For decades, the story of China presented to Americans has been a story of reform, especially connected with the name Deng Xiaoping. That era, however, seems to be receding into the past. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, while accepting a measure of capitalism, is moving China ever closer to becoming a highly autocratic state, comprehensively controlling all of life, persecuting especially religious citizens, and focusing with particular severity on certain religions, notably Christianity, Islam and the indigenous Falun Gong.
Much of the problem seems to be tied to the ascendency of Xi Jinping as China’s effective “paramount leader.” Xi is focused on a strong state as the key to a successful future for China, along with the economic freedom introduced by Deng and an anticorruption drive. His viewpoint emphasizes China’s Confucian heritage, with its emphasis on duty, and the Legalist school, one of the six prominent schools of traditional Chinese thought, and particularly the contributions of its thinker Han Fei. Human selfishness was seen as the great problem of society in this school, and an authoritarian state acting in its own interests to preserve order as the solution.
A somewhat similar situation seems to be unfolding in Vietnam, and the increasingly oppressive nature of that government’s rule with respect to religious freedom was discussed along with China’s at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s summit on April 18, while a more detailed discussion of the situation in China was given at the Heritage Foundation on April 13.
At the Heritage Foundation, Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, and Douglas Robison, Chairman of ChinaAid’s Board of Directors, discussed the deteriorating situation, along with Kristina Arriaga, Vice Chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Robison said that many human rights activists and lawyers he had worked with in past years have been imprisoned, have disappeared or otherwise been eliminated from activism. He said that 2008 saw an especial turn toward increased persecution. Recently new Religious Affairs Regulations went into effect in China on February 1, posing a new threat to religious freedom in China, since “the power to regulate is the power to destroy.” Under the new regulations, all religious activity in China, whatever form it takes, is subject to “comprehensive control and approval, pre-approval, by the Chinese government.” Even state approved churches are subject to increasing persecution, with the removal of crosses from churches and the destruction of churches perhaps the signature of the harsher policy in the minds of interested persons outside of China.
Quoting from the new regulation, Robison said that we may infer that it is only the “tip of the iceberg” of unfolding persecution as the Chinese government, in the regulation’s words “increase[s] the level of legalification” of religion “to fit in with socialist society.” “Rights and privileges” are held to “emanate from the government.” This, Robison said, is in striking contrast to the American constitutional system, which recognizes religious freedom as “prepolitical,” and really, given by God. Concern for religious freedom, Robison said, should be “at the apex” of American relations with China, along with economic engagement, Taiwan, North Korea and other issues.
China’s persecution of religions and national minorities was described as both comprehensive and sophisticated, and incorporates such technologies as voice, and facial recognition and DNA swabs. Churches are required to post a sign saying that children, students, civil servants, soldiers, and party members may not enter. This is enforced with facial recognition technology. Religious education of persons under the age of 18 is prohibited. Fu said that Chinese President Xi Jinping “has a particular animosity against Christianity.” He pointed out that a minister of state security said in an article in a China daily that underground churches were the worst threat to national security of five principle threats mentioned, with political dissidents included in the other four. Fu believes that the Chinese government fears the increasing number of Christians because they can be expected to question the regime’s total control of China.
The worst policy described was that advanced toward the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang Autonomous Region in far northwest China. It is estimated that a half-million Uyghurs have been sent to re-education camps, where intense pressure, including torture, is used to make people conform to the state’s worldview. In Xinjiang, communist cadres are directed “to stay with Uyghur families from two to five days every month.” Their stays include ensuring that the Uyghurs are learning Mandarin Chinese. People in the region are also required to report their whereabouts and how their minds are being transformed by indoctrination. People suspected of having the wrong influences in their lives are sent to re-education camps or “mind transformation centers.” Generally committed Muslims, the Uyghurs have been required to eat pork. In study camps people may be required to wear earphones with propaganda playing 24 hours a day, driving some insane. “Every inch is covered” in Xinjiang by communist control. Fu said that what is being done to the Uyghur people “constitutes ethnic cleansing.”
In her comments, Kristina Arriaga pointed out that among the various groups that suffer especial persecution are the “Tibetans and Uighur Muslims,” who “basically live in a police state.” She noted that they are not allowed to “study their language or their culture.” She said the “people are held for months at a time” against their will “without contact with their families.” Arriaga also mentioned the persecution of Christians, and the destruction of the Golden Lampstand Church (among other churches). One group that has suffered some of the most intense persecution is Falun Gong practitioners, whose have been subjected to “psychiatric experimentation, organ harvesting, imprisonment, detention, and disappearance.” The Chinese government also targets for persecution anyone who defends religious freedom, including “lawyers and human rights advocates.” In view of this, we should not put “business and corporate interests” above human rights in China, Arriaga said.
Arriaga said that the situation for Christians in China “is dire,” and that the persecution of Christians “has doubled in intensity.” The number of subject of persecution in China jumped from 48,000 in 2016 to 223,000 in 2017. She said that a problem in public perception and policy is that the western left regards religious freedom as the “eccentric uncle” of human rights, and this has resulted in its devaluing in the mind of the public. However, she said that religious freedom is “related to every other right”, but also to “economic prosperity.”
At the 2018 Summit on International Religious Freedom held in Washington on April 18, former Congressman Frank Wolf, author of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 which established the commission and the objective of religious freedom in American foreign policy, focused especially on persecution in China. He said the while interest in religious freedom in America, even among churches, has waned, religious persecution in China is increasing, with prominent religious figures and advocates disappearing, including a Chinese bishop and the activist Li Baiguang, who was also mentioned by Fu. Li visited the White House, received an award from the National Endowment for Democracy, and spoke at the National Prayer breakfast, only to fly home and die a suspicious death, Wolf said. The Catholic community in China is under intense pressure, Wolf said, as the issue of the authority of the Vatican has been intense, and the Protestant community has been “pummeled,” with many pastors imprisoned. Among the national minorities persecuted in China for religious reasons, he especially noted the Muslim Uyghurs, who among other things are reported to be having their children sent to detention camps, and Tibetans, who are experiencing “cultural genocide.” He pointed out that while no law firm would have represented the Soviet government, law firms do represent the Chinese government today. Wolf said that China influences American society and politics through the corporate ownership it has acquired and also through the presence of Confucius Institutes on American college campuses.
Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, a Tibetan member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, discussed both the situation of Tibetan Buddhists and the Uyghur Muslims. In Tibet, Gedhum Choekyi Myima, designated the Panchen Lama, the second highest position in Tibetan Buddhism as a boy by the Dalai Lama in 1995, was detained by the Chinese government shortly after his selection was announced, and no one from outside China has been allowed to contact him. Yet Tibetans generally do not accept the Chinese government’s alternative choice for Panchen Lama. The government appears embarked on a policy of forced sinicization in Tibet, he said, with monks imprisoned and tortured, and the destruction of “places of learning and worship.” With the Uyghurs, the Chinese government limits the use of the Uyghur language, bans Uyghur prayers and religious processions, the possession of religious literature in private homes, and the observance of Ramadan. Dorjee also mentioned the use of voice and facial recognition technology, and DNA sampling to target Uyghur Muslims, and the confinement of many Uyghurs in detention camps.
Similar state control is also exercised in Vietnam. Evangelical pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, recently released from Vietnam, spoke at the summit concerning religious freedom conditions there. He said religious policy in Vietnam is aimed at “persecute[ing] few to intimidate many.” Torture, denial of medical care, and impure food and water have caused the deaths of prisoners of conscience, many of them Montagnard and Hmong Christians, and Buddhists from southwestern Vietnam. Another policy, true in his own case, is to release one detainee and then arrest several other persons for their religious or dissident activities. In general, persecution of religious dissidents is increasing in Vietnam, especially of Cao Dai religious leaders and Christians, Chinh said. The state has also arrested those who protested the ecological disaster at the Formosa Steel plant in April 2016. An especial threat to Catholic communities in Vietnam — probably in response to their activism resulting from the disaster which caused in an enormous fish kill and its impact on fishermen — is the appearance of Red Flag Associations, which harass Catholic priests, parishes, and religious dissidents. These organizations appear to have government support, and are growing in their activities and extent.
Like China, Vietnam also has a new legal instrument to control religious life. The new Law on Belief and Religion, much criticized abroad as inadequate from a religious freedom perspective, entered into force on Jan. 1, 2018. While the law gives legal status to religious organizations, reduces the time needed for registration of religious organizations, makes appointments to some religious positions a matter of notification rather than approval, and provides for the establishment of religious schools, it also qualifies religious freedom with concern with national security, is held to continue to invite overregulation, and will be interpreted by a bureaucracy historically hostile to religious freedom. Already, since implementation, a Catholic mass has been banned using the law.
While Christians in the West are encouraged by the growth of Christianity in Asia, and the testimony of Asians under persecution is certainly a glory to God above all, we must remember that we are not the ones experiencing this. Our duty is to support persons experiencing persecution first of all by prayer, and then by speaking about the persecution that is happening, supporting organizations working for religious freedom in this area, and supporting public efforts to address specific cases that are happening. It is awareness of what is going on that can bring change.