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Religion in China

Want to escape poverty? Replace pictures of Jesus with Xi Jinping, Christian villagers urged

Believers urged to replace religious artefacts in their homes with posters of Communist Party leader if they want to benefit from poverty-relief efforts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 9:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 2:26pm

Thousands of Christians in an impoverished county in rural southeast China have swapped their posters of Jesus for portraits of President Xi Jinping as part of a local government poverty-relief programme that seeks to “transform believers in religion into believers in the party”.

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.

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But as the local government redoubles its efforts to alleviate poverty, many believers have been told to take down the images of Jesus, the crosses and the gospel couplets that form the centrepieces of their homes, and hang portraits of Xi instead – a practice that hearkens back to the era of the personality cult around late chairman Mao Zedong, whose portraits were once ubiquitous in Chinese homes.

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.

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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.

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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.

“Many poor households have plunged into poverty because of illness in the family. Some resorted to believing in Jesus to cure their illnesses,” Qi said. “But we tried to tell them that getting ill is a physical thing and that the people who can really help them are the Communist Party and General Secretary Xi.”

Huangjinbu is home to about 5,000 to 6,000 Christian families, or about a third of the total, according to Qi.

“Many rural people are ignorant. They think God is their saviour … After our cadres’ work, they’ll realise their mistakes and think: we should no longer rely on Jesus, but on the party for help,” Qi said.

He said the township government had distributed more than 1,000 portraits of Xi, and that all of them had been hung in residents’ homes.

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A resident of another township in Yugan, surnamed Liu, said that in recent months many of his fellow villagers had been told to remove religious artefacts from their homes.

“Some families put up gospel couplets on their front doors during the Lunar New Year, some also hang paintings of the cross. But they’ve all been torn down,” he said.

Many believers did not do so voluntarily, Liu said.

“They all have their belief and, of course, they didn’t want to take them down. But there is no way out. If they don’t agree to do so, they won’t be given their quota from the poverty-relief fund,” he said.

But Qi dismissed claims that the funds were contingent on the religious posters being removed.

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“We only asked them to take down [religious] posters in the centre of the home. They can still hang them in other rooms, we won’t interfere with that. What we require is for them not to forget about the party’s kindness at the centre of their living rooms.”

It was not an either-or situation, Qi said.

“They still have the freedom to believe in religion, but in their minds they should [also] trust our party.”

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.