How the State Is Co-Opting Religion in China

And What It Means for the Country’s Future

A Chinese flag flutters outside St. Ignatius Cathedral, a state-sanctioned Catholic church, following a flag-raising ceremony marking the 69th anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China held before the Chinese National Day, in Xujiahui, Shanghai. Aly Song / REUTERS

The message reached me in early December via Signal, an encrypted messaging service that many Chinese use to bypass the closely monitored social media app WeChat. The day that many of us had feared was upon us: China’s best-known pastor, Wang Yi, and 100 of his followers had been detained. Their church of 500 members was closed—very likely forever.

In the two years since my last Foreign Affairs piece about religion in China (“China’s Great Awakening,” March/April 2017), such stories have become common. Churches closed, crosses removed, mosques demolished, Muslims sent to internment camps—the list of state-organized measures against religion in China has been growing. Seen against a backdrop of measures to limit nongovernmental organizations, tighten ideology, and lift term limits on President Xi Jinping, it’s easy to think that religion in China is being crushed by a strong state, diminishing in importance as a new powerful

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