Beijing, November 15: Thousands of Christians in Yugan county have been ordered to replace portraits of Jesus Christ with Premier Xi Jinping if they were to claim the government benefits.
Located on the edge of Poyang, China’s largest freshwater lake, Yugan county in Jiangxi province is known equally for its poverty and its large Christian community. More than 11 per cent of its 1 million residents live below the country’s official poverty line, while nearly 10 per cent of its population is Christian, according to official data.
Under Xi, the ruling Communist Party has made ending poverty by 2020 a top priority. The campaign is not only crucial to the political legacy of the country’s most powerful leader since Mao, but also serves to consolidate the party’s control over the grass roots of society, who despite their vast numbers have been largely neglected in China’s decades-long pursuit of economic growth.
In Yugan, the officially atheist party is competing for influence with Christianity, which has spread rapidly in both poor rural villages and prosperous cities since the end of the Cultural Revolution more than 40 years ago. By some estimates, Christians in China now outnumber the 90 million members of the party.
A local social media account reported over the weekend that in Yugan’s Huangjinbu township, cadres visited poor Christian families to promote the party’s poverty-relief policies and helped them solve their material problems.
The officials successfully “melted the hard ice in their hearts” and “transformed them from believing in religion to believing in the party”, the report said. As a result, more than 600 villagers voluntarily got rid of the religious texts and paintings they had in their homes, and replaced them with 453 portraits of Xi.
The report had disappeared on Monday afternoon, but the campaign was confirmed by villagers and local officials contacted by the South China Morning Post.
Qi Yan, chairman of the Huangjinbu people’s congress and the person in charge of the township’s poverty-relief drive, said the campaign had been running across the county since March. He said it focused on teaching Christian families how much the party had done to help eradicate poverty and how much concern Xi had shown for their well-being.
Under Xi, the party has tightened its grip on religious freedom throughout the country, ranging from removing crosses on Christian churches in eastern China to suppressing Islamic practices in the Uygur heartland of Xinjiang in the name of fighting terrorism and separatism.
In Jiangxi, besides the removal of religious posters from people’s homes, several crosses have been removed from churches since the summer including the one in Yugan county continuing the trend that started in Zhejiang province.
The number of Christians in Communist China is growing so steadily that it by 2030 it could have more churchgoers than America. Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.
By 2030, China's total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.