ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongUpdated: October 16, 2017 04:15 AM GMT
A Chinese paramilitary police officer secures the front gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing on Sept. 28. China will convene its 19th Party Congress on Oct. 18, a key meeting held every five years where President Xi Jinping is expected to receive a second term as the ruling Communist Party's top leader. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
For China's religious minorities, to say that it has been a difficult year would be an understatement. The government is quickly transforming the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region into a police state while new laws now restrict most of the Tibetan region from access to the world outside of China.
But following the 19th Party Congress beginning this week — where Chinese President Xi Jinping will reshuffle his government, selecting the core leadership on the Politburo — human rights monitors fear that, given the current trajectory of the Chinese government, the situation for the country's religious minorities may become even more tumultuous.
"So far, the Chinese government's impulse to tighten control across the board — including religion — indicates a grim outlook for religious freedom in China for years to come," Maya Wang, senior researcher at the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, told ucanews.com.
"On top of its basic framework of controlling religions, which is that the government restricts religious activities to only five officially recognized religions and only in officially approved religious premises, I expect that the government will continue to push for greater 'Sinicization' of religions. That means the government will continue its campaign to restrict foreign influences, ties and funding on religions in China," Wang said, noting that this was already the trend in both Xinjiang and Tibet.
Such Sinicized religion includes the practice of Catholicism under the supervision of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), a body set up by the government's State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). The CPA's refusal to recognize the Vatican forces many Catholics to illegally worship underground. When ucannews.com investigated large CPA-sponsored churches in Beijing last year, they were mostly empty.
In July, on the heels of the Party Congress, SARA director Wang Zuoan told all members of the Communist Party to give up religion. Wang said members were also banned from supporting religion for economic development or cultural purposes.
Wang Zuoan's move to curb these expressions of freedom, especially ahead of the Party Congress, isn't unexpected. In April last year, Xi laid down a highly anticipated blueprint for how the government would handle religion moving forward — and the prognosis was grim, as the Chinese president put most of the emphasis on limiting religious freedoms while strengthening the Communist Party's power.
"[The blueprint] emphasized the themes of religion as a conduit for Communist Party governance, the government's right to tightly regulate religion, 'Sinicization' of religious doctrine, and preventing so-called foreign 'infiltration' of religion, ensuring Communist Party cadres are staunch atheists," William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, told ucanews.com.
"It may take several years for this blueprint to be implemented in detail, so I would foresee greater restrictions on religion as detailed policies and personnel are put in place," Nee said.
Those restrictions have already begun to manifest, many with far-reaching consequences for religious minorities.
In Xinjiang, there have been door-to-door checks to see if people have religious materials or are praying. Authorities have reportedly stopped people at random to see what is on their phones, and detention facilities for religious practitioners have purportedly proliferated across the region for so-called political re-education.
Meanwhile, Tibetans face the denial of basic freedoms of speech, assembly and movement and the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in China, Larung Gar, is being continually demolished.
"It's hard to see how things could seemingly get much worse in terms of freedom of religion in Tibet and Xinjiang, but it conceivably could," Nee said. "To some extent, these regions serve as petri dishes for experimenting with new modes of extreme social control… and if the government perceives these policies as working well, then they may use them against other target populations as well."
Much of these restrictions are the brainchild of Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who was transferred from his post in Tibet, where the government perceived him as successful at quelling unrest, to Xinjiang last year. He is widely tipped to become part of the Politburo and the rapid raft of crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet could be interpreted as his political ambition to rise in the government.
Intensified rhetoric in the lead-up to a Party Congress can be typical, as the event occurs only every five years and is surrounded by pomp. Naturally, there is some speculation as to whether the hard line on religious freedoms is just tough talk.
"There's a kind of hope among activists inside China that the government's relentless campaign to exert greater control over society under President Xi will somehow ease after the 19th Party Congress, as he will have completed his usual drive to consolidate power during his first term," Wang said.
"I do not necessarily share that optimism as President Xi has shown great ambition in establishing himself as a powerful 'core leader,'" she said.
"In other words, his drive to gain more power might be far from over."