It’s Christmastime in the People’s Republic of China, and Beijing continues its crackdown on people of faith, especially Christians.
The latest example came this month in the town of Dazhou, in central China, where local authorities closed down another house church. As Christianity Today reports, some 1,700 churches have been demolished or had their crosses forcibly removed in Zhejiang province as part of a three-year program aimed at countering the rise of Christianity in China. Last year, Beijing smothered a burgeoning religious-openness movement in Wenzhou, a city in eastern China “known for its relaxed ties between church and state,” as The New York Times reports. Too relaxed, it turns out. Xia Baolong, a regional Communist Party leader, saw the 180-foot spire atop a new Christian church and was “disturbed that a religious building, especially one seen as representing a foreign belief, dominated the skyline,” according to the Times. So, government authorities bulldozed the newly-built church and then ordered a dozen other churches in the region to remove their crosses or face demolition.
Importantly, Xia is a close ally of Xi Jinping, China’s president. Although Western reporters are charmed by what Reuters calls a “folksy smile,” it pays to recall that Xi was a central part of the regime’s policies long before he became president—policies that, according to the U.S. government, include the harshest crackdown on dissent in more than a decade.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) provides the details: “The Chinese government continues to perpetrate particularly severe violations of religious freedom… Independent Catholics and Protestants face arrests, fines, and the shuttering of their places of worship.” Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, practitioners of Falun Gong, folk religionists, and Protestant house-church attenders “face long jail terms, forced renunciations of faith, and torture in detention… Protestants and Catholics who refuse to join the state-sanctioned religious organizations continue to face severe restrictions, including efforts to undermine and harass their leaders, arrest and detentions, and property destruction.”
Amnesty International estimates that “hundreds of thousands of people” are subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention in China, many of them for “peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.”
Some of those targeted for their religious beliefs and political views end up in labor camps that double as factories. The Laogai Research Foundation identified 1,100 prison-labor camps in its 2006 report. According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), “prison labor has been used to manufacture, among other products, toys, electronics, and clothing. The export to the United States of products manufactured through the use of forced labor in China’s prison system and other forms of detention reportedly continues despite U.S.-China agreements.” These camps have been known to churn out rosaries, Christmas wreaths, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and other holiday decorations—all for export to the West.
For those of us who believe in free trade and free markets, there is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the tidal wave of Chinese goods flowing into the U.S.—that is, unless there’s something wrong about the system that produces those goods. And there is something very wrong with China’s system. China may engage in free-market economics, but China’s people are not free.
If we can’t take notice of China’s prison-labor camps and repression during the rest of the year, Christmas seems the ideal time to open our eyes, for Christmas was not intended for the wealthy, the comfortable, or the powerful. It’s for the captive, the persecuted, the weak. If anyone fits those descriptions, it is China’s prison-laborers.
Yes, Beijing announced in late 2013 that it would close its network of “reeducation through labor” camps. But this proved to be an exercise in word games. The name changed, but the system remains. “The net effect of this policy shift was unclear,” the CECC concludes, “as reports emerged that authorities increased the use of other facilities…to arbitrarily detain citizens.”
There is a brutal logic to Beijing’s brutal response to independent religious activity. After all, the common denominator of most religions is that there is something above, something beyond, something bigger, something more enduring and more important than the state. That notion represents a mortal threat to the legitimacy and durability of the People’s Republic of China, which is founded on the premise that people exist to serve the state—not to glorify God.
As Christianity Today details, Beijing is growing “progressively more suspicious of the influence of Christianity, which is experiencing significant growth in China.” Some reports suggest that 10,000 people are converting to Christianity every day in Mao’s officially-atheist people’s paradise. There are an estimated 100 million Christians in China today, up from 1 million at the PRC’s founding. By 2030, CT reports, experts predict “China will be home to more Christians than any other country in the world.” That must terrify Beijing’s godless business-suit autocrats.
They wouldn’t be the first to be shaken by the arrival of Emmanuel. An oft-overlooked part of the first Christmas is what a ruthless ruler named Herod was willing to do to eliminate any threat to his throne. Matthew’s gospel tells us, “He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” Herod’s assault brought “weeping and great mourning” to the people of Bethlehem.
That brings us back, in a heartbreaking way, to Christmastime in China.
In late October of this year, the PRC announced an end to its monstrous one-child policy, which was instituted, in Deng Xiaoping’s words, to make sure that “the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth.” The policy has had enormous unintended consequences.
As a result of the one-child policy, China’s population is rapidly aging. By 2040, the number of working-age adults in China will shrink by more than 10 percent—“a net loss of 90 million workers,” Reuters reports. The number of senior citizens in China is growing by 3.7 percent annually—a staggering figure, according to demographers.
As a result of the one-child policy, the ratio of newborn girls to boys is 100:119. The biological norm is 100:103. Such an imbalance between males and females portends serious social, cultural, political and geopolitical problems. A society without female influence is the stuff of nightmares.
The targets and tactics may be different, but the weeping and mourning continues in China.
Alan Dowd is a contributor to the Providence journal’s daily blog.