‘The Yunnan Model’ could be an indicator that life is going to get even harder for religious and ethnic groups across China

Wang Shunping, Nu Sangdeng, San Luobo, Hua Xiuxia and Dong Mengru spent the past nine months in detention.

Their crime? Holding a handful of Christian gatherings and teaching guitar and hymns to a group of young people in their rented home in Fugong County in the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture of China’s Yunnan Province.

Though they were released on bail on 7 May, the charges against them relating to ‘organising and sponsoring an illegal gathering’ are yet to be dismissed.

All five individuals – three men and two women – work among the ethnic Nu community, one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by the Chinese authorities; the three men are Nu ethnic preachers. In China, the majority of the Nu live in Yunnan, where a significant history of Western missionary activity has resulted in a large Protestant Christian population alongside the majority religions of Buddhism and tribal animism.

Yunnan is also home to many other ethnic minority communities; approximately one third of the province’s total population is non-Han, and six of the 51 ethnic groups in the region have more than one million people each.

Naturally, such diversity has made the region one of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s top priorities in regard to the management of ethnic and religious affairs, particularly as the CCP seeks to create an environment of uniform and unwavering loyalty to the party and its leader Xi Jinping throughout all of China.

As in much of the rest of the country, religious activities by both registered and unregistered groups are closely monitored, including those held in private. One report by the Yunnan provincial United Front Work Department (UFWD) outlines the use of no less than 12,473 informants and over 1,200 co-ordinators. All 1,419 townships in the province have special ethnic and religious officers, and all 129 counties and 16 prefectures have ethnic and religious work departments as legal entities.

As one former house church member who has left China, told CSW: ‘The police in Yunnan are far more repressive of Christianity than in coastal areas in China. As long as you believe in Christianity, even if you don’t attend church meetings, there will be state security officers coming to your home to check up on you.’

The mission is this: to stifle any and all expressions of faith or belief that question or dissent from the supreme authority of the CCP, and to arrest, detain and imprison anyone found to be responsible for such ‘crimes’.

The targeting of Wang, Nu, San, Hua and Dong is just one example. CSW’s latest report on ‘the Yunnan Model’ details violations as far back as 2016, which is also when the first Regulations on Religious Affairs in Yunnan Province came into effect.

In October 2016, as many as 200 Christians in various parts of the province were interrogated, detained or arrested. Approximately 40 of them were deemed to be members of the banned group ‘Three Grades of Servants’, and six later received prison sentences ranging from 18 months to 13 years.

Violations are also by no means limited to the Christian community. Muslims across the province have seen their mosques – or parts of them – demolished, with those who protest subject to widespread arrests and detentions. In one incident following the forcible removal of the dome of Tianxin Mosque in Pingyuan township in October 2021, at least four Muslim scholars were indicted for ‘promoting extremism’ in relation to their protests of the demolition.

The Falun Gong community, considered an ‘evil cult’ by the Chinese authorities and therefore completely banned, has also suffered violations, with reports of 27 Falun Gong practitioners imprisoned in the province in 2022 alone. These individuals have faced jail terms of up to seven years, and at least two tragically died in custody.

More recently, in January 2023 police in Fugong county detained four more Christians who had participated in a Bible study with Wang, Nu, San, Hua and Dong in August 2022. They were released five days later.

The crucial and most concerning takeaway from these developments is that Yunnan is something of a testing ground for the management of religious and ethnic affairs in China. The situation in the rest of the country remains bleak, from the harassment of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, to the detention and torture of leaders of Xi’an Church Of Abundance in Shaanxi, to well documented concerns about Hong Kong, Tibet and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The ‘Yunnan model’ is a warning that the situation for religious and ethnic groups across the country could be about to get even worse. The international community must take heed of this, holding the Chinese government to its obligations to respect, protect and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief for all people in China, and to investigate and monitor cases of human rights abuses including violations of the right to FoRB.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley

Click here to read CSW’s latest report on China: ‘The Yunnan Model: How religious communities are managed with a grid system under strengthened Party leadership’.

Featured image: A series of political slogan boards have been erected outside Laomudeng Church, now without its cross. Source: CSW