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Opinion | You Can’t Force People to Assimilate. So Why Is China at It Again?

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The party’s current re-education drive is an upgraded version of the Cultural Revolution. This campaign, too, seeks to achieve ideological control by eradicating alternative ideological and belief systems. But it does so in a much more sophisticated and high-tech way. In Xinjiang, reams of personal information about Uighurs and other minorities are entered into police databases after being collected at checkpoints, through feeds from surveillance systems or during house visits.

Only this effort seems to ignore that one effect of the Cultural Revolution was to create a spiritual vacuum and that in the decades since China has experienced various spiritual revivals. Many Uighurs and Tibetans, as well as members of the Han majority, have ardently embraced both traditional and new beliefs.

The number of Christians in China is thought to have increased from 3.4 million in 1950 to about 100 million today — or more than the C.C.P.’s entire membership. Even C.C.P. members have either openly embraced a major religion or have anonymously admitted that they attend religious services, seek divination, burn incense or keep idols in their homes. Many of the devout see no contradiction between their faith and their patriotism or respect for the party.

Still, the C.C.P.’s campaign of assimilation today continues to target religion, because, in the party’s eyes, religion, which tends to represent a person’s deepest allegiance, competes with loyalty to the state and undercuts the party’s ideological foundation: materialism.

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China’s spiritual revival has thoroughly confounded the core Marxist assumption that economic development would naturally extinguish religious beliefs; in fact, it has occurred even as the country has been lifted out of poverty. Increasing wealth also seems to have fueled corruption, including within the C.C.P. — undermining the party’s legitimacy and moral standing. The C.C.P. is now doubly on the ideological defensive.

The government, beyond targeting religion, has also tried to promote ethno-linguistic assimilation — again, through material incentives. Some minorities have pursued a Chinese language education in order to achieve upward social mobility. But many more have only become more entrenched in their distinct ethnic and religious identity.

Earlier this year, Tibetan nomads were told they could obtain state subsidies only if they replaced their altars devoted to Buddhist deities with images of Chinese political leaders. Likewise, Christian villagers in southeast China had previously been told to replace depictions of Jesus with portraits of President Xi if they wanted to continue to receive poverty-alleviation subsidies. Local officials then reportedly claimed, according to social media, that the initiative had successfully “melted the hard ice” in Christians’ “hearts” and “transformed them from believing in religion to believing in the party.”



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