If you think capitalism has blinged up Christmas, you should see what the Communists are doing to it. At this time of year, Chinese cities are dressed up like one big Oxford Street, but with lights that put London’s in the shade. Christmas Eve has become the biggest shopping day of the year. At the school where I taught last year, every classroom had at least three Christmas trees: one outside the door, one inside the door and one at the back. Tinsel ran up staircases, fake snow adorned all the windows. The Chinese have even developed their own Christmas traditions: revellers give each other elaborately packaged apples, and Father Christmas is always pictured playing the saxophone.
It’s quite impressive for a country where the public celebration of Christmas has been an offence since 1949. While this is clearly a prohibition honoured more in the breach than the observance, as far as festive tat is concerned, the proliferation of plastic Santas ought not to obscure the very real anxieties the festivities continue to cause the Communist party. Officially, its problem is with a bonanza of unprincipled western garishness distracting young Chinese from the Confucian delights of Chinese festivals. In reality, they’re worried that too many people are genuinely celebrating the birth of Christ.
So far, the problem is containable. Many young Chinese are not even aware that it’s a religious celebration; indeed, my students had only the haziest conception of who Christ actually is. I was impressed by their knowledge of stockings, Christmas food and the lyrics to ‘Jingle Bells’ but amazed by their total ignorance of what it was all in aid of. But the way things are going, they might find out.
The spread of the faith is something that even the government can’t quite control. In 1949, there were about four million Chinese Christians; there could be as many as 100 million today, an increase out of all proportion with even China’s exponential population growth. In fact, it now has more Christians than members of the Communist party. Christianity is the country’s second most popular organised religion after Buddhism; by 2030, China is predicted to have overtaken the US not just as the world’s largest economy, but as the home of the world’s largest Christian congregation.
The general threat posed by all this is obvious: Christians answer to the Almighty, not to Xi Jinping. To some extent, this is being tackled head-on: Christian villagers in Jiangxi province are being encouraged to replace images of Jesus with portraits of Xi to access a poverty alleviation initiative. A few years ago, the city of Wenzhou banned school Christmas celebrations, saying they wanted to refocus attention on Chinese culture. At one university in the city of Xi’an, students were forced to attend a three-hour screening of patriotic documentaries on Christmas Eve and urged by banners to ‘oppose kitsch western holidays’.
But they protest too much. The party’s policy is to simultaneously tolerate and complain about Christmas’s materialistic trappings, in the hope that they suppress (or at least disguise) genuine religiosity. Its concern is explained not just by the rise of churchgoing, but the denominational shift.
Before the revolution, China’s Christians were three-quarters Catholic; today they are at least four-fifths Protestant. For all of the historical bad blood between the Vatican and the party, relations are now relatively cordial. Since 2007, the papacy has encouraged Chinese Catholics to attend state-recognised churches, and the Vatican now recognises nearly all Chinese bishops, despite their selection through a government–mandated process. The government seems to agree with the view of Cardinal Tong, the former Bishop of Hong Kong, that ‘the Chinese Catholic faithful are generally patriotic, good citizens, who are not willing to engage in political activity’.
But while the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church makes sense to the party, the comparative chaos of Protestantism does not. Only a third of Protestants are affiliated to state-sanctioned churches, and they have no Pope, no archbishops, to compromise on their behalf. Uncontrolled Christian communities have a history of being dangerous to dictatorships: in the Third Reich they provided the main resistance to the Nazis, and in Communist Poland and East Germany they were the nucleus around which opposition gathered.
Such nuclei don’t get much of a chance to grow in China. Take Zhejiang, the wealthy province in which I taught: crosses had been chopped from the spires of at least 1,200 churches as part of a three-year campaign to scour visual manifestations of faith from China’s most Christian province. The scheme started three years ago with the demolition of a newly completed mega-church in Wenzhou, which has a particularly large Christian population. But these methods are heavy-handed, and risk feeding into a persecution narrative. The Communist party prides itself in being subtle, and needs new tactics.
Hence its current Christmas strategy: having accepted that this is now a feature of Chinese life whether they like it or not, the Communist party is seeking to drown the Christian message in a sea of tat. The hope is that the rampant consumerism distracts young citizens from thinking too deeply about what they’re supposedly celebrating, and by criticising the kitschiness the govern-ment is able to create the impression that Christmas is about indulgence and excess, not faith.
This year, for example, a Beijing children’s choir was shipped out to Finland to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ at the opening of the same Santa’s village previously visited by President Xi. This was a secular replacement for one of Beijing’s few religious traditions: this will be the city’s first Christmas in 15 years without the traditional performance of Handel’s Messiah: an event that used to sell out Beijing’s premier concert venue before it was moved to a school auditorium. Now it is stopping altogether.
Now and again, you hear vicars in England complain about the commercialisation of Christmas and how this subverts its fundamental message. The Communist party agrees, but has the opposite concern: much as it tries to stress the commercial aspects, the Bible’s version of events is growing ever more popular.
Try as it might with the snow, Santas and saxophones, the government may not be able to keep the real Christmas message under wraps for much longer.