TAIPEI I still recall the long journey I made in 1987 during my first visit in China, traveling in crammed buses with the smells of caged poultry on board. Through Guangzhou in Canton, and the famous mountain landscape of Guilin and Yangshuo in the southeast province of Guangxi, I recall being amazed that, for the entire week, I didn't see a single temple. At the same time, locations called, with a certain abrupt irony, "religious affairs offices" could be located in many of these desolate countryside towns.

As someone from Taiwan, where each village can count at least three or four shrines or temples dedicated to various co-existing folk beliefs, this absence really struck me. I'd grown up in a typical Taiwanese Buddhist family where venerating ancestors was as important as worshipping Buddha and all sorts of Gods and Goddess. Traditionally, even in mainland China before the Communists took over the power in 1949, Buddhism, Taoism and Confusianism is an aggregated concept, known as the "Three Teachings," which could mean visiting any passing temple. This is of course unless one is among the Christian or Muslim minorities. To be in a temple, holding some incense, and praying to the deity is a form of feeling peace in mind, showing respect to the "unknown" of life.

Between the Communist Party and God or Buddha, you can only choose one.

The arrival of the Communist party in China shattered such widespread traditions. And up until the present, in terms of "religious management," as the Chinese authorities like to put it, things have not changed much since that bus ride of my youth.

A few days ago, in an article entitled "To do a good job of religious work one must speak of politics", Wang Zuoan, Director of China's State Administration for Religious Affairs stressed that "Between the Communist Party and God or Buddha, you can only choose one."

"Party members are not allowed to have religious beliefs. Those who are believers should be reeducated ideologically to give up religion," Wang Zuoan further stated in the Communist party-run Qiu Shi Journal. "Those who refuse to abandon their religion should be dealt with by the Party."

A hostile attitude to religion

Though theoretically China, via its written constitution, allows the freedom of faith, in practice, since the Communist Party took over China, the authorities have always held a hostile attitude to religions. Calling it "feudal and superstitious," not only were religious beliefs banned, even Confucianism, known as Rujiao in Chinese in its ritualized form was prohibited, while Buddhist and Taoist temples and Christian churches were destroyed, and monks and nuns expelled or worse during the Cultural Revolution. Even today, long after China 'opened up' in the late 1970s, the repression and persecution of religions is still a far-too frequent reality.

Even if for reasons of social stability the authorities have taken a more tolerant attitude or created an illusion of religious freedom in recent years, religious activities are closely overseen and controlled.

In Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China Photo: Jiwei Han/ZUMA

The most typical reaction occurs when the authorities suspect that religious beliefs are linked to any "foreign forces or conspiracy." There remains a "red line" nobody should cross, writes Ian Johnson, the Wall Street Journal reporter who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for revealing China's suppression of Falun Gong, and author of a new book: The Souls of China, the Return of Religion After Mao. No mention of Tibetan Buddhism or the Dalai Lama is tolerated. It is best not to be a Xinjiang Uighur Muslim suspected of having foreign connection, and it is foolish to go to a Catholic church linked to Vatican, instead of the official national ones.

The Bible remains in many ways a virtual banned book.

As a matter of fact, the Holy See is the only state of the advanced world to maintain a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, for the very reason of its religious discord with China.

In a country where some 50 to 60 million people claim to be Protestants and another 10 million Catholics, the Bible remains in many ways a virtual banned book. China's Bibles are often still smuggled in from overseas, like they famously were three or four decades ago. There is one official Bible printing plant, the Nanjing Amity Printing Co. Ltd which boasts to be the world's largest Bible printing factory, but their production is mostly for export.

Bibles won't be found in ordinary bookstores, and clergy who print and distribute the book find themselves imprisoned. While the party-backed official Protestant church, The Three-Self Patriotic Movement, has been promoted since 1951, most Chinese Christians prefer to go to the underground "house churches."

Though famous and important monasteries and temples that survived the Cultural Revolution were rebuilt and abbots reinstalled, these famous Chinese temples notoriously charge entrance fees, and are viewed as little more than a tourist cash machine by the local authorities. One well-known example is in the iconic Shaolin monastery of Dengfeng, which hosts kung fun spectacles and bikini beauty pageants and sells its name for hotels and cars to use as a brand. This stands in sharp contrast to Taiwan where people can enter temples freely as they make up an integral part of local culture and tradition.

Worthy of veneration?

Quoting the "Party Guidelines on Political Life in the Party under the New Situation," a major document approved by President Xi Jinping last year, Wang Zuoan reiterated the atheistic doctrine of the party and launched a subtle warning: "With a large number of believers, religions possess distinctive group characteristics and manifest a wide range of social impacts that no country or party could neglect."

It is no wonder, from this point of view, that any public group that risks becoming a force potentially challenging to Party leaders' supremacy is to be cracked down upon, hard and fast. The followers of Falun Gong, the most persecuted faith group in China over the past two decades, can attest to this. First developed in the early 1990s, and rapidly spread throughout the Chinese diaspora, followers of this Chinese faith, which is mainly composed of the practice of qigong and meditation, were ferociously rounded up and crushed under the instruction of the then party secretary General Jiang Zemin, in July 20, 1999.

"We should insist to acknowledge and treat religions from the position, viewpoint and method of Marxism."

According to the Epoch Times, over the past 18 years, more than 4,000 Falun Gong practitioners in China have been killed, while hundreds of thousands of others were detained and sent to re-education camps, tortured and disabled, or sent to psychiatric hospitals.

Addressing party members in a speech last year, Xi Jinping declared: "We should insist to acknowledge and treat religions from the position, viewpoint and method of Marxism."

Reflecting back on that first visit to mainland China, and the latest headlines, the most basic question is worth asking again: Why is it so important for the Chinese Communist Party to crack down on individual faith? It seems that, well, any deity poses a problem of "competition". The Epoch Times spoke with Richard Chu, a former Asian Studies professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology: "After 1949," Chu noted, "Mao Zedong became a savior to be worshipped by the people. The Communist Party says people should avoid any superstitions. Yet Mao replaced both the Bodhisattva and Jesus." The veneration of Mao may have faded, but perhaps Xi worship is supposed to take its place.

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