China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a stern rebuke of the US state department’s newly released 2016 International Religious Freedom Report last Wednesday, calling on the United States to “mind its own business” and abandon religion as a pretense for intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries.
The country’s official Xinhua news agency followed suit with an editorial referring to the report, which had identified China as one of seven countries “of particular concern” in regards to religious freedom, as “nothing but political bigotry.” Chiding the US for its meddlesome tendencies, the article called into question the moral authority of a country currently “reeling from the death and violence seen at a white-nationalist rally in the city of Charlottesville,” where white supremacists were recorded chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Amid currents of resurgent Neo-Naziism and Islamophobia, buoyed by Donald Trump’s rise to the Oval Office and emboldened by his hedging on the subject of white supremacy, the report’s accusations of religious intolerance come at an unfortunate time.
— Mike Fox (@JustCallMeFoxy) August 12, 2017
Though the United States has a time-honored tradition, from the three-fifths compromise to drone warfare, of passing moral judgment on other nations without any firm moral ground to stand on, many of the accusations in the report are well-substantiated.
Xinhua took particular umbrage at the notion that Chinese constitutional protection of free religious practice has been anything less than ironclad. “As a matter of fact,” its coverage claimed, “Chinese people of all ethnic groups have enjoyed full religious freedom.”
According to Chinese law, religious groups must register with the government under one of five state-approved “patriotic religious associations”: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Members of the Communist Party and the military must renounce organized religion, and because party membership is a pre-requisite for most government offices, formal spiritual belief is often considered mutually exclusive with public service.
In April of last year, at the CCP’s first national conference on religion in more than a decade, President Xi called for a campaign to restrict unsanctioned faith-based gatherings and “guide religious believers to be patriotic, protect national unity, and serve the overall interests of the Chinese nation.”
The scope of the crackdown detailed in the US report is sweeping and extends even to the smallest and most remote niches of Chinese religious life. Among the groups affected is a uniquely Chinese strain of Judaism, conspicuously absent from the party’s list of condoned sects, which traces its roots back more than a millennium and numbers only a couple hundred active adherents. Authorities in the central Chinese city of Kaifeng last year shuttered organizations that reconnected residents with their Jewish heritage, erased surviving symbols of the ancient Jewish community, and banned the open celebration of Passover and other Jewish holidays.
Leaders of groups unaffiliated with any of the patriotic religious associations reported police raids, government-ordered church demolitions, and the arrest and detention of congregants on charges of “disturbing social order.”
Even among registered churches, party control over sermon material and religious training is extensive. Patriotic religious associations have wide latitude to prescreen sermon content and aspiring theologians must obtain official permission to enroll in seminary. According to the report, “In seminaries controlled by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, [the Protestant state-sanctioned umbrella organization], officials directed faculty to engage in ‘theological reconstruction’ to make Protestant doctrine conform to socialism.”
In Zhejiang, where Christianity is especially prevalent, the provincial government intensified its “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” campaign, which classifies crosses as “illegal structures” and mandates their removal from church spires. Met with active resistance from pastors and parishioners protesting the cross removals since the campaign began in 2014, authorities have regularly detained and prosecuted prominent leaders and activists within the Christian community.
Joseph Gu, the pastor of China’s largest Protestant megachurch, in the provincial capital of Hangzhou, released a statement calling the cross removals “a flagrant violation of the policy of religious freedom.” In January 2016, he was arrested on embezzlement charges that his supporters claimed were trumped up by the government to silence him. Several pastors who voiced opposition to the campaign were arrested on charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” including Bao Guohua, a pastor from Jinhua sentenced to 14 years in prison for his refusal to cooperate with authorities.
“The report also accuses China of societal discrimination of Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists,” Xinhua objected, “a claim distorting the truth in every way.” But the infringements on the religious freedom of China’s ethnic minorities cited in the report are well-documented.
Local governments in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region forbid university students, government employees, and children from observing Ramadan. Xinjiang regulations prohibit children from engaging in any religious practice before completing nine years of compulsory education. A new amendment to the regional Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency Law stipulates that minors caught participating in religious activities must “be sent to specialized schools for correction.” During Ramadan this year authorities held rallies across the region, some of which reportedly featured paramilitary troops armed with assault rifles, to reaffirm allegiance to the party. In July, officials banned more than a dozen “overly religious” names and forced children bearing those names to change them.
Meanwhile, authorities in Sichuan Province continued the demolition of large swathes of Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institute, and the expulsion of thousands of monks and nuns, at least some of whom have been coerced into political re-education. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the European Parliament for hosting the Dalai Lama in September 2016, referring to the Tibetan Buddhist leader in exile’s actions as “spiritual terrorism.”
“As a sovereign country,” the Xinhua article argued, “China has every right to maintain its social stability and territorial integrity by cracking down on “religious extremists, splittists, and terrorists.”
According to the report, the consequence of being designated a “particularly concerning country” by the United States is the “ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment.”
By H.A. Platt
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