Far from Civilized: Religious Liberty in China
For the better part of four decades, the trade über alles caucus has been promising us that economic liberalization in China would—someday soon—lead to political liberalization, respect for human rights, freedom of conscience, and religious liberty. July was not good for those peddling that promise—or those yearning for religious freedom and other basic human rights inside the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
In early July, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy advocate, died while in PRC custody. He had been jailed for nine years for daring to speak out against the PRC’s “forceful tyranny.” The Guardian points out a grim historical parallel with Liu’s death, noting that he is “the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, the 1935 recipient, who died under surveillance after years confined to Nazi concentration camps.”
Liu helped draft a declaration of freedom known as “Charter 08”—an homage and reference to Charter 77, which freedom-minded Czechoslovakians released in 1977 to challenge their communist rulers. Charter 08 criticizes the PRC for its “authoritarian power…endemic official corruption…crony capitalism [and] growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor.” It calls for democratic control over the government and civilian control over the military, an end to indoctrination in schools, protection of taxpayer rights, peaceful reunification with Taiwan, release of political prisoners, and respect for human rights. In an echo of the U.S. Constitution, the charter declares, “Human rights are not bestowed by a state.” And it concludes, “Without freedom China will always remain far from civilized ideals.”
Also in July, PRC authorities detained hundreds of Uighur Muslims as they returned from their overseas pilgrimage. The PRC is using courts, schools, checkpoints, and plain-clothes security personnel to carry out huge crackdowns in certain provinces, according to published reports.
Local government authorities require schools “to completely prohibit teachers and students from participating in Ramadan activities” and require state employees to “pledge to obey political discipline to firmly ensure that families that have party members and students will not fast and will not participate in any forms of religious activities.”
Similarly, national government authorities issued a directive in mid-July declaring, “Party members should not have religious beliefs, which is a redline for all members…Party members should be firm Marxist atheists, obey party rules and stick to the party’s faith…they are not allowed to seek value and belief in religion.”
If you think that affects just a handful of party functionaries, think again: The Communist Party of China numbers nearly 90 million people.
This is a regime, it pays to recall, that recently began a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council, the UN sub-agency “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations.” Only at the UN—where North Korea and Iran have sat on disarmament bodies, where Saddam Hussein’s Iraq once chaired the Conference on Disarmament, where Saudi Arabia sits on a women’s rights commission—could a serial abuser of human rights sit on the Human Rights Council. But that’s a subject for another essay.
A new Freedom House report details just how backwards the PRC is on religious freedom. Among the lowlights: Christians are barred from celebrating Christmas in groups. Tibetan monks are forced to learn reinterpretations of Buddhist doctrine through “patriotic reeducation.” A Uighur Muslim farmer was sentenced to nine years in prison for praying in public. Beijing “devotes significant attention, resources and coercive force to influencing the content of religious teachings, texts and individual believers’ thoughts” and has sentenced at least 1,400 Chinese citizens to prison “for exercising their right to religious freedom or rights like free expression, association and information in connection with their faith” since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
In addition, Freedom House notes that since Xi took power, “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.” Under Xi, “Religious persecution has increased overall, with four communities in particular experiencing a downturn in conditions—Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and both Hui and Uighur Muslims.”
Xi and his business-suit henchmen employ a variety of methods to curb religious growth and maintain power and control, according to Freedom House. These include “opportunistic exploitation,” which is Beijing’s use and manipulation of religion to advance the broader economic, political, cultural, and foreign policy goals of the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party; “rule by law,” which is Beijing’s use of “legal and bureaucratic instruments to control religious practice and institutions”; “long-term asphyxiation,” the development and application of “measures to curb religion’s expansion and accelerate its extinction among future generations”; and “selective eradication,” which Freedom House defines as “fiercely suppressing religious groups, beliefs and individuals deemed to threaten party rule or policy priorities, often via extralegal means.” For example, Freedom House reported in 2015 that “hundreds of thousands” of religious adherents—many of them guilty of “simply possessing spiritual texts in the privacy of their homes”—have been sentenced to prison or labor camps.
According to the State Department, Beijing bars teachers and civil servants from worshipping at mosques, fines individuals “for studying the Quran in unauthorized sessions,” and positions the Chinese flag on mosque walls “in the direction of Mecca so prayers would be directed toward them.”
According to Freedom House, the degree of persecution inflicted on Protestants is considered “high” and on Catholics “moderate.” Christianity Today has reported that some 1,700 churches were 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.
Yet Freedom House adds that “religiosity in Chinese society has not dissipated. On the contrary, it is undergoing a period of extraordinary revival and expansion across multiple faiths. Today, China is home to at least 350 million religious believers.” That number includes 58 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics.
This reminds us of one of the many miracle truths of scripture: God finds a way to turn the enemy’s schemes around, inspire the faithful, and overcome oppressors.
See Genesis 50: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” See Psalm 21: “If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.” Read the stories of Moses and Pharaoh, Esther and “the vile Haman,” Daniel and King Darius. Turn to Romans 8, where Paul reassures us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” These words were written by a man who knew persecution inside and out—both the kind that religious zealots inflict on those who deviate from their definition of piety (like ISIS) and the kind that godless dictators inflict on those who challenge their power (like the PRC).
Regimes that subordinate religion to the state—regime’s like the PRC—naturally see no limits on their power and no moral constraints on what they do. Since they believe that nothing is above the state, they can rationalize everything they do in the name of the state or the fatherland or the revolution or the Core Leader (Xi’s newest title). That worldview informs every aspect of PRC decision-making, including its foreign policy and national security, which is why Washington needs to be ever on alert when dealing with Beijing. A regime that can justify imprisoning, muzzling, and killing people for peacefully practicing their faith can and will justify anything.
Faith and people of faith represent perhaps the greatest threat facing the PRC. People of faith—whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or folk religionist—are a constant reminder that there is something beyond the state’s reach, something higher than the state, something the state cannot control, something people can appeal to and rally around to challenge the state’s actions and policies. Governments can tell their subjects how to behave and even what to believe, but they can never control the depths of the human soul.
The Chinese people, regardless of religious preference, are starting to realize this truth, which explains Beijing’s crackdown on religion. Until China’s tyrants allow religious liberty to take root, China will remain, to borrow the words of Charter 08, “far from civilized”—no matter how much trade flows in and out of the PRC.
Photo Credit: Catholic church in Dali, China, via Wikimedia Commons.