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China's war against the soul

CSW report gives first-hand accounts of Beijing's destruction of freedom of thought, conscience and religion

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China's war against the soul

Indian Muslims denounce the Chinese government's persecution of Uyghur Muslims in a protest in Mumbai on Dec. 9, 2019. At least one million Uyghurs are incarcerated in 're-education camps' in Xinjiang. (Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP)

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China today is facing the worst crackdown on human rights since the Tiananmen massacre 31 years ago and the most severe assault on freedom of thought, conscience and religion since the Cultural Revolution.

Repression has intensified across the board under Xi Jinping’s rule, but religion is particularly targeted. In what jailed pastor Wang Yi describes as “a war against the soul,” all faiths have been impacted, as a recent report documents.

“Repressed, Removed, Re-Educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China” tells the stories of Chinese people oppressed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. In publishing this report, my organization CSW stands with the people of China, particularly those of different religious communities oppressed by the regime. We researched this report by listening to the Chinese people and documenting their first-hand experiences.

In an era where the CCP wants us to conflate the regime with the country, and accuses its critics of anti-China racism, we want to emphasize that the exact opposite is true. We are pro-China when it comes to the Chinese people and nation. Indeed, it is because we are for the people of China that we are speaking out on this issue. At a time when, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been real — and appalling — anti-Chinese racism, it is all the more vital that the distinction be made between the brutal, repressive CCP regime and the ordinary Chinese people who are its primary victims.

Across China, temples, mosques and churches have been demolished by the authorities. Religious adherents have been forced to remove religious symbols and images from their homes and places of worship, and in some cases replace them with portraits of Xi Jinping and CCP propaganda banners.

In state-controlled religious organizations, clergy have been removed from their positions and replaced by those regarded as more trusted by the regime. Schools face pressure to check up on the religious beliefs of students and staff. Surveillance cameras are installed in and around places of worship. And a growing number of religious adherents have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and even killed for their faith.

Meanwhile, in the northwest of the country, nothing less than a human rights crisis is still taking place in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the CCP has incarcerated at least one million Uyghur, Kazakh and other predominantly Muslim people in so-called “re-education camps.” Some estimates put the figure as high as three million.

They have been arbitrarily detained for accessing religious materials online, engaging in communal religious activities, having relatives living abroad or behavior indicating “wrong thinking” or “religious extremism.” A beard or a headscarf are automatically judged to fall into the “religious extremism” category.

Inside the camps, detainees are forced to renounce Islam, eat pork and drink alcohol. They face extreme torture. As Mihrigul Tursun told the US Congressional Executive Commission on China: “I was taken to a special room with an electric chair. It was the interrogation room that had one light and one chair. There were belts and whips hanging on the wall. I was placed in a high chair that clicked to lock my arms and legs in place and tightened when they press a button. My head was shaved beforehand for the maximum impact. The authorities put a helmet-like thing on my head. Each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently and I could feel the pain in my veins. I thought I would rather die than go through this torture and begged them to kill me.”

For those Muslims not in detention, they face other forms of repression. The CCP has placed Han Chinese officials to live in Uyghurs’ homes, literally monitoring their every move. Surveillance cameras are on every block, mobile phone signals are tracked and artificial intelligence is used to build the world’s biggest surveillance state.

Christian churches demolished

In Tibet, the religious landscape is scarred by the demolition of Buddhist monasteries and the forced eviction of monks and nuns. Any association with the Dalai Lama — possessing his picture, celebrating his birthday — is punished very severely. Thousands of monks and nuns have been subjected to political re-education in detention, where they are forced to sing Chinese patriotic songs and watch propaganda. In 2015, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, one of Tibet’s most prominent political prisoners and religious leaders, died in custody apparently following torture.

Christians have seen thousands of churches and crosses demolished and many other churches forced to close. One of the first to experience this new wave of repression was Living Stone Church in Guizhou, closed in 2015. Both its pastors, Yang Hua and Su Tianfu, were arrested and accused of revealing state secrets, while Yang was imprisoned and threatened with death.

A church member told CSW: “The crackdown on Living Stone Church was like an experiment. Now the authorities see that this is an effective approach, they have adopted this approach in many different regions”. Revised regulations on religion issued in 2018 show, according to this same Christian, “the government’s determination to tightly control the churches.”

In September 2018, the Holy See and the Chinese regime signed an agreement on the appointment of bishops. While some welcome this, the deal has been widely criticized by others and there are no signs that it has led to any improvement in religious freedom. If anything, the situation has worsened, with several Catholic clergy detained since the agreement was signed.

Other groups, such as Taoism, have not escaped the harsh new environment, and religious freedom watchdogs have reported the closure of temples and the destruction of religious statues. The persecution of groups regarded by the CCP as “heterodox” or “evil cults” — such as the Buddha-school Falun Gong meditation movement and the Church of Almighty God — continues. Last year an independent tribunal in London chaired by British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic, concluded that the regime is forcibly harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, particularly Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghurs, and that this amounts to a crime against humanity.

In addition to the repression of religious practice itself, lawyers and activists have been harassed and jailed for defending religious communities, championing the right to religious freedom. CSW’s report tells their stories.

As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, let us therefore remember those in China who are most vulnerable to it. In China’s prisons, and especially in the prison camps in Xinjiang, the risk of infection is extremely high. As the report describes, “inside the camps conditions are dangerously unsanitary and overcrowded.”

What can the world do in the face of this appalling assault on human dignity and conscience? The report makes several recommendations, but the most important is that at every opportunity, in public and in private, the international community must urge the Chinese regime to stop these grave violations of international human rights laws and basic human ethics. The regime must be exposed for its brutality, inhumanity and criminality. Governments should rethink how they engage with the Chinese regime. Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions should be imposed on individual officials responsible for grave human rights violations. And one day, as with other murderous dictatorships in the past, this regime must be held to account for its crimes — not out of hostility to China but for the sake of the people of China as well as the world.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at international human rights organization CSW. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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