China’s Crackdown on Religion

“My family, relatives, friends and dozens of innocent people [I know] have been arrested since April 2017. I have no knowledge of how many more of our relatives have been arrested as we lost contact with them at the beginning of the year. They have not committed any crime… They are ordinary people… since then I have not heard from them and I am unsure about their safety.”

– Chinese Uyghur living overseas.

Faith groups in China are currently experiencing the most severe crackdown on religious freedom and human rights in decades. One of the worst sites of this crackdown is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where recent reports estimate that as many as three million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other ethnic groups have been detained in political re-education camps without charge.

Ethnicity appears to be the principle driver of these detentions, however there is also a significant religious element. The majority of detainees are Muslim, and reasons for detention – when a reason is given – have often been connected to the practice of peaceful religious activities such as participating in communal religious services or accessing religious materials online.

The religious element is further demonstrated by the treatment of Muslims inside the camps. Witnesses report that detainees have been forced to renounce Islam and promise not to follow religion. Prisoners have also been forced to eat pork or drink alcohol, which goes against their religious beliefs.

‘Re-education’ camps in Xinjiang

Conditions in the overcrowded camps are dangerously unsanitary, and reports have emerged of detainees being subject to beatings, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. There is no access to legal counsel or mechanism for appeal, and families of detainees typically have no idea where there relatives are being held or when they will be released.

Freedom of religion or belief is also violated for Muslims outside the camps in XUAR, where authorities have demolished thousands of mosques and prohibited the wearing of veils and ‘abnormal’ beards in public places. Furthermore, Xinjiang’s Uyghur community, along with Kazakhs and other non-Han ethnic groups, face extreme levels of surveillance which mean that any communal gathering is tightly controlled, and those that take place outside of registered venues are entirely prohibited.

While the crackdown in XUAR is particularly fierce for Muslims, as mentioned previously, detentions appear to be principally driven by ethnicity, with reports indicating that Christian and other non-Muslim Uyghurs have also been detained. Some reports state that these individuals have also been questioned about their religious beliefs.

The Chinese authorities have at times referred to the camps as ‘counter-extremism training centres’ in an effort to portray their actions in Xinjiang as an attempt at combatting terrorism. However, the government’s treatment of religious groups elsewhere in the country suggest that China is in fact cracking down on all forms of religion.

China’s crackdown on Christianity

On 8 October, authorities shut down at least six unregistered Protestant churches in Guiyang city, Guizhou Province in Southwest China. These closures are recent examples of a wave of forced shutdowns of both Protestant and Catholic churches of varying sizes that has been observed in numerous provinces including Henan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Liaoning, and Hebei.

Unregistered churches such as these, often referred to as ‘house’ churches, have faced increased repression since the introduction of the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs in February. Another recent example is the forced closure of Zion Church in Beijing, despite the fact that this particular church had met for many years and served over 1,500 congregants on a weekly basis.

The targeting of a long established church like Zion Church, which had enjoyed many years of relatively little harassment, along with the increased pressure faced by registered churches in the country provide strong evidence to claim that China has stepped up its repression of religious communities in recent months.

Despite the situation of Christians in China, reports emerged in September that the Vatican had made an agreement with the government which is thought to pertain to the appointment of bishops.

CSW raised concerns at the time, claiming that “If any such agreement is to be of real value, it must put freedom of religion or belief at the centre.”

As well as Uyghurs and Christians, other religious groups that have been targeted by China’s crackdown on religion include Tibetan Buddhists and members of the Falun Gong. The latter of these groups have been classified as an illegal cult since 1999, and Falun Gong adherents outside China report that practitioners continue to face arrest, imprisonment, torture and death in custody across the country. Especially disturbing is a series of reports released between 2006 and 2016 that provide evidence to suggest that Falun Gong practitioners have been victims of forced organ harvesting.

Under the spotlight

China’s human rights record was reviewed under the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process on 6 November.  UN member states are reviewed under this process once every four and a half years, and it presents a valuable opportunity to draw attention to human rights issues, as NGOs are able to submit reports on the country under review. These reports are used to inform a final report with recommendations aimed at improving a country’s human rights situation which can then be used to hold states to account in the future.

During the review, a number of countries drew attention to the plight of the Uyghurs, Christians, Falun Gong, Buddhists and other religious groups in China, to apply greater pressure on the Chinese government to uphold FoRB and other fundamental rights.

It is essential that China implements these recommendations and that the international community holds the state to account.

By CSW’s East Asia Advocacy Officer