China’s government has asked the universities to guard against foreigners who they suspect are using religion as a tool to threaten the Communist party. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Chinese leaders issued an order last year quietly directing universities to root out foreigners suspected of plotting against the Communist Party by converting students to Christianity.

The 16-page notice — obtained this month by a U.S.-based Christian group — uses language from the cold war era to depict a conspiracy by “overseas hostile forces” to infiltrate Chinese campuses under the guise of academic exchanges while their real intent is to use religion in “westernizing and dividing China.”

The document suggests that despite small signs of religious tolerance in recent decades,China’s ruling officials retain strong suspicion of religion as a tool of the West and a threat to the party’s authoritarian rule. And with the country’s top leadership in transition and looking to consolidate power, Chinese religious leaders worry that the stance is unlikely to change in the near future.

Government officials did not respond to requests for comment and did not confirm the document’s authenticity. But university records and official postings on college Web sites show that after the notice was issued — on May 15, 2011 — many campuses began adopting the stricter restrictions it proposed.

A leader in the illegal underground “house church” movement said Christian students in his province began hearing about the document in fall 2011 as university and government officials discussed how to implement the stipulations.

“The notice was read out loud in party meetings and youth league committees within colleges, but it was done orally, without giving out any hard copies,” the church leader said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The party’s Central Committee is thought to have issued a few dozen orders last year, but one focused solely on religion is rare. Such “notices” and “opinions” are followed closely and implemented as though they are law because they come directly from the central party. According to instructions included with the May 2011 order, only 8,330 copies were to be printed and only city, regional and military division leaders were allowed to read it.

China Aid, the Texas-based Christian organization that obtained a copy of the notice, works primarily on human and religious rights in China and came to prominence last year after helping dissident Chen Guangcheng escape from house arrest.

The group’s founder, Bob Fu, said the order provides rare proof of an anti-religious campaign initiated by the central government and of high-level collaboration among government agencies on religious controls.

“It’s a shock to see they still hold this old mentality of Christianity as some secret conspiracy of the West,” Fu said.

The document talks about infiltration by religion as a whole, but it singles out Christianity as particularly dangerous and the United States as leading the effort. No other country or religion is mentioned by name.

Leery of Christianity

China’s Communist government is officially atheistic and has a long history of suspicion of religion. Although Buddhism — the most popular religion in China — and Taoism are now supported by the government to some degree, Christians remain a source of contention, along with Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners.

Leery of anyone who claims higher authority than the Communist Party, such as the pope, the government created an agency to oversee Chinese Catholics and appoint its own bishops.

The government has tried to herd Protestants into a state-run denomination called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But illegal house churches — so named because congregants often meet in private homes — are flourishing. Some operate openly without interference; others have been shut down, their members surveilled, imprisoned and put into labor camps.

Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has designated China as a “Country of Particular Concern” for what it calls “severe violations of religious freedom.” This year, in the department’s annual report on religious freedom, U.S. officials noted the imprisonment of religious individuals, raids on house churches, confiscation of Bibles and a continued ban on worship outside government-sanctioned religious groups.

According to official estimates, China has 23 million Christians, or less than 2 percent of the population. But independent analyses by institutes and think tanks such as the Pew Research Center in Washington suggest that the real number is probably much higher and that Christianity has been rapidly growing in China during the past decade. Activists within China have estimated house church membership at 50 million to 100 million.

‘Take forceful measures’

In the document, authorities warn that foreigners are using academic research, study abroad, English-language instruction and charitable work as pretexts to spread religion among China’s youths. “The intensity of infiltration is increasing,” the document reads. “You must not underestimate the current harm and the long-term effect of such phenomenon and you must take forceful measures.”

The notice calls for stricter visa screening for foreigners suspected of traveling for religious purposes and says nonprofit groups should be scrutinized for religious ties. The Ministry of Education also was called on to collect information on religious organizations to be shared among universities.

In one section, university officials are told to be more caring toward their students as a way to counteract the appeal of foreigners. “Advisers should hold extensive heart-to-heart talks with students and learn in a timely manner the new students’ ideological status, answer questions that puzzle them, guide their feelings,” it reads.

Instructors who persistently proselytize are to be removed from their job, according to the order, and foreign students who refuse to stop proselytizing should be expelled.

Since the order went out, several universities — including Northeast Agricultural University in Heilongjiang province, Chongqing University and Hohhot Minzu University in Inner Mongolia — have responded with online reports about new anti-religious infiltration protocols. But it is unclear whether they are simply following the orders superficially or enforcing them seriously.

According to Chinese officials, there were more than 290,000 foreign university students in China last year, a record high — including about 23,000 from the United States.

Religion on campus

Several international Christian groups that send teachers and students to China declined to comment on the order, citing fears of being shut down by the government.

One Christian nonprofit official said foreign teachers from Christian organizations have long been made to sign strict pledges not to talk about religion at the Chinese universities where they work, although some involved in such work acknowledged that not all foreigners abide by such pledges. Another Christian nonprofit official defended foreign educators as people motivated by a desire to do good, describing as far-fetched the idea that they are infiltrators sent by overseas governments.

One reason that Chinese authorities may be shifting their attention to religion on campus is the house church movement’s expansion in the past decade from rural to urban centers, where colleges are located, several church leaders said.

Another reason, one religious scholar said, may be related to the Communist Party’s roots.

“The Communist revolution began in ideology, so they fear it can be defeated by ideology,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “What they fear is not really religion itself but ideas that may be brought on by religion, like freedom and equality.”

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

View the full documents in Mandarin here, and in English here .