ZHENGDING — Dozens of Chinese tourists eat their picnics in the shadow of the majestic Linji Temple pagoda, the birthplace of one of the most famous branches of Buddhism. The monument, with its finely carved gray bricks, contains the relics of the founder of the school, which dates back to the ninth century during the Tang dynasty.

Circulating in the alleys lined with cypresses, bamboos and tropical plants with red flowers, visitors walk through the temple's dormitories and refectory before gathering in a prayer room in front of golden buddhas. From there they enter the former home — now a museum — of the venerable monk Shi Youming, who ran the place of worship until his death in 2010. Objects that belonged to the Zen master are exhibited in showcases, as well as old photos from the temple before its restoration in the early 1980s.

It's only then that the guide, also a monk, casually mentions how Xi Jinping, the country's most powerful leader since Mao, visited Youming in 2005. Given how ubiquitous the face of "Uncle Xi" has become in China, it's surprising there are no photographs here marking that visit. The guide also tells us that the beautiful calligraphy material on display was actually a gift from Xi Jinping for Youming's 90th birthday, but again, there's no plaque or written description emphasizing the fact.

It seems, rather, that an effort has been made to conceal the close relationship between the head of state and the late Zen master. "They were friends," the guide acknowledges. "We have pictures where they appear together, but we can’t publish them... because they show the leader of the Communist Party."

Sharing such images, in other words, would blur the line dictated by the Chinese president himself, who demands "inflexible atheism" from Party members and has overseen an intensified crackdown on religions since taking leadership of the country in 2012.

The ties that bind

Yet, some snapshots have slipped through the net of online-censorship. In one of them, probably taken in 2005, the top Communist leader, wearing a suit and tie, affectionately offers his hand to his puny host in a saffron dress.

The friendship dates back to 1982, when Xi Jinping, the son of a Communist revolution hero, was named vice-president of the Party's Zhengding County faction. He was just 29 at the time. Youming, who arrived in Zhengding at the same time, wanted to start renovating the Linji Temple. The timing, it turned out, favored an alliance. That same year, the Party published a text calling for the restoration of temples, mosques and churches massively destroyed under Mao Zedong, and the rehabilitation of religious authorities.

"Uncle Xi" — Photo: Kremlin.ru

The young bureaucrat was all the more interested in the restoration push given the involvement of his father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary hero who returned to power after being the victim of a Maoist purge, as Ian Johnson recounts in his book The Souls of China, about the return of religion in China since the 1980s. Xi Jinping visited the temple regularly and played a significant role in helping the renovation project advance, the guide explains. "He removed a lot of bureaucratic hurdles by using his relations in the central government," he says.

In 1983, the temple reopened to the public, and authorities in Beijing recognized it as an official place of worship, with Youming at its head.

The young, ambitious Xi Jinping was well aware that restoring the region's cultural heritage would accelerate the development of tourism. But this pragmatism was probably combined with a more personal inclination. "When he was working in this county, Xi Jinping was in the process of divorcing from his first wife. Youming's advice helped him through this difficult time," says a monk from Linji Temple. In his view, the president is a Buddhist who practices privately.

Buddhism and Taoism enjoy preferential treatment.

This is a difficult claim to prove. But according to a childhood friend quoted in a U.S. diplomatic note published by WikiLeaks, the future president showed a clear interest in the doctrine early in his career, shortly after his appointment in the Fujian province, in 1985. "[He] displayed a fascination with Buddhist martial arts, qigong and other mystical powers said to aid health, as well as with Buddhist sacred sites," this friend was quoted as saying. The source, now a teacher, doesn't know whether Xi was "actually religious" but said he was "extremely surprised by how much Xi knew about the subject."

Nor did he seem to lose interest over time. In 1996, when Youming — who had been persecuted for decades — returned to his native county to see the temple he had first entered at the age of seven, Xi Jinping accompanied him, according to a local source. Xi went on to become the party secretary in Zhejiang, and in 2006 he organized a Buddhist World Forum, the first international religious conference to be held in China since the founding of the People's Republic.

"A need for meaning"

Today, even if all cults are under strict supervision, experts say that Chinese Buddhism (the country's first religion) and Taoism enjoy a preferential treatment compared to Christianity, Islam and Tibetan Buddhism, religions deemed subject to foreign influence.

Belief systems based on deep Chinese roots, such as Buddhism, can be useful in addressing this need for meaning.

For starters, both religious traditions are compatible with the "great renewal of the Chinese nation" that Xi Jinping advocates. Local Buddhism was born in India, but it took on "Chinese characteristics" through its "integrated development with the indigenous Confucianism and Taoism," as Xi himself put it during a visit to Paris in 2014, praising the positive impact of this school of thought on his country's culture.

"He has understood that most Chinese people do not believe in Communism and suffer from a spiritual void that the race for money fails to make up for," Ian Johnson says of the powerful Chinese leader. "He thinks that belief systems based on deep Chinese roots, such as Buddhism, can be useful in addressing this need for meaning."

In doing so, the president is not only trying to strengthen social cohesion, threatened by the economic slowdown, but also to legitimize his power. Buddhist leaders "who once accepted the emperor's authority" continue "to submit more than other religions to the grip of the Chinese Communist Party and its rules," says Fenggang Yang, a professor at Purdue University. Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that by setting up Buddhism as an example, Xi Jinping is seeking to "persuade Christians to abandon their independence and follow the Communist Party's instructions."

Religious repression

Last year, the most powerful leader since Mao insisted on resisting "foreign forces that use religions to infiltrate society." Hence his desire to "sinicize" the beliefs spread across the land. At the 19th Congress Party in October 2017, Xi Jinping stressed the need to "better conform" to "Chinese realities" and "socialist society." Determined to fight against anything that could undermine the regime's authority and preserve "national security," he also intends to "take resolute measures to combat... religious extremist activities."

As evidence of yet more stiffening, the Communist Party — which tolerates religions only to the extent that they submit to its supervision — issued new rules last September regarding freedom of worship. Among other things, his guidelines, which will come into effect in February 2018, prohibit people from accepting donations from abroad and levy heavy fines on those found guilty of organizing unauthorized events.

China is particularly concerned about the situation in the Xinjiang Province, home to some 10 million Muslim Uighurs. While the region has experienced violent episodes in recent years, the authorities, worried about supposed links between "separatists" and international jihadist organizations, have deployed exceptional safety measures and increased restrictions.

Last year, the government banned full veil and beards deemed "abnormal." The regime also continuously monitors Tibetan monks and intimidates "clandestine" Catholic priests who refuse to swear allegiance to the regime. An extreme sign of this defiance took place in Zhejiang, where more than a 1,000 church-top crosses — most of them Protestant — have been taken down in recent years by the local government, which considered them too conspicuous.

"The Party is showing great paranoia against Christians, a well-organized community that, in less than a decade, could exceed 90 million believers — almost the current number of Party members," says Willy Lam. China is one pace, according to some experts, to be the largest largest Christian country in the world (ahead of the United States) by 2030.

See more from World Affairs here