Where does faith belong in an officially atheist country? In China, that question is existential – not only for believers, but also for the state. Recent bans on worship by Hui Muslims, and discussions between the Vatican and the Chinese government that could give China control over the selection of local Catholic bishops, have renewed fears that President Xi Jinping is turning back the clock on religious tolerance. How these moves are handled, and received, has broad implications for China’s stability. For an officially atheist country, China has long enjoyed a high degree of religious pluralism. The state recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism. And, while many aspects of worship are and have always been controlled, religion in China is booming. Official data don’t exist, but experts say that roughly a third of the Chinese public identifies with some faith. Buddhism is the most popular, but one of the fastest growing is Christianity. Today there are more than ten million Catholics in China, and if projections hold, by 2030, China could have the world’s largest population of Christians. Whether that growth continues is one of the great unknowns of the Xi era. Last year, Xi called for all religions to become more “Chinese-oriented.” He didn’t elaborate, but most saw the statement as a warning to religious and ethnic minorities not to agitate for more freedoms. Others took the order literally; in Jiangxi, village leaders told Christians they could escape poverty only if they replaced posters of Jesus with portraits of the president. Sinicizing religion carries risks, but Xi’s quandary is not a new one; how to separate church and state has consumed Chinese leaders for centuries. In imperial China, faith was carefully managed as a tool to cement authority; only the emperor – the “Son of Heaven” – had the mandate to communicate with the divine. What sets China’s current approach apart is its brazenness. Historically, monarchs have trod carefully when managing the “religious field,” aware that striking at institutions viewed as legitimate in the eyes of supplicants could backfire. Xi may be emboldened by the recent elimination of the presidential term limit, which will enable him to rule indefinitely. But by returning China to the altar of authoritarianism, Xi is gambling that the Party can serve as the country’s savior. If he’s wrong, it will be China’s leaders – rather than its people – praying for answers.