By all accounts, the past year in China was a punishing one for freedom of religion or belief.
In the name of fighting terrorism, officials increased their persecution of the Uighur Muslim community in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. In the name of fighting cults, they continued their assault on Falun Gong, unregistered Christian organizations, Buddhist groups and others. These examples of flagrant violations of religious freedom and fundamental human rights stand in sharp contrast to China’s preferred narrative of a modern, forward-looking superpower. Instead it reveals a one-party dictatorship fearful of diversity and hostile to freedom and faith.
Late last year, a Chinese court sentenced Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur Muslim scholar, to life in prison for separatism. Known for peacefully advocating Uighur rights, Tohti was an economics professor in Beijing until his arrest in January of last year. Prior to this draconian sentence, China restricted Uighur rights to fast and carry out other religious observances during the month of Ramadan. This assault on religious freedom follows years of Chinese authorities’ raiding schools, seizing literature, shuttering religious sites, clamping down on the study of the Quran, monitoring imams’ sermons, restricting Muslim dress and religious expression and banning children from mosques.
China has also trained its sights on so-called cults, an arbitrary term that potentially includes any group operating outside the government’s orbit of strict regulation and control. Government officials stepped up the anti-cult campaign after a woman was beaten to death last May by six members of a group called Almighty God. Days later, the government published a list of 20 cults, and Chinese media warned repeatedly about their evil dangers.
Heading the list was Falun Gong, which has been in Beijing’s crosshairs for more than 15 years. Near the end of last year, Wang Zhiwen, a Falun Gong practitioner, finished a 15-year prison sentence, during which he was tortured, and then he was detained in a brainwashing center. He has been stripped of all political rights for four years and has not been getting needed medical care. Falun Gong practitioners Li Chang, Yu Changxin and Ji Liewu remain imprisoned. Over the years, human rights groups have reported deaths in custody, the use of psychiatric experiments and the harvesting of organs of Falun Gong members.
China’s anti-cult campaign also threatens unregistered, or underground, Christian churches. An article last year in a government newspaper warned that “underground churches and evil cults are spreading like mushrooms.” Even before this, China’s government issued a directive to “eradicate” unregistered Protestant churches over the next decade. Catholic and Protestant groups refusing to register have long faced arrests, fines and church closures. Pastor Yang Rongli has been serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence since 2009 for leading the 50,000-member Linfen Church in Shaanxi Province.
Such government hostility has gone beyond alleged cults. Starting in early 2014, Chinese Christians were faced with a new threat: assaults on registered churches. In Zhejiang province, the government targeted hundreds of churches, tearing down or removing crosses and even bulldozing a number of them, including Sanjiang Church, which had thousands of members. In Henan province, Pastor Zhang Shaojie of the Nanle County Christian Church was convicted on July 4 on groundless charges of fraud and gathering a crowd to disturb public order and was handed a 12-year prison sentence.
Besides Falun Gong and Christianity, Chinese anti-cult efforts also harass movements within Buddhism. Late last year, China arrested Wu Zeheng — also known as Zen master Shi Xingwu, a renowned leader with millions of followers worldwide — along with more than a dozen of his followers in China. They were charged under China’s anti-cult law barring people from forming or using “superstitious sects or … societies … to undermine the implementation of the laws and … rules and regulations of the state.” If convicted, each could serve from seven years to life in prison.
These actions are on top of China’s continued suppression of Tibetan Buddhism, which has led to an alarming number of self-immolations. In recent years, more than 130 Buddhists, including monks and nuns, have set themselves ablaze.
Through its conduct, China is denying its people the internationally guaranteed right to believe or not believe according to conscience. Why? Perhaps its leaders fear that allegiance to organizations beyond the Chinese state threaten their control. For example, Ye Xiaowen, a former head of China’s Religious Affairs Bureau, voiced what many Chinese officials fear: that Christians’ role in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s could be repeated in China.
But ironically, repression can exacerbate the extremism it aims to eradicate. Furthermore, targeting peaceful religious communities deeply undermines the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of all its citizens.
Above all else, the Chinese government seeks stability. It will find this an elusive goal as long as it continues to violate the basic rights of millions of its citizens.