Chinas government has asked the universities to guard against foreigners… (Carlos Barria/Reuters )
BEIJING — Chinese leaders issued an order last year quietly directing universities to root out foreigners suspected of plotting against the Communist Party by converting students to Christianity.
The 16-page notice — obtained this month by a U.S.-based Christian group — uses language from the cold war era to depict a conspiracy by “overseas hostile forces” to infiltrate Chinese campuses under the guise of academic exchanges while their real intent is to use religion in “westernizing and dividing China.”
The document suggests that despite small signs of religious tolerance in recent decades,China’s ruling officials retain strong suspicion of religion as a tool of the West and a threat to the party’s authoritarian rule. And with the country’s top leadership in transition and looking to consolidate power, Chinese religious leaders worry that the stance is unlikely to change in the near future.
Government officials did not respond to requests for comment and did not confirm the document’s authenticity. But university records and official postings on college Web sites show that after the notice was issued — on May 15, 2011 — many campuses began adopting the stricter restrictions it proposed.
A leader in the illegal underground “house church” movement said Christian students in his province began hearing about the document in fall 2011 as university and government officials discussed how to implement the stipulations.
“The notice was read out loud in party meetings and youth league committees within colleges, but it was done orally, without giving out any hard copies,” the church leader said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The party’s Central Committee is thought to have issued a few dozen orders last year, but one focused solely on religion is rare. Such “notices” and “opinions” are followed closely and implemented as though they are law because they come directly from the central party. According to instructions included with the May 2011 order, only 8,330 copies were to be printed and only city, regional and military division leaders were allowed to read it.
China Aid, the Texas-based Christian organization that obtained a copy of the notice, works primarily on human and religious rights in China and came to prominence last year after helping dissident Chen Guangcheng escape from house arrest.
The group’s founder, Bob Fu, said the order provides rare proof of an anti-religious campaign initiated by the central government and of high-level collaboration among government agencies on religious controls.
“It’s a shock to see they still hold this old mentality of Christianity as some secret conspiracy of the West,” Fu said.
The document talks about infiltration by religion as a whole, but it singles out Christianity as particularly dangerous and the United States as leading the effort. No other country or religion is mentioned by name.
Leery of Christianity
China’s Communist government is officially atheistic and has a long history of suspicion of religion. Although Buddhism — the most popular religion in China — and Taoism are now supported by the government to some degree, Christians remain a source of contention, along with Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners.
Leery of anyone who claims higher authority than the Communist Party, such as the pope, the government created an agency to oversee Chinese Catholics and appoint its own bishops.
The government has tried to herd Protestants into a state-run denomination called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But illegal house churches — so named because congregants often meet in private homes — are flourishing. Some operate openly without interference; others have been shut down, their members surveilled, imprisoned and put into labor camps.
Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has designated China as a “Country of Particular Concern” for what it calls “severe violations of religious freedom.” This year, in the department’s annual report on religious freedom, U.S. officials noted the imprisonment of religious individuals, raids on house churches, confiscation of Bibles and a continued ban on worship outside government-sanctioned religious groups.
According to official estimates, China has 23 million Christians, or less than 2 percent of the population. But independent analyses by institutes and think tanks such as the Pew Research Center in Washington suggest that the real number is probably much higher and that Christianity has been rapidly growing in China during the past decade. Activists within China have estimated house church membership at 50 million to 100 million.
‘Take forceful measures’