Thousands of impoverished Christians in China have been told to replace their religious posters with portraits of China’s president, Xi Jinping, or miss out on essential government welfare programs.
Christians living in southeast China’s Jiangxi province were told to exchange their crucifixes, printed gospel passages and images of Jesus Christ for posters of the Communist Party leader, in order to “transform believers in religion into believers in the party”, according to the Hong Kong daily newspaper South China Morning Post.
Over 100,000 people still live below the national poverty line in Yugan County and much of the population is Christian. The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) has made it official government policy to end domestic poverty by 2020. However, local residents have been told to remove their religious iconography in order to continue receiving aid packages.
According to Qi Yan, who oversees one of the government’s poverty relief efforts in Huangjinbu Town, “Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their savior […] After our cadres’ work, they’ll realize their mistake and think: we should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help.”
He told the South China Morning Post that the local government had handed out more than 1,000 portraits of President Xi and that all of them were now on display in resident’s homes.
SCMP columnist Nectar Gan likens the practice to the manufactured “personality cult” of former chairman and founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, whose portrait could be seen in almost every Chinese home during the infamous communist era.
While the Communist Party is officially atheistic, many Chinese still practice Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and other religions. According to Professor Fenggang Yang at Purdue University, China is on course to become the world’s largest Christian nation within the next 15 years. He estimates that there will be more than 220 million Christians living in China by the year 2030.
This is something of which the ruling CPC is immensely fearful, with many of its senior members regarding the religion as a cult which delegitimizes the party. There may already be more Christians in China than there are party members, and so Xi Jinping appears to have prioritized religious crackdowns.
In recent years, many Chinese Christians have moved to Thailand and other areas of Southeast Asia in order to practice their faith without fear of government repercussions. Since Mr. Xi came to power the party has shut down religious gatherings and removed hundreds of crosses from churches across eastern China.
This latest effort at blackmailing citizens into hiding their religious ornaments is likely to be repeated in poor areas across the country.