Report: Religious Followers in China Push Back Despite Tightened Controls

By Richard Finney
china-religion-may252015.jpg Chinese Catholics attend a mass to mark the ascension of Jesus at a Catholic church in Tianjin, in northern China on May 24, 2015.

Government interference in religion is growing in China, with authorities suppressing Islam and slamming Christian teachings as a foreign import, meanwhile promoting Chinese Buddhism and Taoism as more supportive of traditional notions of loyalty to the state, according to a Freedom House report released on Tuesday.

Tibetan Buddhism remains suspect and under harsh controls, though, as Tibetans voice support for their exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who is viewed by Chinese leaders as a separatist seeking to split the region from Beijing’s control, the report, “The Battle for China’s Spirit,” says.

State-controlled churches are meanwhile failing to meet the growing demand for religion in China, Sarah Cook, Freedom House senior researcher and author of the report, says.

“The result is an enormous black market, forcing many believers . . . to operate outside the law and to view the regime as unreasonable, unjust, or illegitimate,” Cook says.

Expanding controls under China’s president Xi Jinping—including electronic surveillance, harsh prison terms, and state violence—are now placing at least 100 million Chinese worshipping outside of official control at risk of “high” or “very high” levels of persecution, Freedom House says.

Chinese citizens now in prison for independent religious activities likely number in the tens of thousands, with that number probably representing only the “tip of the iceberg,” Freedom House says in its report.

Cases detailed in the report include a Christian pastor handed a 14-year prison term for opposing a campaign to remove crosses from churches in Zhejiang, an ethnic Uyghur teenager jailed for 15 years for watching an Islamic religious video on his phone, and a Tibetan monk given an 18-year term for possessing images of the Dalai Lama.

Bans on worship, dress

Already strict prohibitions on Islamic worship and dress have been strengthened in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, the report says, citing restrictions on the religious education of Uyghur children under 18 and bans on the wearing of traditional beards and veils.

Prayer outside of state-sanctioned mosques is also harshly punished, Freedom House said.

In September 2015, eight farmers and a Muslim prayer leader were sentenced in Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture to terms of from seven to nine years for “praying together in a field,” according to the report.

“The whole neighborhood was shocked [by their arrest],” the wife of one man said.

In efforts to block the growing influence of Christianity and “Western values” by supporting more traditionally Chinese religions and culture, President Xi has promoted Chinese Buddhism and Taoism as harmonious with the goals of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Freedom House says.

“[But] exploitation of temples for tourism purposes has emerged as a key point of contention among the state, clergy, and lay believers.”

Repression fails

Meanwhile, a government campaign to destroy the Falun Gong spiritual group has failed to take hold, despite the jailing and torture of thousands, and killing of hundreds, of followers over almost 20 years, the report says.

“Millions of people in China continue to practice Falun Gong, including many individuals who took up the discipline after the repression began. This represents a striking failure of the CCP’s security apparatus.”

Across all faiths, “millions of religious believers defy official restrictions in daily life,” Freedom House says. “[This] reflects the party’s difficulty in confronting citizens who are willing to make sacrifices for higher principles.”

“From this perspective, it would appear that in the long-term battle for China’s spirit, an unreformed Communist Party will ultimately lose.”

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