When leaders of the G20 nations arrive in Zhejiang Province, China, next week for the G20 summit, they will be greeted by a different skyline than they might have seen five years ago.
The sky scrapers and shopping malls that have become the hallmark of China’s phenomenal economic growth will still be there, but the bright red Christian crosses which were once just as much a feature of Zhejiang have been taken down.
Removal of crosses in Zhejiang Province
Hundreds of crosses have been removed by the authorities since early 2014, as part of a campaign allegedly introduced to rid the province of structures which violate building regulations. Under draft regulations, crosses now have to be flat against outer walls, and their size and colour are restricted. The authorities have sometimes employed violent tactics in the face of protests by church members. Christian leaders who have opposed the cross removals through letters or peaceful gatherings have been arrested and accused of economic crimes.
It may be no coincidence that the site of the cross removal campaign is the same province selected to host the G20.
A Chinese Christian source recently speculated that since Zhejiang is a Xi Jinping stronghold, it is both a secure place to hold the international summit, and a natural choice of location for piloting new policies or campaigns.
Restrictions surrounding G20 Summit
Ahead of the gathering, China is putting in place restrictions to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Of course for any host, the safety of guests is paramount, but some of the measures seem to have little to do with security. For example, some sources report that religious activities have been suspended, and churches will be closed during the summit. Restaurants run by ethnic Uyghurs have also reportedly been forced to close.
“The authorities are particularly keen for activists and petitioners not to voice their grievances in front of G20 visitors.”
The authorities are particularly keen for activists and petitioners not to voice their grievances in front of G20 visitors. There is plenty to grieve for, not least the loss of some freedoms Chinese citizens had (almost) begun to take for granted, including a limited degree of religious freedom for churches. Freedom is curtailed online and offline, and the list of things considered ‘sensitive’ or ‘out of bounds’ is growing longer.
Further restrictions on civil society
The legal rights defence community has also experienced the loss of several key members. Since July 2015, over 300 human rights lawyers, activists, their colleagues and family members have been detained, interrogated or disappeared. Those formally arrested have either been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for “subversion” or “incitement to subversion”, or have been released on bail after televised “confessions” which make a mockery of the justice system.
Civil society in China also stands to lose opportunities for support and engagement with foreign non-governmental bodies as new legislation comes into force in January 2016 which places new restrictions and requirements on foreign organisations working in China. Universities, charities and even the European Chamber of Commerce raised concerns about earlier drafts, but the final version retains many of the problems and restrictions of the earlier version.
Leaders must show commitment to human rights both at home and abroad
Among G20 leaders are many who hail from countries with commitments to freedom of religion or belief, rule of law and human rights: some, such as the US and EU member states, publically state their intention to promote religious freedom both at home and abroad. The voices of non-Western countries are equally important: any country looking to strengthen ties with China must consider the kind of partner it wants China to be, and a China with a genuine commitment to justice and rule of law is a better partner all round.
“…any country looking to strengthen ties with China must consider the kind of partner it wants China to be, and a China with a genuine commitment to justice and rule of law is a better partner all round.”
G20 leaders must not be intimidated by China’s strength or dazzled by the promise of new deals: there are important questions to be asked about the direction China is taking, and they need to be asked now.
By CSW’s China Advocacy Officer