Photo above shows Tibetan monks praying in Gansu Province, China on February 21, 2012
Tibetan monks pray in China's Gansu province on Feb. 21, 2012. Reuters

SHANGHAI — A senior Chinese advisor on religious affairs has said the country should promote atheism throughout society, in remarks that appear to reflect a deepening campaign to reinforce traditional Marxist values in China — and could add to concern about official attitudes among believers in the country’s five officially recognized religions.

Zhu Weiqun, head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the advisory body to China’s legislature, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, wrote in the official Global Times newspaper that the party should “unambiguously promote Marxist atheism to society,” and preserve "its leading position in the thinking of the masses of the people," describing it as “the nations’ mainstream ideology.” And he said it was particularly important to “strengthen propaganda education about a scientific worldview, including atheism, for young people."

He said that while China protected the rights of religious believers, “as a nation led by the Communist Party, we cannot abandon atheism and turn to religion for spiritual support, nor take a neutral or conciliatory attitude [when choosing ] between atheism and religion, and cannot not allow religion to spread without limits and become the mainstream ideology."

Zhu’s remarks appear to be in line with an increasingly orthodox approach to ideology promoted by China’s president and Communist Party secretary general Xi Jinping.

Since the end of the ideologically hardline Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, China has officially said it allows freedom of belief, and in recent years has generally only overtly promoted atheism to Communist Party members, who are not supposed to believe in any religion. And despite controls on the five officially registered religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and the Catholic and Protestant churches – and sporadic crackdowns on unregistered religious groups, the number of religious believers has grown rapidly. Official estimates put the figure at 100 million, while others say it is far higher, with many young people turning to religion – and some party members too.

But since President Xi took office more than three years ago, the leadership has increasingly sought to promote a more traditional socialist line, while criticizing Western cultural and liberal values and other “unhealthy” influences. And Zhu’s remarks come soon after a national religious work conference – the first for 15 years – at which Xi emphasized that Communist Party members must not believe in religion, and said China must reduce foreign influence on religion to prevent “infiltration.” Xi also called for the promotion of a "scientific outlook" among young people, while Zhu Weiqun said at the time that a number of party members had “found consolation in religions,” something that had “seriously damaged the party’s ideology, organization and work style.”

And Zhu's latest remarks seem to go a stage further: in the Global Times article, he wrote that in recent years, even some “leading officials .. have sought to find values in religion, which has had a negative impact.” He also quoted China’s Communist founding father Chairman Mao Zedong, and said the Communist Party had not come to power by “guiding people to put their hope on heaven or future life. ” And in another phrase reminiscent of the ideological campaigns of previous decades, Zhu said it was necessary to guide people to “draw a clear line” between “atheism and religion, science and superstition, civilization and ignorance.”

Zhu said that if the Communist Party had been able to bring into play some “positive effects of religion,” (religious believers have been praised by some local officials as good citizens – and taxpayers, for example), and reduce its negative impacts, it was “not because we gave up atheism and compromised with religion in an unprincipled way, but because we stuck to Marxist atheism and correct policies.” And he criticized some scholars, who he said had sought to justify allowing religious believers to join the Communist Party, adding, “in promoting Marxist atheism education to society, the fields of education and religious research can’t be an exception – they should also research, publicize and promote atheism.”

Zhu, who took over his current role in 2013 after retiring as executive deputy head of the Communist Party’s United Front work department, which is in charge of promoting links the party and society at large, is known for previously expressing highly critical views of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

But his latest remarks may alarm religious figures in China, in the context of what some have already said is increasingly strict control on the sector. This has been seen both in the mainly Muslim northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the government has stepped up scrutiny of religious practice following several terrorist attacks that the authorities say were linked to separatism and religious extremism, and in a campaign to demolish large crosses on churches in eastern Zhejiang province. One pastor was jailed, while a lawyer who defended him was detained for seven months — and a priest at China’s largest official church in nearby Hangzhou was also detained for opposing the crackdown on crosses.

And with Xi calling for more emphasis on Marxism both in the party and in China's education system – possibly in an attempt to boost the party's legitimacy in an increasingly diverse society – some observers have said that people with traditional 'leftist' socialist views are increasingly daring to speak out, in a society where they had previously been relatively isolated.

Some readers on, China’s biggest web portal, expressed surprise at Zhu’s comments.

"Is it appropriate for the head of the ethnic and religious affairs commission to make this kind of remarks," asked one reader in the comments section, below a copy of Zhu's article.

"Are we back to talking with only one voice?" asked another.

However, some comments expressed support for Zhu’s views, saying party members should not believe in religion – though in China’s sometimes ironic internet culture, it was not clear if all of them were sincere:

“No-one’s talked like this for decades. Long time no see -- Well done!" wrote one reader.