WHILE Catholics celebrated the feast of St Joseph the Worker, the Chinese Communist Party used May Day to launch a set of draconian regulations on religious clergy nationwide.
China’s religious regulator, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, had been gearing up for May 1 to enact new regulations, the Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy, which were approved by the Central Government in January.
Christian news services widely reported how the CCP removed Bible apps from the App Store and suspended Christian WeChat accounts across the country but these takedowns were only the first victims of the new laws.
In the same month, a new bishop was named for Hong Kong after a two and a half year appointment process, elevating a man who in many ways has broken the mould set by outspoken critic of China, Cardinal Joseph Zen.
Hong Kong Bishop-elect Stephen Chow Sau-yan told local media that people must start with a sense of faith and not assume Beijing was the enemy, and he hoped for dialogue to develop a better understanding.
“It is not that I am afraid to talk about controversial or political issues,” he said.
“Rather, we believe prudence is a virtue.”
Fr Chow said religious freedom was a basic right.
“We want to really talk to the government, not to forget that,” he said.
“It is important to allow religious freedom, matters of faith — not just Catholic, but any religion should be free.”
But the path Fr Chow wants to take – promoting religious freedom while working closer with China – was going to be tough, near impossible.
Not only was China’s track record on religious freedom among the worst in the world, according to years of Aid to the Church in Need religious persecution reports, but its fresh round of regulations only worsened that fact.
According to a translation of the new regulations obtained by human rights magazine Bitter Winter, the regulations introduce a national database of “authorised clergy” for the five state-approved religions – the Catholic Church, Protestant Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism.
The national database will be a valuable tool for the Chinese Government to maintain control over the state-sanctioned clergy.
Fortunately for clergy, what happens on paper and in practice in China can be worlds apart.
Personal relationships with local government officials usually count for more than the written law and historically, missionary clergy found themselves operating in legal grey areas and relied on self-moderating their public witness to avoid government attention.
In this way, the Chinese Government did not need to enforce its laws universally for them to be effective, and if need be, the laws gave more than enough room for authorities to raid free-thinking churches and arrest outspoken clergy.
The surveillance state
According to the regulations, in order to become a state-sanctioned member of clergy, a candidate must not only be in good standing with their church, they must also “love the motherland”, “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party” and co-operate in rooting out underground elements.
State-sanctioned members of clergy should adhere to additional “political education” and they must have their credentials approved by the regulator.
Once a member of clergy is registered, they will be periodically assessed on their patriotism and will be assigned awards and punishments much like the social credit score system in place in the rest of the country.
Clergy who continue to lead religious services and are not registered on the clergy database are in violation of the regulations.
There are even stricter regulations on “high clergy” like Catholic bishops.
To become a bishop under these regulations, the candidate must be democratically elected through the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, then appointed by the CCP and consecrated through the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference.
While little is known about the secretive 2018 Holy See-China deal, one of the few reported details has to do with the authority of appointing bishops.
It has been reported that the deal specifies the pope should be the one to appoint bishops in China.
These new regulations appear to contradict that report.
But the regulations go even further than that and control the timing of episcopal consecrations.
Article XXVI of the measures says only after a bishop is registered by the State Administration for Religious Affairs can they “have an appointment ceremony and be inaugurated in their duties”.
The measures also set term limits for “high clergy”, three to five years, when a renewal process can be undertaken with the regulator again.
When a member of “high clergy” leaves a position, statements and written opinions must be submitted to the regulator about the bishop and the diocese must submit a full financial review.
A new tactic in Sinicisation
All of these new regulations are part of a wider push to bring religion in China under the influence of Chinese culture and politics, a process called Sinicisation.
This is the same concept at work in the Chinese concentration camps, where a million Uyghur Muslims are undergoing genocidal treatment.
The Church supports inculturating the Gospel, which occurred across the missionary era, and while Sinicisation sounds similar, it is fundamentally different.
Inculturation of the Gospel means seeing Christ at the centre of the culture, where Sinicisation in this context means putting Han Chinese culture at the centre of Christ.
But the regulations are only the latest symptoms.
Much of the party influence is imposed by national interest groups like the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which were established to supersede the authority of the Holy See in China.
They have exerted control since the communist takeover in 1949 and, on paper, still do not recognise many dogmas that have been proclaimed after that date like the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The CPCA also prevents Catholic teaching on moral issues like abortion and contraception, which would threaten the CCP’s longstanding reproductive programs like the one-child and two-child policies.
Ultimately, Chinese Catholics face the same problem that Bishop-elect Chow does – how can religious freedom advance against a regime that endlessly pushes for more control?
“I do believe that there is a God who wants us to be united,” Fr Chow said about his own diocese, which was split over the political divides of the “one-country, two-systems” rule.
“Unity is not the same as uniformity.”
This pluralism is the agreeable option; it keeps the Holy See-China deal active and delays the inevitable clash of ideas.
But the pluralism that Fr Chow wants stands little chance against aggressive Sinicisation.
On the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, Pope Francis renewed his call for Catholics to start praying for the Church in China.
He prayed that the Holy Spirit, “the protagonist of the Church’s mission in the world, guide them and help them to be bearers of the happy message, witnesses of goodness and charity, and builders of justice and peace in their country”.