SARA director Wang Zuoan becomes new United Front deputy director
by Wang Zhicheng

Two weeks ago, the State Administration for Religious Affairs was placed under the direct rule of the Communist Party. However, it will retain its name. "It is not important for Wang to understand religion. It is more important that he will be loyal to the Communist Party," complained a priest. It is unclear if SARA’s plan will remain the same.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), formerly known as the Religious Affairs Bureau, has been named one of the ten vice directors of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). Whilst in his new capacity, he will remain SARA director.

The appointment, which was announced on 1st April, was made two weeks after SARA was placed under the direct control of the Communist Party. Until then it was an independent agency under the authority of the State Council.

As indicated in a plan made public on 22 March laying out reforms for the Communist Party and the government, SARA will retain is name. This, for some analysts, suggest that it will become the executive branch of the UFWD.

For Christians in China, Wang will continue to supervise religious affairs since he will remain SARA director.

"It is not important for Wang to understand religion. It is more important that he will be loyal to the Communist Party," lamented a priest in northern China who asked that his be withheld.

Another priest, Fr Peter agrees. "It is not easy for the Party to train experts in religious matters."

Wang was born in May 1958, in Jiangsu Province. He joined the Communist Party in 1985 and graduated in Philosophy, before working for the UFWD between 1983 and 1985.

He was then assigned to SARA where he worked in various capacities: policy researcher, publisher and chief editor of the Religion and Culture Publication House. He headed the agency between 2009 and October 2017.

At the 19th Congress of the Communist Party, Wang was not re-elected to the central committee. During the meeting, he spoke twice to a Hong Kong radio, saying communication between China and the Vatican were smooth "but some problems are not that simple and cannot be settled in a short time".

He noted that both sides need sincerity and practical action but refused to answer specific questions about the appointment of bishops.

In the second interview, Wang made it clear that he was not suggesting the possibility of an upcoming papal visit to China.

Following its recent overhaul, SARA revamped its website, but it is not clear whether its deputy directors will change. It is also unclear whether its plan for 2018, released on 18 February, will remain the same.

With respect to the Catholic Church, the plan noted it would commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 'self-elections, self-ordinations' of bishops. It also noted that the Catholic Church would focus on educational activities based on the principles of autonomy and self-management, as it actively and constantly does with respect to the self-election and self-ordination of bishops.

The plan also states that SARA would support patriotic bishops in developing Church activities and resolving the practical difficulties of their ministry, as well as help it deal with illegal activities carried out in the name of the Catholic Church.

Another goal included in the plan is to educate and transform underground Catholics and use religious exchange to benefit the government’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), by getting Church leaders to invite well-known religious leaders to visit China.