DHARAMSHALA: A disturbing new report from Freedom House shows how religious controls have intensified across China, under the current Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
The report titled “The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance Under Xi Jinping” analysed the status of seven religious groups accounting for some 350 million people – Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Falun Gong (banned in China since 1999).
It argued that at least 100 million people—nearly one-third of estimated believers in China—belong to religious groups facing “high” or “very high” levels of persecution, which includes, Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, and Falun Gong.
According to the report, Xi has presided over an overall increase in religious persecution. Since Xi Jinping took the helm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012, the authorities have intensified many of their restrictions, resulting in an overall increase in religious persecution.
Chinese officials have banned holiday celebrations, desecrated places of worship, and employed lethal violence. Security forces across the country detain, torture, or kill believers from various faiths on a daily basis. How a group or individual is treated depends in large part on the level of perceived threat or benefit to party interests, as well as the discretion of local officials.
A Taoist disciple joins the order without knowing when he will be admitted to priesthood. Dozens of Christians are barred from celebrating Christmas together. Tibetan monks are forced to learn reinterpretations of Buddhist doctrine during a “patriotic reeducation” session. A Uighur Muslim farmer is sentenced to nine years in prison for praying in a field. And a 45-year-old father in northeastern China dies in custody days after being detained for practicing Falun Gong.
According to Freedom House, religious oppression in China can range from “deeply offensive” meddling such as “vetting religious leaders for political reliability,” extensive surveillance, and politicizing the content of worship services, to vandalism, detention, and death.
Trajectory of Religious Persecution in China across Faith Communities
President Xi Jinping has largely continued the repressive policies and campaigns of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, while deepening and expanding certain controls. New measures include punishing assistance to self immolators, canceling previously permitted festivals, increasing intrusive restrictions on private religious practice, and more proactively manipulating Tibetan Buddhist doctrine and the selection of religious leaders.
President Xi has continued Hu-era policies, creating an environment of relatively low persecution for Chinese Buddhist practice. His actions and rhetoric portray Chinese Buddhism as an increasingly important channel for realizing the party’s political and economic goals at home and abroad. In a rare occurrence, a Chinese Buddhist monk was sentenced to prison in 2016 on politically motivated charges.
Controls on religion have deepened and expanded in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where a majority of Uighur Muslims reside. Previously informal or local restrictions in Xinjiang—on issues such as religious dress—have been codified at the regional and national levels. Authorities have launched new campaigns to more closely monitor smartphone usage and force businesses to sell alcohol, while incidents of security forces opening fire on Uighur civilians have become more common.
Falun Gong practitioners
Falun Gong practitioners across China continue to be subject to widespread and severe human rights violations. Nevertheless, repression appears to have declined in some locales. President Xi has offered no explicit indication of a plan to reverse the CCP’s policy toward Falun Gong. But the imprisonment of former security czar Zhou Yongkang and other officials associated with the campaign as part of Xi’s anticorruption drive, together with Falun Gong adherents’ efforts to educate and discourage police from persecuting them, have had an impact.
The report summarises four core components of the Chinese Communist Party’s religious policy:
- Opportunistic exploitation: Harnessing the benefits of religion to advance broader CCP economic, political, cultural, and foreign policy goals
- Rule by law Developing legal and bureaucratic instruments to control religious practice and institutions
- Selective eradication: Fiercely suppressing religious groups, beliefs, and individuals deemed to threaten party rule or policy priorities, often via extralegal means
- Long-term asphyxiation: Adopting measures to curb religion’s expansion and accelerate its extinction among future generations
The human rights situation in Tibet has declined dramatically in recent years with the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, religion and privacy highly restricted. This is enunciated in various international reports. The 2016 annual report of the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission re-designated China among the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in which nine countries were included. Worsening religious freedom compared to last year was also noted. Similarly, the Amnesty International Report 2015/2016 pointed to increasing restrictions on Tibetan monasteries by the Chinese government. The 2016 Freedom House report ranked Tibet in the second worst of the worst in political and civil freedom with Syria scoring lower. Just last week, the severe human rights restrictions in Tibet sparked high-level concern from United Nations rights experts.
In the Freedom House’s latest annual survey, the Freedom in the World Report 2017 published in January this year, Tibet under Chinese occupation was found to be the least free country or territory in the world, with the situation there being a tad better than war-town Syria.
The report put the level of repression in Tibet in yet starker terms by scoring each country/territory out of 100, based on how they fared across 25 indicators: political participation, freedom of the press and individual rights. Tibet scored 1, with only Syria, ranking lower at -1.
In the overall Freedom Rating, as well as for political rights and civil liberties, Chinese-occupied Tibet scored 7. (On a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being most free and 7 being least free)