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story.lead_photo.caption In this photo Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, photo, sales staff from an apparel shop dance wearing Christmas themed costumes to promote a year end sales in Zhangjiakou in northern China's Hebei province. At least four Chinese cities and one county have restricted Christmas celebrations this year. Churches in another city have been warned to keep minors away from Christmas, and at least ten schools nationwide have curtailed Christmas on campus, The Associated Press has found. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

SHANGHAI -- It took less than 24 hours for all the Christmas trees, lights and bells to disappear from a 27-story shopping and office complex in the Chinese city of Nanyang.

Even the giant teddy bear at the mall entrance wasn't spared, said Ma Jun, who works at a tutoring company in the building.

"Everything is gone and cleaned," she said.

Christmas continues to be a shopping festival across most of China, with huge trees adorning shopping malls in Shanghai and Beijing, but a growing emphasis on traditional culture by the ruling Communist Party and the systematic suppression of religion under President Xi Jinping are imperiling Santa Claus's position.

At least four Chinese cities and one county have ordered restrictions on Christmas celebrations this year, according to official notices and interviews. Students, teachers and parents from 10 schools around China told The Associated Press that Christmas celebrations have been curtailed.

"The ongoing local reaction against Christmas is part of the wider sentiment since Xi took power," said Zi Yang, a China expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Xi is trying to broaden the appeal of the Communist Party by casting it as a crusader for Chinese tradition in a fast-changing world, he said. "Therefore, foreign cultural elements such as Christmas are placed on the chopping block."

This follows similar outbreaks of anti-Christmas rhetoric in 2014 and 2017. It appears not to be centrally organized, but rather a spreading resistance to foreign festivals by local authorities seeking to align themselves with the growing tide of cultural nationalism.

The squeeze on Christmas is an example of how efforts to "normalize" thinking bleed into the everyday lives of many Chinese. That push exploded into view this year through re-education camps for Uighur Muslims and a crackdown on Christian churches that has continued with force in recent weeks.

In Nanyang, about 600 miles west of Shanghai, government officials stopped by the office and shopping complex on Dec. 16 to say that Christmas decorations would have to come down, said Ma, the tutoring company employee.

An official from the city's urban management bureau hung up when asked for comment.

Nine hours by car south, Hengyang, a city in Hunan province, said in a Dec. 19 notice posted on an official government social media account that anyone caught holding Christmas sales or celebrations that blocked the streets would be punished. Communist Party members, the notice said, should avoid foreign festivals and instead be "models of adherence to Chinese traditional culture." Hengyang police posted a video on their official social media account of locals discussing the importance of Chinese culture and plans to avoid ostentatious Christmas celebrations.

Langfang city, just south of Beijing, banned Christmas stage performances and merchandising promotions, according to a notice circulated on social media.

Shop windows were to be stripped of Christmas stickers and streets kept free of Christmas banners and lights. Law enforcement patrols were to be stepped up Dec. 23-25 to prevent illegal signs of celebration.

The Langfang urban management bureau declined comment. The state-run Global Times newspaper argued that Western media are exaggerating China's crackdown on Christmas and reported that the restrictions in Langfang were aimed not at Christmas but at cleaning up roadside stalls and migrant vendors in hopes of winning a "National Civilized City" award from the Communist Party.

Reverend Jonathan Liu, founder of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness, a California nonprofit, provided the AP with a notice sent to churches in Zhoukou, a city to the east of Nanyang in Henan province.

It tells churches to vet Christmas plans with the government, forbids minors from participating in Christmas events and caps expenses at $290. "I wish you all a happy Christmas! God bless you," read the notice, which Liu received from a pastor in China.

An official at the United Front Work Department in Zhoukou referred queries to the religious affairs bureau, which could not be reached for comment.

Students have taken to social media to complain about restrictions on Christmas celebrations at their schools.

At a top Shanghai university, a student union had its Christmas plans canceled for the first time, an organizer told the AP on condition of anonymity, fearing rebuke.

The students came up with a solution: By replacing "Christmas" with "New Year's" in their activity proposal and changing the date from Dec. 25, it sailed past school administrators.

Liu Kaiming, president of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a civil society group in the city of Shenzhen, said that despite the official discontent, Christmas cheer continues to spread in China.

"The sound of resistance is more powerful on the surface, but it has no practical effect," he said. "Young people's enthusiasm for the festival is ever-increasing."

Information for this article was contributed by Chen Si of The Associated Press.

A Section on 12/25/2018

Print Headline: Chinese cities restrict Christmas; celebrations curtailed since Xi took power, reports say


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