Religious Persecution: Crackdown on People of Faith under China
China is one of the worst violators of freedom of religion or belief. Even though the Chinese government recognizes five religious groups namely Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Catholics and Protestants under the umbrella of “Patriotic Religious Associations,” it continues to meddle with and control their religious beliefs and traditions. Even these religious groups that have government recognition are not free of oppressive mistreatments. Tibetan monks and nuns, Uighur Muslims, Christians and other believers are often persecuted and are subjected to torture, physical abuse, arrest, detention, imprisonment and harassment.
According to the Political Prisoner Database by the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation, the following number of religious prisoners were recorded at the end of the 2017: 308 Protestants, 277 Almighty God Church members, 107 Muslims, 30 Buddhists, 9 Catholics and 3156 Falun Gong practitioners. It is under the larger umbrella of sinicizing religious communities that we are witnessing these similar and mass crackdowns occurring. Additionally, China’s heavy investment in the latest high-tech surveillance systems is a product of the need to facilitate its oppression of religious practices to a whole new level en masse.
Crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists
In June 2016, the Chinese government left an indelible mark on Tibetans by ordering large scale demolitions of two well-known Buddhist institutes, Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, in Karze (CHN: Garzi) prefecture of eastern Tibet. Larung Gar was one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist institutes in the world until monastic dwellings were destroyed and monks, nuns and lay Buddhist students evicted, reducing the population from more than 100,00 to 5,000 residents. Similarly, the recent satellite images show that nearly half of Yachen Gar residential area has been demolished and nearly 7,000 monks, nuns and lay practitioners were evicted. Those evicted were then put into internment camps for “political re-education.” The situation in these camps were so dire that a Tibetan Buddhist nun was driven to commit suicide as an escape. Six UN Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement to China condemning the mass expulsion from the two religious institutes. In a sharply worded statement, the rapporteurs expressed “grave concern […] over the serious repression of the Buddhist Tibetans’ cultural and religious practices and learning in Larung Gar and Yachen Gar.”
New administrative measures have been introduced to allow China to control internal monastic affairs. The monastic management committees of the institutes, which formerly consisted of monks and nuns were replaced by government-backed agencies like the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) also known as the Religious Affairs Bureau, and officially approved religious organizations like the Buddhist Association of China. With the absorption of SARA under the United Front Work Department in 2018, the CCP has now shifted the control of religion in China from the Council of State to the direct purview of the party’s Central Committee. The new control measures cover a range of areas including admissions, management, finances, security and administrative matters.
Elderly retired Tibetans are not allowed to go on kora a religious circumambulation of holy shrines and the admissions of novices to monasteries and nunneries are highly curtailed. This year in June, the CCP demanded to take down even the Tibetan prayer flags and poles from which they are hung under its “behavioural reform” campaign in Tibet. China has also banned Tibetan children in the so-called “Tibetan Autonomous Region” from participating in religious activities during school break. An education official from Lhasa Middle School was quoted saying that students were required to sign an agreement to “not take part in any form of religious activity during the summer vacation.” The restriction came just after Chinese authorities banned Tibetan children and their parents from observing the Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa in May 2018. Schools were instructed to inform the Education Bureau of any absences in class during the holy month. Not only were the retired elderly Tibetan public servants banned from participating in any religious activities, they were also encouraged to spy and report on each other.
Tibetans are neither allowed to pray to His Holiness the Dalai Lama nor possess his pictures. Further, monks and nuns are subject to China’s “patriotic education” campaign. The state-sponsored “patriotic education” classes contain study materials that slanders His Holiness the Dalai Lama, praises Chinese Communist Party, and require subjects to swear allegiance to the CCP-installed Panchen Lama as opposed to the one rightfully recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The CCP while officially claiming to be an atheist party is insistent on interfering with the appointment of the reincarnations of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For decades, Chinese authorities have attacked and denounced the current His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a “wolf in a monk’s robes” and a “dangerous splittist.” The disregard for him however does not stop, if not further reinforce, the need for China to encroach on the tradition of his succession. This evinces China’s total disregard for the religious sentimentalities around His Holiness the Dalai Lama among Tibetans and believers, keeping its focus solely on mustering power by imposing itself on the reincarnation tradition. The CPC has since 2007 formulated a measure called Order no. 5 requiring other all reincarnate monks to register for government approval. It is not surprising that the CPC will justify the appointment of its own choice of 15th Dalai Lama using the same instrument.
In May 2019, five UN independent experts from five UN Special Procedures Mandates wrote a joint letter of allegation to China objecting to the sentencing of nine Tibetans for celebrating the 80th birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2015. The nine Tibetans are: Monk Drugdra, also known as Dukda or Drukdra; Monk Lobsang, Khedrub; Monk Lobsang Gephel; Monk Lodro; Ms. Ta’re Kyi; Ms. Bonkho Kyi, also known as Wonkho Kyi; Mr. Trotsik Tsultrim; Mr. Tsultrim, also known as Tsulte; and Mr. Akyakya.
This year, in their communication dated 2 June 2020, five UN independent mandate holders from the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief highlighted two important points: one, the continued enforced disappearance of the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and the other, “regulation of reincarnation of Tibetan living Buddhas against the religious traditions and practices of the Tibetan Buddhist minority.” Raising particular concern about the regulation of reincarnation of Tibetan living Buddhas, the UN experts have noted that this “interfere[s][sic] and possibly undermines, in a discriminatory way, the religious traditions and practices of the Tibetan Buddhist minority.” Quoting the concerns of the Tibetan Buddhists, the UN experts have noted that “furthermore, there is fear that the Chinese authority will identify and appoint the successor of the current (fourteenth) Dalai Lama against the Tibetan traditions and the wish of Tibetan Buddhist communities.” They also endorsed the “CRC’s (Committee on the Rights of the Child) recommendation to allow an independent monitor to visit him to confirm his whereabouts and the extent to which he is able to enjoy and exercise his rights.”
Crackdown on Uighurs Muslims
Recent reports seem to confirm that China may have legalized the “re-education camps” in East Turkestan (CHN: Xinjiang) all while fiercely denying their existence. The Xinjiang Autonomous Region Administration has revised its legislation to allow local authorities to “carry out anti-extremist ideological education” at “vocational training centres.”
China is accused of detaining upwards of 1 million Uighurs in detention camps and re-education centres. These structures are aimed at “curing” Uighur Muslims of their religion and grooming them to become loyal to the CCP. Inside the camps, detainees are forced to learn Chinese language, sing patriotic songs, and memorize rules applicable to Uighurs and other Muslims in the region. These rules are as invasive and as pernicious as not allowing Uighurs to speak their own language in public.
In the guise of defending China against Islamic terrorism, the Chinese government has turned the western region of Xinjiang into one of the world’s most heavily policed areas with unprecedented sophistication. The same grid-system was mirrored in Xinjiang as it was in Tibet when Chen Quango was appointed as the Party Secretary from Tibet to Xinjiang in 2016. The increase in the police-related job advertisements from 9000 prior to 2016 and 32000 in 2016, to over 60000 in 2017 is telling of this police-state style of governance in the region.
The measures to curb Uighurs’ freedoms however extend beyond the state: it has even gone international through Chinese initiatives under the trope of curbing terrorism in the region. During Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2015 it sought to create a new commitment among the four participating countries from Central Asia and Russia to build a “better SCO family” in order to ensure “regional security, stability and prosperity.” However, these have come to be seen as targeted attempts to muster further support for China’s suppression of Uighurs.
The CCP also controls the Uighurs by keeping checks on their foreign connections, making it an outright offense even to maintain ties with people from “26 sensitive countries” which include Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia. Those who have friends or families in the listed countries face interrogations and arbitrary detentions that can quickly escalate to imprisonments.
Human Rights Watch reported that “the human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang today are of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.” Unfortunately, the international community has largely turned a blind eye to the Chinese government’s systematic persecution of Uighurs. The Uighur diaspora and associations have consistently been making international appeals to make pre-requisite the end of oppression towards Uighurs a prerequisite when forging bilateral and multilateral agreements with China.
Once at the intersection of the ancient Silk Road routes, today, Xinjiang is in the heart of China’s expansionist Belt and Road initiative. It presents potential new and important economic routes to and from Central Asia, thus making the need to turn the Xinjiang population into loyal CPC cadets even more pressing for China As a result, the neighbouring countries and the international community at large cannot ignore the gross human rights violations against Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Crackdown on Christians
According to recent reports, there are approximately around 31 million Christians in China. These tentative numbers are however hard to confirm due to the fact that that Chinese people have genuine fears about publicly announcing their faith even though the Chinese Constitution “recognizes” Catholicism and Protestantism. Those above 18 years of age are allowed to register with the Christian groups which are affiliated to government-approved churches. The crackdown on Christians has forced the believers to join underground congregations, commonly called “house churches,” instead. Members however continue to fear detentions and imprisonments, or flee for their safety. In 2019, more than 100 members were mass arrested from one of the best-known underground churches called Early Rain. Those who escaped detentions are now in hiding. Its pastor, Wang Yi, and his wife, are charged with “inciting subversion” and could face the risk of imprisonment for up to 15 years. Police in plain clothes stand outside the premise to deter visitors to the church. That said, Early Rain is not an exception but a rule of Chinese crackdown. In September 2018, another big church — Zion’s Church in Beijing — had been demolished and its pastor billed to the tune of 1.2 million yuan.
The government sanctioned churches are also not spared from the constant and arbitrary control which is evermore tightening. These “sanxi churches” were one of the firsts to face the forced removal of over 1000 crosses in Zhejiang province from 2014 to 2016 under party chief Xia Baolong — now the current head of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO).
The CCP’s new gained authority over the appointment of religious heads is underscored by the Vatican’s recent decision to recognize the legitimacy of bishops appointed by the CCP. A controversial provisional agreement between the Catholic Church and the Chinese government emerged at a time when Chinese authorities are cracking down on underground Christian churches in the country. Critics have also raised concerns that the deal makes no mention of the clerics currently held in Chinese detention. The Beijing-Vatican deal also has larger ramifications because China is instrumentalising the Vatican-deal as has a legitimacy to appoint not only Catholic bishops but also Protestant priests, Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis, Hindu priests and Buddhist heads. This agreement also adversely affects ‘house churches’ who now become more vulnerable to state’s clampdowns.
Christianity in China is being sinicized to handle its growing number of followers in order to mobilize support for the party-state. The sale of Bibles are controlled and are barred from being sold online. The translations of Bibles are state-controlled for a “correct understanding” of the text that will highlight similarities between socialism and Christianity. The promotion of Christianity with Chinese characteristics between 2018 and 2022 has been launched as a “thought reform.” In 2019, heads of 500 churches in the country signed a statement announcing how the Chinese authorities had forced the removal of crosses, compelled them to hang the Chinese flag, and sing patriotic songs. They also resented the restriction on minors from attending churches.
Domestically, the mass arrests such as the one seen with the members of Early Rain Covenant Church — who carried the annual practice of commemorating victims of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 among other social issues — show how these religious sites are also suppressed from becoming safe space to discuss political disenchantments. Any foreign connections with churches in China are deemed a security threat and curbed.
The wave of crackdown has also been put on Christmas. Restrictions vary from bans on observing Christmas holidays in government institutions and schools, restrictions on putting up Christmas-themed stalls, decorations and parties, and curtailing exchanges of wishes or making Christmas social media posts across cities and counties in China.
Crackdown on Falun Gong
Falun Gong is a modern qigong discipline which involves meditation and energy exercises with a moral philosophy centred on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance often known to have drawn from Buddhist tradition. It was first introduced by Li Hongzhi in 1992 and gained wide popularity amongst the masses.
In 1999 the CCP banned its practice and carried out nation-wide persecution of the Falun Gong practitioners. The authorities mobilized the state media apparatus, judiciary, police, army, the education system, families and the workplaces against the group. The campaign was driven by large-scale propaganda through television, newspaper, radio and the internet. There are reports of systematic torture, illegal imprisonment, forced labour, organ harvesting and abusive psychiatric measures with the apparent aim of forcing practitioners to recant their beliefs in Falung Gong. Foreign observers estimate that over a million of these Falun Gong practitioners may be illegally detained in camps for “re-education through labour,” prisons, and other detention facilities for refusing to renounce their spiritual practice.
In 2006, allegations emerged that a large number of Falun Gong practitioners had been killed to support the supply for China’s infamous organ transplant industry. An initial investigation found that “the source of 41,500 transplants for the six year period 2000 to 2005 is unexplained,” and concluded that “there has been and continues today to be a large scale of organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners.” In 2008, United Nations Special Rapporteurs reiterated their requests for “the Chinese government to fully explain the allegation of taking vital organs from Falun Gong practitioners and the source of organs for the sudden increase in organ transplants that has been going on in China since the year 2000.”
In 2020 the China Tribunal held that “the Tribunal’s members are certain – unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt – that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims.” The Tribunal further condemned China as “criminal state” and held that “any person or organisation that interacts in any substantial way with the PRC – the People’s Republic of China – including doctors and medical institutions; industry, and businesses, most specifically airlines, travel companies, financial services businesses, law firms, and pharmaceutical and insurance companies, together with individual tourists; educational establishments; arts establishments should recognise that, to the extent revealed in this document, they are interacting with a criminal state.”
Using COVID-19 to shroud increased attacks on Faith in China
With all these sinicization and crackdowns on people of faith in China and their respective institutions, it is not far-fetched to imagine the worsened state of religion in China, where the first case of COVID-19 was detected. It is the same strain of surveillance used to curb Tibetans who rise up against the human rights violations such as freedom of religion and faith, that we witnessed in how the CCP curbed whistle-blowers of COVID-19.
Moreover, the CCP has gone further than subdue resistances from people of faith. In Tibet, monasteries in the capital of Lhasa were strictly cut off from engaging in religious presiding, with traditional religious activities “suspended” during Losar (New Year) this year. On 8 February, 2020 the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Sershul (CHN: Shiqu) county, Kardze (CHN: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture released a circular wherein the Chinese officials strictly warned Tibetan monks against allowing any lay Tibetans in the monasteries while restricting the monks from going outside their residents. The Sershul County authorities also banned Tibetan monks from performing any religious rituals and prayers during the upcoming Losar. Any failure to abide by the order meant that, the monasteries would face closure, warned the circular in Tibetan. For those of Christian faith, the same ban on opening a place of worship meant a ban on observing Marian pilgrimages — a month that is dedicated to remembering Mary. All this occurs amidst the ongoing long-term plans of removing crosses from churches, possibly followed by their demolitions.
The need for special COVID-19 measures have allowed the CCP to repurpose them for keeping people away from places of worship. The lack of transparency such as checked flow of information from China to the outside world especially during the COVID-19 has left many cornered. All this while, however, there were no restrictions on visiting the Mao temples built to deify Mao. For instance, the Mao temples were allowed to have mass gatherings of visitors in the Mao Hall during the pandemic while bans were imposed over other religious places. It only goes to reaffirm that the CCP atheism is selective and oppressive. Its ever-strengthening architecture to conduct mass and pernicious surveillance of faith-based communities proves that for the CCP Orwellian politics prevails before humanity.
QUESTIONS AND ISSUES TO BE CONSIDERED
- What are the similarities in Chinese Communist Party’s mistreatments toward faith-based communities in the country — Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Chinese Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners?
- How can these endangered religious followers and believers coordinate among themselves to challenge the CCP’s repression?
- How can we ensure that China follows its own constitutional provisions to protect the five state-sanctioned religious communities in the country?
- How does China’s increasing use of “re-education camps” to deal with “separatists” disprove its narrative of seeking cultural assimilation? Are these camps not turning into tools of total subjugation of these populations instead?
- In what ways are international actors and bodies reinforcing China’s false sense of legitimacy to continue mistreating the religious communities in the country?
- How should the international community mobilize its bilateral and multilateral relations with China to condemn the CCP’s decades-long and ongoing religious persecutions?