China makes headlines for good reason, though often not because of good news. Consider how often today’s challenges have prompted you to reflect on the Middle Kingdom and the pall it casts.
In the misty origins of the present pandemic and the deception wrought by the Chinese government to cover up the initial extent of infection there linger many what-ifs. The ongoing unjust imprisonment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig angers us. We stand shocked and helpless at the growing spread of authoritarianism in Hong Kong with the collapse of democratic rights and the flagrant violation of international law by China.
As ever, like a waving Mao now standing in stone atop a plinth stands the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping. They act with utter impunity and disregard for what we in the West naively assumed were objectively and universally applicable: rule of law, human rights, an international order. The illusion of the last three decades that China could be brought into the liberal international system as it took its place as a global power have now been shown up as credulous. The rhetoric that surrounds the China of Xi speaks of a “new era” and “the progressing times,” all of which is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the havoc it wrought on the Chinese people. Yet, this is not a return to the days of bands of Red Guards roaming every village and town brutally enforcing Maoist doctrine and purging all forms of legitimate self-expression and perceived foreign influence.
The current efforts of the CCP are focused on subordinating all of civil society to the state so that there can be no possibility of divided or unclear loyalties. Motivated by the need for unity and national security, the enslavement of Chinese civil society is being achieved through a highly organized system of intimidation, deprivation of social and economic status, arbitrary arrest, torture, so-called re-education, false imprisonment, and now genocide. For a clear illustration of how this is being accomplished on a mass scale one need only look at how the CCP is dealing with its old foe: religion.
At the CCP’s National Congress in 2017 Xi declared that “we will fully implement the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”
This sinicization of religion in China has been aggressively pursued in the ensuing four years through the continuing instrumentalizing of religious communities to advance CCP propaganda goals. New regulations introduced in 2018 strictly prohibit “foreign forces” from controlling religion in China. These regulations have provided the CCP and government at all levels the authority to launch a full assault against unofficial religion in the country with disastrous effects. In the last three years there has been a significant increase in the destruction of churches and temples, arbitrary arrests of clergy and laity, disappearances, and measures such as the banning of anyone under the age of 18 from religious worship or religious education even in the home. Subtle forms of societal and economic discrimination against openly religious people affecting their employment and access to housing and government services assert state control.
The CCP’s relationship with religion goes back to the years immediately after the 1948 Maoist revolution that brought the CCP to power. In 1951, the Religious Affairs Bureau, later the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) was established to regulate religion in the country. From its very beginning SARA was effectively under the control of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the CCP — the main intelligence gathering organization and enforcer of CCP doctrine. In 2018, all pretense was abandoned and SARA was for all intents and purposes absorbed into the United Front Work Department. The UFWD directly responsible for the sinicization of religion.
In China there are effectively four categories of religion. The first are those beliefs which have been entirely co-opted to serve the CCP, namely Confucianism. Secondly there are the five officially sanctioned religious organizations wholly under CCP control: the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (for Protestants), the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, and the Islamic Association of China. With their origin in the mid-1950s these are among the most effective controls the CCP has over religion. In concert with the new 2018 regulations, each one of these patriotic movements have adopted 5-year plans for the sinicization of their respective faith communities. Such plans include the mandatory singing of the Chinese national anthem and other patriotic songs in worship, flying the national flag at places of worship, commemorating significant CCP anniversaries, and reinterpreting doctrine and sacred texts through the lens of Chinese socialism.
The third category involves those religious communities viewed as being controlled by foreign entities and therefore posing a direct existential threat to the CCP: Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, the underground Catholic Church, and the diffuse network Protestant house churches. These groups are suppressed with varying degrees of brutality.
Finally, there are those communities identified as xie jiao, often translated as ‘evil cult’, such as Falun Gong and the Church of Almighty God, both of whose members have suffered imprisonment and torture. There are credible, independent reports cited by the U.S. State Department that conclude that China’s organ transplantation industry has benefitted significantly from the forced harvesting of organs from prisoners a majority of whom are thought to be Falun Gong practitioners. Members of these communities have been subject to mass arrests, including a roundup of 6,000 Falun Gong practitioners in 2019 alone as cited by the U.S. State Department.
The CCP’s highly organized policy in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is without doubt the most coordinated effort to suppress a religious group. Its efforts to eradicate what it has termed the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” has been a brutal scourge against the ethnically Turkic Uyghurs of that region. The Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim and comprise more than half of China’s total Muslim population of between 21-23 million. The approach taken in Xinjiang is similar to the CCP’s decades-long persecution of Tibetan Buddhists with one major difference. In Xinjiang, the CCP has created a laboratory for the modern surveillance state with mandatory biometric ID cards that are required to undertake the most basic activities of daily life including use of public transport and shopping for groceries. Surveillance cameras that aid profiling and police stations exist on nearly every block in the regional capital Urumqi. The U.S. government estimates there are just over one million Uyghurs being arbitrarily detained in purpose-built internment camps, what the CCP terms ‘re-education centres’ where those imprisoned are subject to sleep deprivation, physical and psychological torture, forced sterilization, and sexual abuse.
In January of this year the U.S. government labelled the situation in Xinjiang a genocide; our own House of Commons subsequently passed a non-binding motion to the same effect with Prime Minister Trudeau and the cabinet abstaining from the vote. A report published this March by the Newlines Institute and Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in which several Canadian human rights experts were involved, including former justice ministers Irwin Cotler and Allan Rock, concluded that China bears responsibility for breaching the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention in its treatment of Uyghurs.
While the treatment of the Uyghurs is the most egregious example of China’s persecution of religious groups the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists continues unabated, both within Tibet and in the rest of China. The CCP controls all aspects of Buddhism in Tibet including monasteries, monks, and the schools. In 2016, Chinese authorities turned their attention to the large Tibetan Buddhist centres of Larung Gar and Yachen Gar in Sichuan province. In the past five years it is estimated that thousands of buildings have been destroyed in a so-called “renovation campaign” and that thousands of monks and nuns, possibly as many as 17,000 according to the U.S. state department, have been driven out of these communities and been subject to arbitrary arrest.
This situation facing Chinese Christians varies greatly depending on where you are in the country and whether you are a member of the two official patriotic associations. A sustained campaign demolishing churches and removing crosses, often based on the arbitrary interpretation of regulations by local officials, is now sustained country-wide with officials in provinces such as Shaanxi, Hubei, Inner Mongolia, Hebei, and Henan known for their zealotry. Local officials also enforce regulations requiring that closed-circuit cameras be installed in every place of worship. In churches across the country images of Christ and Mary and plaques with the Ten Commandments are being removed and replaced with images of Xi Jinping, the national flag, and the text of the Constitution.
Numerous Christian clergy have been arrested and imprisoned including Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church, a noted advocate for religious freedom who in December 2019 was imprisoned for nine years for “inciting to subvert state power,” a catch-all offence very much in vogue these days. Despite its still secret accord with the Chinese government, the Vatican has demonstrated that it has zero leverage in improving the situation of Catholics in China where 40 dioceses remain without a bishop and bishops critical of the CCP have been arrested and subject to re-education, including Bishop Augustine Cui Tai of Xuanhua and Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhao. The Holy See has sold Chinese Catholics down the Yangtze.
Such is the state of religious freedom in the “basic dictatorship” of China. What is our response?
It is axiomatic to speak about the conflict between a country’s interests and its values in conducting its foreign policy. The lack of coherency in the government of Canada’s approach to China reflects a confusion of its interests and a hypocrisy in its values.
René Lévesque once said that a nation is judged by how it treats its minorities. How then do we judge China on its treatment of religious believers? Harshly.