Banned Bibles, burnt crosses, exhumed coffins, an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims reportedly held in re-education camps — nomination aside, adhering to non state-approved religious beliefs is a dangerous pursuit in President Xi Jinping’s China in 2018.
- A campaign to control religion is escalating, experts and rights groups report
- Major surveillance and intrusion into everyday life makes “resistance pointless”
- Observers say ethnic minorities and religious beliefs affect loyalty to the CCP
In recent years, China has been overtly ramping up its efforts to crack down on organised religion across the country as part of a wider clamp down by Mr Xi on perceived threats to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The CCP’s campaign began in earnest in 2016 when Mr Xi declared he wanted to “Sinicise” religion in China, and in particular, for foreign religions like Islam and Christianity to have “Chinese characteristics” and be more broadly state-approved.
And in February of this year, China’s Regulations for Religious Affairs came into effect giving Beijing further control over day-to-day religious practices, including requirements for religious organisations to be registered with local authorities and the power to veto existing meeting places or the construction of new ones.
“They are really targeting religion, especially since the new legislation that came into effect this year,” Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon told the ABC.
“They are really increasing [the crackdown], we hear [stories] of crosses being removed and in some cases churches being bulldozed.”
There are five dominant religious that Beijing officially allows: Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Daoism, and Buddhism.
However, many people across the country continue to hold traditions and beliefs such as ancestor worship and ghost marriages and participate in what the Government describes as “evil cults” which includes the banned Falun Gong group.
‘We are seeing more coercive attempts to control minorities’
A map showing the dominant religions in China in 2014. (Supplied: Purdue University’s Centre on Religion and Chinese Society)
Estimates vary on how many Chinese people follow a religion, but it ranges from roughly 350 million people up to 650 million for the larger ones.
Associate professor Benjamin Hillman from the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific told the ABC that the recent spate of repression appeared to be targeting religious organisations rather than personal belief.
“While individual religious practice is guaranteed in the constitution, and in most cases protected, the CCP has always sought to control religious organisations to ensure that their ultimate loyalty is to the party,” he said.
Mr Hillman added that ethnic minorities — such as the Uighurs in the western Xinjiang autonomous region — are seen as being largely defined by religion and that this concerns Beijing to the point of viewing these groups as direct threats to the state.
“We are seeing more coercive attempts to control minorities,” Mr Hillman said.
A believer reads the bible during mass at St. Joseph’s Church, a government-sanctioned Catholic church, in Beijing. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)
Catholics strike deal as Protestant churches are bulldozed
Last month the Chinese Government and the Vatican reached a landmark agreement to unite the estimated 10 million Catholics, who are split roughly in half between the underground Catholic church loyal to the Vatican and the state-controlled church.
The details for the agreement are being kept secret, however, what is known is that the Vatican and the Government will now both have a say over the appointment of new bishops across the country, which has been a major point of contention between the two for decades.
Some Catholics are upset by the deal, fearing what will come by allowing the Chinese Government a hand in running the church, and there is still the unknown fate of the many underground priests who are still in detention.
For Protestants, who make up the majority of the estimated 60 million-plus Christians in China, it’s a different story.
Last month Protestants were targeted by the state with images emerging of crosses being burned and churches being bulldozed.
The crosses are often replaced with objects such as the Chinese flag and photos of President Xi or former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong.
A Protestant pastor who spoke on condition of anonymity told the ABC he had been harassed by security forces after previously speaking out about the mistreatment of Christians.
“The local security officials invited me for ‘a cup of tea’, telling me that I need to be careful of what I say in the future and to stop making negative comments to catch people’s attention, and that I should say positive things instead,” he said.
“They warned me that they knew everything about my family.
“They said ‘the Chinese people’s living standards are now much higher because they can eat their fill and dress well and that without the Chinese Communist Party, China would be a mess’.”
The pastor said that he was considering divorcing his wife in order to protect her and their child.
“I asked my wife whether we should get a divorce because I am scared something bad could happen to my family.”
‘It’s just brainwashing’: Amnesty International
An estimated 1 million Uighurs are reportedly held involuntarily in extra-legal detention in the Xinjiang region. (Reuters, file)
But the most drastic example of Beijing’s war on religion has been in China’s far western Xinjiang autonomous region where Uighur Muslims, Kazakhs, and a number of other religious and ethnic minorities, have been imprisoned in detention facilities for re-education.
Those who have been in the camps and have managed to get out describe bizarre activities such as being forced to profess love for President Xi and sing nationalist pro-Government anthems.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination estimates that around 1 million Uighurs may be held involuntarily in extra-legal detention in Xinjiang.
David Poon told the ABC that Amnesty International continues to hear disturbing reports of people being forced to recite party slogans and renounce their faith as well as take part in bizarre sing-along sessions in the camps.
“They are moving people into these camps on the excuse that it is for security or vocational training, but no one believes that — [they’re] just brainwashing [them].”
Bordered by eight countries including the former Soviet Central Asian republics, Xinjiang is China’s largest province. (Supplied: Google Maps)
Mr Poon added that anyone displaying adherence to religion could be sent to a camp for re-education.
“You could be targeted for detention because you are religiously devout and pray at the local mosque, or in other cases [for] communicating with relatives overseas, which makes the Government worry about extremism.”
Last month an Uighur man called Tarim spoke to the ABC about a facility outside Aksu City in western Xinjiang which he described as a “concentration camp”.
“It was April and there was snow in some parts, and I saw about 500 people on the concrete, on the ground,” he said in his native language, through a translator in Sydney.
“There were also about 700 or so people in a queue to get food, and at the same time they were singing patriotic songs: ‘I love Communist Party, I love Xi Jinping’.”
Beijing crackdown to ‘ensure loyalty from minorities’
Authorities say they that in the camps people are being provided with Mandarin lessons and classes on Chinese history. (Reuters, file)
Last week China finally responded to years of criticism about the camps when Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir explained that authorities were providing people with Mandarin lessons as well as classes about China’s history and laws.
The training, Mr Zakir said, is intended steer persons of interest away from extremism and onto the path of a “modern life” in which they would feel “confident about the future”.
China denies it is holding people in “concentration camps” and claims it is taking security measures to fight terrorism in Xinjiang. (Reuters: Petar Kujundzic)
Mr Zakir claimed the training centres were for people “who are influenced by terrorism and extremism, and those suspected of minor criminal offenses” who could be exempted from criminal punishment.
Professor Hillman said that recent Islamic terror attacks in Xinjiang by Islamic Uighurs and in Tibet by Tibetan Buddhists in 2008 and 2009 had disturbed the CCP.
“Many of these incidents have been a wake up call to party leaders, who thought that religion was something that was going to go away,” he said.
“In fact, it seems to be something that is very entrenched in local identities, and is increasingly being seen [by the CCP] as a problem for national integration and ensuring loyalty from minorities.”
However, Mr Hillman added that while these policies generate resentment, they were intended to create a climate of fear and send the message that fighting back was futile.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this type of treatment and the abuse of people’s rights is going to foster resentment, and it is not going to make the Uighurs and other minorities in these camps more loyal,” he said.
“On the other hand, the reach of the state [and] the capability of the security apparatus is such that it’s hard to imagine any type of blowback.”
“Resistance is pointless” is the message and if you step out of line, then you will suffer, he added.
The ABC has approached the Chinese Government’s National Religious Affairs Administration for comment but none was provided at the time of writing.