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A photo inside Ya’an Religious Sinicization Exhibition Hall shows a small formation of troops in uniform, standing at attention.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The black and white picture shows a small formation of troops in uniform, standing at attention. They are arranged in front of a white flag emblazoned with a single character: fo, or Buddha.

It’s a moment in distant Chinese history, but one the country’s Communist Party is eager to once again bring to life.

In 1936, Buddhist monks took up arms against Japanese forces. In Shanghai, 120 monks fought “against the god of death and Japanese invaders,” according to an interpretive panel displayed by the image in the Ya’an Religious Sinicization Exhibition Hall. The monks fought, the exhibit says, under the credo: “If I do not descend into hell, who will?”

It is “a very classic story in Chinese history,” says Yin Chen, a lay Buddhist who works at the hall. Buddhism may urge pacifism, but these monks were willing to set aside doctrine to kill for their country. “Actually, what they did was to protect the lives of more people in their motherland,” Mr. Yin says.

That story is part of a narrative delivered at this hall to modern-day monks from across central Sichuan, the province in southern China whose boundaries encompass Tibetan lands and some of the country’s holiest Buddhist sites. The hall opened late last year, the first of its kind in Sichuan. Since then, delegations from across the region have come to a place designed to educate and inspire new understandings of Buddhism, but also to encourage better support for the work of “Sinicization in China,” Mr. Yin says.

At its core, Sinicization is “a matter of having the state, the party control all aspects of religion,” said University of California, San Diego scholar Richard Madsen, who has edited a forthcoming book titled The Sinicization of Chinese Religions: From Above and Below. In practice, this can mean removing replacing religious symbols with Chinese cultural ones, compelling religious leaders to attend patriotic ceremonies and subverting religious texts to supporting Communist ideals. But in all cases, it means national interests are put before religious doctrine.

The idea of “Sinicization of religion” – or “Chinese-ification” of religion – is novel. It first appeared in Xinhua, the state news service, in 2015, when Zhu Weiqun, one of China’s most prominent voices on ethnic affairs, described a new plan to “guide religion to adapt to socialist society.” Religions, he said, must support the leadership of the Communist Party and promote teachings “conducive to national development, social stability and moral improvement.”

Since then, it has come to dominate China’s religious policy under President Xi Jinping, who in a 2016 speech said it is time to “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture.” A subsequent government white paper in 2018 was explicit: Religion in China must “be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation.” That year, the State Administration for Religious Affairs was swallowed up by the United Front Work Department, a powerful part of the Chinese government apparatus that enforces unity.

What’s happening in religion forms part of a much larger state effort, Prof. Madsen said. He cites a phrase in Chinese: zhongguohua means tinghua – or, Sinicization means obedience. It is an attempt to “homogenize the culture. Xi Jinping wants everybody on the same page, no matter what background they come from, what ethnicity – and flatten it out.” Prof. Madsen has doubts about what can be achieved. “I think China is too diverse and complicated to actually do that,” he said.

But across China, functionaries have compelled sweeping change in the name of Sinicization. In western provinces, minarets and domes have been removed from mosques, replaced by traditional Chinese hip-and-gable roofs. The term halal in Arabic script has been removed at some restaurants, replaced by the characters in Chinese.

In Xinjiang, where the policy has coincided with a massive state crackdown, Muslims incarcerated at indoctrination facilities have been told they have been poisoned by religion, and asked what good they can achieve by believing in God. Numerous mosques have been torn down, others turned into tourist attractions. Anyone entering a mosque for prayers must pass through a facial-recognition system. Authorities have grown vigilant in enforcing a Chinese prohibition on transmission of religion to people under the age of 18.

Crosses have also been taken down from Christian churches and some buildings razed, while religious leaders across the country have been ordered to participate in patriotic flag-raising ceremonies and regular government education.

In Ya’an, that education includes full-day study meetings each time religious policies are revised.

Such sessions are “welcome,” Mr. Yin says, offering a simple explanation of the submission sought by the state: “The country comes first, then religion.” And not merely for Buddhism.

At Moon Lake Mosque in Ningbo, for example, propaganda passages from the Quran have been displayed beneath each of the Communist Party’s 12 core socialist values. But those passages elide religious significance. A passage on proselytization is posted as support for “civility.” A warning that a fire will be prepared for evildoers is cut from the end of a passage, contorting its meaning into one about “freedom.” And a reference to “God must be given preference” is removed from a passage on “justice.”

“If it is good Chinese religion, then it adheres to the guiding core principles of the Communist Party. And if it doesn’t adhere to those principles, then it is bad and it must be removed,” said David O’Brien, a scholar at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum who previously lived in Ningbo and documented the propaganda there.

A propaganda poster at Ya’an City Mosque says: “The whole family of the Chinese nation builds the Chinese dream together with one heart.” May 25th, 2021Nathan VanderKlippe May 25th/The Globe and Mail

In Ya’an, officials have called for leaders of all faiths to participate in “love your country, love religion, love your hometown” activities. Among them is Imam Ma Lianglu, the imam at the Ya’an City Mosque, the only Islamic place of worship in the city.

If he harbours any doubts about political intrusion on his faith, he gives no indication of them.

Religious Sinicization marks “a historic turning point in China’s efforts to promote the building of a law-based society and the great rejuvenation of all ethnic groups,” Mr. Ma told The Globe and Mail on a recent visit.

“No matter which religion you believe in, above all you are Chinese,” he said. Making religion Chinese is critical to defending against traitors and people or countries with ulterior motives, he said, alleging historical attempts to manipulate faith “to smear China and shatter our reputation.”

The Ya’an mosque maintains a small star and crescent above a small dome. Mr. Ma is not certain whether authorities will allow that to remain, but dismisses its importance, likening it to a person changing clothes. “It would not bring any effect,” he said. Besides, he said, if city planning requires a certain neighbourhood appearance, it is “totally reasonable” to alter a building to achieve harmony.

As Mr. Ma spoke in a loud voice, a man entered the ground floor of the mosque to take pictures. Outside, a half-dozen people gathered near the entrance within hearing distance. They later said they were police and propaganda officials, and demanded The Globe disclose its purpose in reporting. A man who refused to identify himself grabbed a reporter to push him to a sidewalk.

Online documents show that Mr. Ma is a member of the local Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – a formal part of the government system – and in 2013 called for more supervision from the local religious affairs department.

Muslims welcome government oversight, he said, although authorities have banned prayers at his mosque, citing pandemic risks. A government document posted at the door declares the cancellation of Eid al-Fitr celebrations. The city of Ya’an has not reported a COVID-19 case since June, 2020, and local restaurants and tourist areas are all open. Nor do local restrictions bar the use of religious spaces for other purposes. Officials plan to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party at Jinfeng Temple, a seventh-century Buddhist site.

Mr. Ma expressed no concern.

“Doing worship involves getting a lot of old, sick, disabled and old people to come here,” he said. “And it is very possible that they are too old or too sick to walk to the mosque.” The government in China is not there to control the people, he said. “We are actually there to serve the people.”

With this piece, Nathan VanderKlippe ends his eight-year post as The Globe and Mail’s Asia correspondent. With his return to Canada, he begins a new post as a U.S. correspondent, focused primarily on the West.

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