Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official visit to China, which begins today, is billed as an opportunity to boost trade with an important ally. But it will also take place against the backdrop of the country’s violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
In the last month, Christians have been detained, and unregistered churches shut down or destroyed ahead of the implementation of revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which strengthen state control over religious activities in China.
Unregistered churches, sometimes called house churches, are independent churches which have not registered with the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement. The new regulations are due to come into force tomorrow, giving Mrs May a rare opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese government and publicly to reiterate the UK’s commitment to defending human rights.
Li Heping’s reunion with his family on 9 May 2017 was a moment for celebration; the celebration of an innocent man’s reunion with his long-suffering family and the celebration of the end of a period of torture, interrogation and imprisonment. But the joy of Li Heping’s reunion with his family is tempered by continuing concerns for his safety, and the injustice of his situation.
Who is Li Heping?
Li Heping is one of China’s most experienced and high profile human rights lawyers. He began working on sensitive cases around 2002 and is well known for defending the human rights of religious minorities, including Christians and Falun Gong practitioners, as well as activists and victims of torture.
His work on these cases led to a confrontation with the state. A Chinese security agent reportedly once told him that, in the eyes of Beijing, Li had become “more dangerous than Bin Laden”. In September 2007, Li was abducted, stripped and tortured by security forces. He then had his lawyers’ license revoked in 2009, and continued to be consistently monitored.
“The culture of impunity can’t go on or violence will increase.” – Ajoy Roy
The words of Ajoy Roy, the frail father of the late Avijit Roy hit us hard. We listened in silence as he shared his despair and disappointment at the lack of judicial process following the murder of his son in 2015. The murder of Avijit Roy, a blogger, made international news and became a case representative of the situation facing not just bloggers but journalists, lawyers, religious leaders and religious minorities in Bangladesh; these members of Bangladesh’s civil society are vulnerable to threats, harassment and attacks.
It has been a year since over 300 human rights lawyers, activists, as well as those connected to them (including their friends and family), were detained by the Chinese government. That’s equivalent to one person harassed or disappeared every day since last July. Some of these lawyers have since vanished into China’s prison system. Others were released, but have lived with the threat of re-arrest hanging over them ever since.
For the lawyers that are left, what remains of their lives and careers? Read our story of Li Jing, a young lawyer watching the events of the July crackdown unfold around her.
This composite case study is constructed from real accounts. Similar things have happened, but we have changed the details.
Saturday 4 June will mark 27 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, also referred to as the Tiananmen Square Protests, or simply the June Fourth Incident. On 3 June 1989, Chinese army tanks rolled into Beijing’s famous square and began to fire at unarmed protesters who had been camping out there for weeks to call for democratic reform. Students, workers and bystanders were shot down by their own “people’s army”, at the command of their country’s leaders. Estimates of the number of people killed range from hundreds to several thousand. More deaths followed as workers were tried and executed for their part in the protests.
Tiananmen as a turning point
The protesters were not calling explicitly for the right to freedom of religion or belief. Yet the massacre had a significant impact on some of the most prominent defenders of religious freedom in China today. A disproportionate number of human rights lawyers in China are Christian, and many veteran lawyers say that June Fourth had a profound effect on their personal journey towards both the Christian faith and the defence of human rights. Christian activists living outside China, and influential pastors inside, also refer to 1989 as a personal turning point. The intervening 27 years have seen rapid growth in the Protestant church; as some space opened up for religious activities, the church grew in leaps and bounds both in terms of size and visibility. Part of the reason was a rising curiosity among the urban young, not only about Christianity but about religion, belief and spirituality more broadly. Religion has also played an important and visible role in charity work and in some cases addressing social injustices.