “Sinicization” through authority will be a panacea for religious problems. Will religious policy join a number of other case examples showing the “resilience of an authoritarian regime” in China where the one-party dictatorship by the Communist Party continues, or will it trigger something new? Its success or failure depends on how the “Sinicization of religion” manifests itself.

(Dated Jul 13, 2018)

1“The Regulations on Religious Affairs” provides the basis for China’s religious management system. It was enacted in 2004 and promulgated in 2005.

2Religion was originally emphasized as the third of the “five great relationships” of the United Front work. The “five great relationships” are 1) the relations between political parties (between the Communist Party and the other suffrage parties), 2) ethnic relations (between ethnic groups, especially between the Han and ethnic minorities), 3) religious relations (between the general public believing in different religions), 4) hierarchical relations (between social classes), and 5) relations with fellow compatriots both in China and abroad (with compatriots in mainland China, in Hong Kong, in Macau, in Taiwan, and with Chinese living abroad).

3For further information on the Central United Front Work Conference, see Naoko Eto’s Views on China article, “Chuugokukyousantou no kyuushinryoku—Atarashii touitsu sensen no mezasu mono” (The Centripetal Force of the Chinese Communist Party: The Goals of the New Unified Front), July 7, 2015 []. Moreover, the fact that the Leading Small Group on United Front Work was established at the end of July that same year suggests that it was around this time that the Xi Jinping administration began to strengthen control over public opinion through the United Front work.

4“Xi Jinping: 巩固发展最广范的爱国统一战线,” Xinhuanet, May 20, 2015,

5On this point, Qiushi, the journal of the Communist Party of China, praised it, saying it had a “revolutionary meaning” and that it was “the latest achievement in Marxist religious views in modern China, and the volume on religion in the theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (“中共国家宗教事务局党组理论学习中心组, ‘党的十八大以来宗教工作理论和实线创新,’” People’s Daily Online, September 18, 2017,

6“Xi Jinping: 全面提高新形势下宗教工作水平,” Xinhuanet, April 23, 2016,

7State Administration for Religious Affairs Research Center, “我局召开 ‘坚持我国宗教中国化方向’ 讨论会,” State Administration for Religious Affairs website, September 26, 2016,

8In the past, building outside of premises was also permitted as long as approval was obtained in advance. As the regulations use “Qīngzhēnsì” (清真寺), the word for mosque, the implication is that this includes mosques.

9Educational activities by religious groups are diversifying. See Reuters, “Chuugoku seifu wa ‘kirisutokyou dan’atsu’ o kyouka shite iru ― yaku 6000 man-nin ni kyuuzou shita kirisutokyouto no zento” (Chinese Government Steps up “Christian Repression”: The Prospects for 60 Million Rapidly Increasing Christians), Tokyo Keizai Online, January 3, 2018.

10Unauthorized overseas training, conferences, and pilgrimages are prohibited. Overseas pilgrimages were forbidden before the revision as well.

11Article 23 stipulates that temples, Taoist temples, or churches can directly be registered as a “premise for religious activities.” In the past, it was necessary before registration to incorporate the religious group that owned the premise. Furthermore, Article 14 permits the acquisition of status as a legal person for religious educational institutions. In addition, religious groups themselves can obtain legal person status as social organizations in accordance with the Regulation on Registration and Administration of Social Organizations.

12Furthermore, on June 1, 2018, the State Administration for Religious Affairs enacted the “Measures for the Administration of the Approval for Temporary Places for Religious Activities” (“宗教临时活动地点审批管理办法”) (promulgated on February 22) in which applications could be made for premises required for continued religious activities, even if temporary.

13It was reported in May 2018 that authorities detained 21 Japanese Christians belonging to a religious group. They were detained for missionary activities (Asahi Shimbun, May 25, 2018)

14The CPPCC is regarded as the most wide-ranging and representative organization of United Front work.

15It was first outlined by then Party General Secretary Zhang Wentian at the October 1937 expansion meeting of Politburo Standing Committee members (Huang Shaoqun, “谁最早提出’’ ‘马克思主义中国化’ 科学命题的,” People’s Daily Newspaper.

16“Xi Jinping: 继续推进马克思主义中国化时代化大众化,” Xinhuanet, September 29, 2017,

17李健李彪, “发挥宗教界人士和信教群众积极作用的思考,” “Zhongguo Minzu Bao” (People’s Daily Newspaper Network, September 15, 2009),

18The White Paper on Religion was the first to be published since 1997. It emphasized “freedom of religious belief” in China, and while it stressed legality and legitimacy, it also mentioned the “Sinicization of religion.”

19Authorities also focused on the Internet as providing a new platform for religion and are concerned that it is a field where ideology can infiltrate from overseas. Some researchers call the thriving “Internet religions” the “Religion 2.0 era” (Chen Mingming and Xiao Cunliang, eds. [2017] 统一战线理论与实线前沿,” Fudan University Press, 2017, pp. 243–253),

20Freedom House, The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping,

21The white paper on “The State of Freedom of Religion in Xinjiang,” published by the State Council Information Office on June 2, 2016, states that the “normal religious needs of religious followers are effectively satisfied” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, while also stating, “The Chinese government unwaveringly opposes the politicization of religious affairs and opposes interfering with the domestic politics of other countries on the pretext of religious affairs” (“State Council Information Office Releases ‘The State of Freedom of Religion in Xinjiang’ White Paper,” Xinhuanet, June 2, 2016,

22From this policy, the feud with the Vatican, the headquarters of the Catholic Church, continues. In recent years, there have been reports of approaches to the Vatican, but they were said to have ended in an impasse in March 2018. (Ruriko Hatano, “Bachikan to chuugoku—kankei kaizen no ‘doushouimu’” [The Vatican and China: The Improvement in Relations That is Living in Different Worlds], Gaikou, vol. 49, pp. 96–101). The sale of Bibles on the Internet was reportedly forbidden starting at the end of March 2018.

23As stated in Article 4 before being revised and in Article 5 after being revised.

24Li Yufeng and Shi Jiangling, “中国宗教如何 ‘走出去,’ Zhongguo Minzu Bao” (posted on the United Front Work Department website on October 12, 2017),

25The Amity Foundation has expanded to 31 provinces nationwide and donated more than one billion yuan in activities during the “religious philanthropic week” for the past five years as of 2017 (“十八大以来宗教工作的新发展,” September 14, 2017).

26At the 19th National Congress, Xi Jinping declared, “Party and government, military, civilian and learning—east, west, south, north, and center—the party is leader of all,” indicating a policy to extensively strengthen guidance by the Communist Party.

27The word “lǐngdǎo” (领导) in Chinese means “to lead” or “to command,” in the sense of “to order” rather than to “instruct.”

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