TWH – Amid the turmoil of COVID-19 and the legal suppression of Hong Kong by the Chinese central government, a curious video emerged on YouTube two weeks ago showing the destruction of a folk religion statue in Handan, China.
The video appears to show a statue of the Yellow Emperor being toppled. The Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, is one of the legendary sovereigns of China and one of the nation’s great cultural heroes. He is said to have reigned about 5,000 years ago.
Chinese folk religion teaches that Huangdi is one of the Wǔfāng Shàngdì (五方上帝), “The Five Forms of the Highest Deity.” Huangdi is the deity of the material world and civility and is the great shaper of society. He is considered the prime initiator of Chinese culture. He also holds the power of wu (巫) shamanic sorcery.
The Yellow Emperor, or Yellow Thearch, still remains a powerful symbol of Chinese nationalism, a movement exploited by Mao Zedong to suppress Uyghurs, the Turkic, and the Tibetans during various campaigns.
Bitter Winter reports that this is but one of more than one hundred other such temples destroyed in the Zhejiang, Henan, and Hebei provinces. (Hebei province is not to be confused with Hubei province, where the first major outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred.) “Officials used various pretexts to eliminate the places of worship and destroy religious statues,” reports Bitter Winter, “in the likes of ‘unapproved private constructions,’ ‘disorderly buildings’ that ‘affect the city’s image.'”
Previous reports suggest that the campaign of folk religion suppression is part of a strategy to eliminate religious devotion and the construction of an atheist state consistent with communism. As a local official told Bitter Winter in a previous report, “Currently, the state is cracking down on all religions, and investigations are going on in the village to find out just how many villagers believe in God.” Buddhist temples and Christian churches have also reportedly been destroyed by local law enforcement.
In November of last year, the State Religious Affairs Bureau issued “Order No. 13,” which was to be implemented beginning on February 1, 2020. Order 13 seeks to standardize the management of religious groups to promote their “healthy development” and “actively guide religion to adapt to a socialist society.”
To accomplish this objective, Order 13 creates an executive organization of religious organizations that assists religious groups in their alignment with state objectives. The executive committee regulates religious organizations – from their hiring to donations to their doctrinal practice – to maintain “social harmony” with the People’s Government. All religious practices and activities must be reported in advance to the Religious Affairs Executive Committee for approval.
Shortly after the implementation of Order 13, folk temple sites were dismantled. Beginning in April, the three provinces experienced systematic elimination of temple sites, most of which had been built by locals as part of their devotional practices. The destruction of these temples continued into last month.
Order 13 was only responsible for the social alignment of religions. The destruction of the temples required local officials to declare the structures unfit for use or that the land had been used for illegal construction. Public safety and public interest are two guises employed to solidify state control over religious affairs.
The persecution of folk religious sites includes increased economic control of their activities. For example, the Nainai Miao (“Grandmother Temple”) in Hebei province is reported to be part of an economic complex that brings in millions of devotees, and therefore millions of yuan, during the festivals of the third lunar month. The revenue attracted the attention of state forces.
But the persecution is facilitated by other religious groups that comply with state actions as well. The Chinese Church Support Ministries, which serves the “Church in China” and supplies books and teaching materials to Chinese Christians, notes in Antioch Missions that “Economic and human needs encourage ‘god-making’ behaviour.” They request that the faithful “pray for all levels of the Chinese government to eradicate poverty in rural areas.”
The Temple no longer exists. Bitter Winter says that the Nainai Temple now “has become the Moxiang Book Studio—an entertainment center to play Chinese chess and other games or read books.” All economic activity from the former use is over.
Religious persecution in China has not been limited to folk religions, however. All religious communities, including those of major faiths like Christianity and Islam, have been threatened. The ruling government has issued instructions against “foreign religious infiltration,” although the Chinese government does offer state recognition – that is, state registration – of five faiths: Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Folk religions are not included in state recognition, although some folk practices are related to Buddhism and Taoism – The Yellow Emperor, for example, is also worshiped by Taoists.
As Cathy Sun notes in Harvard Political Review notes “China’s persecution of religious minorities is part of a broader, systematic strategy to eradicate external influence in the social and political lives of citizens while harnessing aspects of religion that could serve the state’s interests. Its campaign of religious persecution is a not unprecedented effort to cement public recognition of the state’s authority and thereby generate political conformity.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to refer to new religious movements as xié jiào (邪教), or “cults.” They are viewed as hostile to the CCP and its social objectives. The threat is serious enough that the Chinese Criminal Code’s infamous Article 300 punishes those involved in xié jiào – which can sometimes simply mean possession of religious literature from a xié jiào – with three to seven years of imprisonment.
Last week, a new announcement in the People’s Network offered cash rewards for information regarding xié jiào activities, with so-called “Level 1” information, leading to verified cult detection, receiving rewards as high as RMB 100,000 (~US$14,000).