Religious Persecution in China

Intensifying Religious Persecution in China

Rick Plasterer on August 4, 2022

An earlier article reviewed the horrific practice of forced organ harvesting in China, which is practiced against religious minorities and was highlighted in the recent International Religious Freedom Summit. Religious persecution has worsened very significantly in recent years, as this writer reviewed in the first half of 2018.

The Heritage Foundation reviewed the current grave situation for religious freedom in China in a panel discussion on July 11. Olivia Enos, outgoing Senior Policy Analyst at the Asian Studies Center moderated the panel, which included Tim Carothers of International Christian Concern, Bob Fu of ChinaAid, and June Lin of Freedom House.

Enos said that panel discussion was purposely scheduled after the International Religious Freedom Summit at the end of June and the Religious Freedom Ministerial in Great Britain in early July to remind people that as far as religious freedom is concerned “the work never ends.” She urged people to heed the “practical actions” recommended by the panel speakers to alleviate the suffering of different persecuted groups in China.

Ideological Basis of Religious Persecution

The panel was preceded by opening remarks from Nury Turkel, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). He said that the latest USCIRF report on religious freedom in China is “disturbing” and “there’s no progress” in religious freedom in China, but rather a deterioration of the situation. The communist government’s persecution has “intensified,” increasingly demanding that religious groups accept the “Sinicization” of their faiths. Religious Chinese citizens and their organizations are increasing required to support the Communists Party’s “rule and ideology.”

Turkel sees “the most vulnerable groups” today as “the Christians and the Uyghur Muslims.” He referred to the “genocide” that the Chinese government “has been waging against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.” Turkel said that the genocidal policies have been particularly noticeable “since late 2016.” At the present time, the United States and other countries have recognized the ongoing oppression, and some, including the U.S., have recognized it as genocide. Turkel also noted that Tibetan Buddhists are subject to persecution. Among Christians, he observed that house church Protestant Christians outside the state approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement are now particularly targeted, and the more than two decades long persecution of Falun Gong practitioners continues. China has been a Country of Particular Concern since 1999, Turkel noted, and USCIRF recommends that this status be continued. USCIRF also recommends that Chinese officials perpetrating religious persecution be sanctioned.

Turkel considered why the religious freedom situation in China has been deteriorating under Xi Jinping’s rule. He said that Xi sees religious groups as a threat to his power and that of the Communist Party. Most concerning to Xi and the party is that these groups, if free to pursue their faith and life, could “mobilize large masses of people in pursuit of goals.” Xi’s policy has been to “prop up” what he finds useful in China’s religions and proceed to “destroy the rest.” He said that Xi has currently “commissioned re-interpretation of key religious texts from the major religions present in China.” In this regard he observed that the regime, in its own words, has commissioned “comprehensive evaluation of the existing religious classics, aiming at the contents that do not conform with the progress of the times.”  

Turkel added that important in this persecution is “the role of technology and its use in religious persecution.” Alarmingly, he said that there are “more than eighty countries currently using or implementing Chinese surveillance technology. He said that this is a threat to both religious liberty and privacy. This helps enable “despots around the world” to continue the persecution of religious minorities (and, it might be added, supporting dictatorship in general).

Turkel observed that “religion poses a unique threat to the party, because it provides a compelling and empowering alternative to its own ideology and cult of personality. The only worship the party is truly comfortable with is adulation of its policies.” Religion is a problem because it appeals to a higher power beyond the Communist Party.

He said that the international community “is not being very helpful” in dealing with religious persecution in China. But there are, he believes, things that the United States can do to improve the situation in China. For instance, companies which enable communist persecution of the Uyghurs should be subject to U.S. government investigation.

What’s Happening on the Ground

Enos asked Lin what Freedom House has found with respect to religious freedom in China, and what has been happening recently. Lin said that religious freedom is “dear to Freedom House’s heart,” and is considered to have a high priority. She said that “religious freedom has broadly declined in China over the past decade, especially since Xi took power in 2012.” Freedom House has identified Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Protestant Christians, and to a lesser degree other Muslim groups as special targets of the current persecution. Persecution of Chinese Catholics and Falun Gong practitioners, which appeared to be lessening for some time, has now worsened. The agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government over the appointment of bishops has not removed the “severe pressure” against underground Catholics to join “state approved churches.” Because Falun Gong practitioners have been a source of information regarding communist oppression in China, they are a particular target for persecution. Tibetan Buddhists have been a target for the communists because of writings about their culture and faith.

The removal of crosses from churches, the destruction of churches, the prohibition of religious education to children and young people, and the attempt to corral all religious activity into state-approved organizations, are some of the specific draconian measures taken in the last decade.

Lin also discussed “trans-national repression,” which involves the Chinese government attempting to punish Chinese outside of China, at times securing their forcible repatriation to China. Also, religious repression is now occurring in Hong Kong, following its adoption of a “national security law” in 2020. She said that “authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing are turning their sights and attention to religious communities, especially Catholics and Falun Gong practitioners.” She sees the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen as a watershed in the religious persecution situation in Hong Kong.

Fu said that the CCP and Xi Jinping have “declared a war against religious faith.”  Fu said that “absolute loyalty to President Xi himself and the Communist Party ideology ” is required for religious Chinese. Even state-approved religious organizations are now targeted for “very severe persecution,” such as the (Protestant Christian) Three Self Patriotic Movement. He said that religious persecution has now become worse than at any time since “the end of the cultural revolution.”

Fu observed that despite the Chinese government’s agreement with the Vatican, “just in the last few months, thousands of priests just suddenly disappeared.” With Protestant Christians, pastors in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement have been sentenced to eight and ten year sentences simply for refusing to remove crosses from their churches. The government is now persecuting persons who attended overseas Bible study with the prospect of “long-term imprisonment.”

He then discussed the “trans-national” persecution of religious Chinese. He said that a Chinese witness personally saw Uyghurs confined in a “black jail” in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He also mentioned the members of the Presbyterian church in Shenzhen who fled the country to South Korea, but had to be kept on Jeju Island, a small island southeast of South Korea, since it was the one location in South Korea where a refugee could remain without a visa. But the refugees still face threats and intimidation for not returning to China, and South Korean courts will not admit them anywhere else in South Korea. Currently their case is before the South Korean Supreme Court. He said that the Chinese consulate on Jeju Island contacted the escapees, threatening them and their relatives in China if they did not return. Currently there are 60 Chinese Christian refugees on the island, including 29 adults and 31 children.

Even churches outside of China are threatened. Fu said that he was disinvited from appearance at a church because family members in China have been threatened.

Enos said that one of the most notable examples of religious persecution was the removal of crosses from churches, because “the cross itself is just so daunting to them, they’re so fearful of it.”

Enos mentioned the ICC report on religious persecution in China, and turned to Carothers.

Looking to the Future

Carothers said regarding religious persecution “China is the one [country] that is unavoidable to always address, when it comes to scale, and the government apparatus that is really operating the persecution.” He said that China is “trying to subvert an entire faith through Sinicization and through forced disappearances and arrests.”

He agreed with other panelists that “this is one of the worst times of persecution in China.”   As an example, he gave the experience of a pastor of an unregistered church who was arrested in 2015 for refusing to join the Three-Self Movement, and was charged with, among other things, “distributing state secrets,” which was only communication with his church members. He said that the government is making examples of pastors whose churches are not part of the state-sanctioned church. This, it might be added, it true for all religions in China. State-approved religious organizations constitute a “red market” which justifies the regime’s claim to religious freedom, and which believers are pressured to join.

Carothers said that house churches are vital to the Christian church in China because religious education is forbidden to anyone under the age of 18. But house churches operate beyond state regulation. “China is playing the long game into basic crushing the faith going forward.”

China is also playing on nationalism as well as communist ideology as a source of power for the party. “Love of country” is used to appeal to the masses, and the legal churches are increasingly being used as “a tool of state power.” Clergy unwilling to do this are accused of “subverting state power.” He agreed with Lin that religious persecution is now being extended to Hong Kong. Religious institutions and religious education in Hong Kong are increasingly being forced into situations in which loyalty to the communist government is required of them.

With respect to trans-national persecution, Carothers said that universities in America are being used for spying, and Chinese at American universities report their fear at being reported to the Chinese embassy if they openly discuss the persecution going on in China.

Successful Tools in Countering Religious Persecution

Enos asked “what have we gotten right” in addressing religious persecution in China, and what we should do now. Lin said that we should keep “sanctions in our toolbox.” This includes the imposition of both visa and economic sanctions on both individuals and companies involved in persecution (in this case, religious persecution). Both the International Religious Freedom Act (IFRA) of 1998 and the Global Magnitsky Act give tools for sanctions. She was encouraged to see both the Trump and Biden administrations act positively on this. Sanctions have had some positive result, she said, including some release from detention. Sanctions should also be targeted, she said, toward provinces where there has been more persecution.

Fu said that America is right to formally make religious freedom an objective in its foreign policy and national security policy, rather than having it at the bottom of foreign diplomacy, engaged on a case by case basis and perhaps privately with problem governments. He said secret police papers from China shows that Xi Jinping regards religious freedom as a “national security threat, a threat to their regime.” Fu did say that Chinese generals should be sanctioned for sending a Chinese transport plane to Cambodia to pick up Uyghur refugees to be deported to China. He also said the Xi Jinping himself should be sanctioned for engineering genocide. Additionally, the Christian Chinese refugees on Jeju Island in South Korea should be given asylum in the United States. Fu said the according to the Washington Post and the New York Times, no Chinese refugee of any religion has been resettled in the United States in the last fiscal year.

A questioner asked about the Chinese mobile app WeChat. He said that there are a billion people who use it worldwide, and it is used for religious persecution “both inside and outside of the country.” Lin said she believes that a very important thing is supporting the Chinese diaspora community that needs to communicate inside China. Regarding technological surveillance in general, Fu said that one of the largest house churches in Beijing was shut down for refusing to place a camera in the pulpit to allow facial recognition monitoring of the congregants. Carothers said that a concern is also the use of Chinese surveillance technology the world over. There are encrypted apps, but these are not available in China. Enos said that China and Russia are “two of the worst digital authoritarians in the world.”

Another questioner asked how America and the world can respond to the Chinese accusation that America is interfering in China’s internal affairs. Fu said we need to emphasize universal human rights. He said the impending relaxation of tariffs on China is sending a very “wrong signal” to the CCP. Fu also called WeChat “public spying ware, period.” He related his own experience on posting information about a summer camp in China, resulting in a friend who went to China being interrogated, with his American passport being confiscated. Carothers said the American consumption of goods made with Chinese forced labor, or American businesses being ex-patriated to China makes China’s abuses America’s internal affairs. Lin said that religious freedom should not be a “silo issue” with China but should be included in engaging China along with trade and national security. She also emphasized the need for multilateral coalitions in confronting Chinese oppression.

The current Chinese regime is indeed a strong enemy. It seems so strong, fortified by its technological surveillance, as to be invincible. But the Soviet Union and its empire likewise seemed to be beyond human capacity to overcome. Technology in the twentieth century was not what it is today, but all things ultimately belong to God, and he turns them to his purposes. Our duty as Christians remains to help our brothers and sisters in Christ in China, and indeed, those not of the household of faith, who are made in the image of God, and deserve our help when they suffer so greatly. It is not for us to see the roadmap of how God will work the great injustices in China to the good, but only to love God and neighbor and act accordingly.

  1. Comment by David Gingrich on August 6, 2022 at 7:19 am

    “Turkel sees “the most vulnerable groups” today as “the Christians and the Uyghur Muslims.”

    I would argue that the most persecuted are the Falun Gong. Anyway, everyone who doesn’t toe the CCP line is in danger.

    Praying for 100 million Christian brothers and sisters living under that evil regime.

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