It’s Christmas and something strange is happening in China. Many local authorities, like those at Langfang, Hebei, have issued bans prohibiting shops and vendors from displaying Christmas decorations.
That’s not all. Many educational institutions from Chinese universities to primary and secondary schools even prohibit students from discussing Christmas-related content on social media. This may be shocking to many foreigners, but Chinese scholars believe that the local authorities’ boycott of Christmas is not surprising. That’s because China has recently tightened its control on churches and banned online stores from selling bibles – all without concrete directives from the top. Earlier in 2020, government officials at Anhui Province had closed down 99 Christian churches. It is likely that local governments have second-guessed the central governments’ intentions and acted preemptively to avoid undesirable political consequences.
In a document entitled 《关于做好圣诞节期间执法监管工作的通知》”Notice on Effective Law Enforcement and Supervision during the Christmas Period”, the Urban Management Bureau of Langfang City, Hebei Province required law enforcement officers to completely ban Christmas trees, Santa Claus and other items placed along the street. All Christmas-related items like window stickers, cloth banners and light boxes had to be removed.
The document also required law enforcement officers to be fully deployed from December 23 to December 25 to ensure that parks and public spaces are not being misused for the religious propaganda. When contacted by foreign media, local authorities declined comment, but many Langfang merchants candidly confirmed that the Christmas ban is real.
Hebei Province is not alone. Similar orders have been received at grassroots level in Bazhou, Hebei, and Cenxi in Guizhou and Wuzhou in Guangxi. On Chinese social media, many young netizens complained that their schools not only prohibits Christmas celebrations but also disallows the sharing of Christmas greetings in the form of text and pictures on social media. Below is a school directive issued by Huang Wei Central School authorities at Xixian County, Anhui Province.
According to an official report in Si County, Anhui Province, a local elementary school conducted a campaign with the theme of “Boycotting the Foreign Festivals Begins With Me” “抵制洋节，从我做起” on Christmas Eve. Among them, the principal gave a speech entitled “Christmas is a shame to the Chinese”, saying that it was the Western holidays that “brought great shame to China.”
The ban on Christmas has triggered a polarized reaction from netizens on Chinese social media. Some netizens said that Christmas is a religious holiday celebration and China being proudly Chinese, it is “reasonable” to prevent it from entering campuses.
Another netizen pointed out that during the last Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), the Empire State Building in New York lit up with red lights. Many foreigners were celebrating Spring Festival. Why can’t the Chinese celebrate Christmas and demonstrate some confidence in their own culture?
Some netizens even joked that “Sunday is a day of worship to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Therefore, to resist religious influence, please start working overtime on Sunday.” It’s a good argument, albeit based on some inaccuracy. Sunday is God’s day of rest.
Interestingly, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state media “Global Times”, said that he had never heard of an official directive to “boycott” Christmas in more than a decade. He also posted a photo of a Christmas tree in the cafeteria at the headquarters of the People’s Daily.
Before that, an article entitled “Goodbye Foreign Festival, the country finally takes action”《洋节，再见！国家终于出手！》was widely circulated in WeChat Moments. The article stated that the State Council had in fact issued a statement entitled “Opinion on the propagation and promotion of supreme Chinese culture and traditions”《关于实施中华优秀传统文化传承发展工程的意见》, which advocated the complete ban on “foreign festivals.”
Ding Xueliang, a Chinese sociologist and distinguished professor at Shenzhen University, told BBC Chinese that many young people only regard Christmas as an opportunity for celebration and not a religious obligation. Therefore, there is no conflict between Christmas and traditional Chinese festivals. He believes that the reason why some young people seem to be more enthusiastic about “foreign festivals” is that China’s rapid development has led to the disappearance of the socio-economic factors that support traditional Chinese festivals.
“It is difficult for young people now to understand the traditional Chinese festivals based on agricultural societies.” said Ding Xueliang. Again, this professor failed to grasp the fact that Christmas is based on a society no more advanced than ancient China.
China’s wariness over religious activities is not new. In December 2017, Hunan Hengyang issued a strongly worded notice requiring the city’s party members, cadres and relatives not to blindly observe the “Foreign Festivals” or “participate in any religious activities with a Western background.” The prerequisite for joining the Communist Party of China is to believe in communism and not have any other religious beliefs.
Independent scholar Deng Yuwen pointed out that the authorities have been tightening control of religions such as Christianity in recent times. It is thus not surprising that Christmas, being seen as a religious holiday, is under official scrutiny. In order not to appear overbearing, the central government would not issue any official ban. The latest moves by the local authorities may not have been ordered from the top, but these moves would certainly please the central government more than they would irk them. Diplomatic relationship between China and the vatican notwithstanding, the Chinese authorities’ suppression of religion has not stopped. In early December 2020, more than 100 members of the Qiuyu Covenant Christian Church in Chengdu, Sichuan, were summoned and arrested by the police. The pastor of the church, Wang Yi and many church members had become uncontactable in police custody.
The New York Times previously reported that after Xi Jinping came to power, crosses on 1,200 to 1,700 churches were demolished in Zhejiang Province alone. In March 2020, China also banned the sale of the Bible on online retail platforms. As this wave sweeps over China, local authorities took the initiative to act in ways that would please the master.
In the current tense political climate, many officeholders are afraid of not reading the mind of the boss correctly. There were instances of preachers and evangelists using festivals and holidays to recruit new members. This has made the party nervous. Hopefully, Valentine’s Day would be recognised as what it actually is and not get banned in the name of protecting supreme Chinese culture and traditions.