Religion has never had much of a home in the People’s Republic of China—at least, not a comfortable one. In a country where journalists are imprisoned, information is strictly controlled and family planning is dictated by the state, it’s no surprise that religious freedom doesn’t exist. What is a surprise is the violent and restrictive way that freedom is suppressed.
Throughout history, Chinese leaders have generally been very hostile to the idea of religion, believing that as people became more educated, science and business would win out over spiritual matters, and atheism would be heralded. The Cultural Revolution, led by Mao Zedong (1966-1976), was designed to change China’s culture for the better. To communist thinkers, that meant eliminating religion. To accomplish this, Buddhist temples were burned to the ground, literature was destroyed and churches were converted to government buildings. But, since the Cultural Revolution, religious restrictions have eased.
In modern times, religion is tolerated, as long as it is sanctioned by the state. The government sometimes even works with religious organizations to provide services to communities. Still, to be a believer in China means to live in a very structured, prohibitive and often dangerous place.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains that everyone is entitled to believe what they wish. And that’s true: You can believe what you want to believe. Until mind-control devices are available, a human being can think what they want in their head. But Chinese citizens are not guaranteed the right to practice what they believe.
Officially, there are five recognized religions in China: Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, Islam and Buddhism. Chinese citizens can worship only at a state-approved church or temple; and by "state-approved," that means a religious organization under the control of the government.
The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) controls religious life in the People’s Republic of China. The state controls publications, clergy appointments, finances, property, and what education believers can receive. They also require members of the military to be atheists, and they don’t allow anyone under 18 to receive religious teachings. In short, there is no freedom of religion in China, even if you attend a registered church.
Dr. Tsering Shakya, professor of Tibetan Studies at the University of British Columbia, said in a 2009 Brookings Institution panel discussion that the Chinese philosophy is that "religion has to be contained." It is contained by arrests, detentions, fines, labor camps, disappearances, beatings, extortion, property confiscation, threats and harassment.
Much of the persecution is concentrated toward Christians, Muslims and the 18-year-old spiritual movement called Falun Gong.
A widely used penalty for those who worship outside of CCP-approved groups is banishment to a labor camp, which can last for several months or several years. The CCP favors this penalty because it doesn’t require any type of trial to take place. It also doesn’t require any formal charge or review by a judicial system. Local police can show up and put you in a labor camp if they don’t like what you are doing. Once in the camp, you will be told to denounce your beliefs, forced to sing songs of praise to the Communist party, and you will endure sleep deprivation, beatings, and grueling workdays in unsanitary conditions.
Bu Dongwei, a follower of the outlawed religion Falun Gong, was in a labor camp for about a year and a half. He described his experience to Amnesty International as: "Persecution in the labor camp includes torture, forced labor work, deprivation of basic needs, brain-washing, no freedom to go to the restroom, no freedom to wash clothes, bad food and bad living conditions… We were forced to pack disposable chopsticks in very unsanitary conditions. All the chopsticks were put on the ground of the small room and people often stepped on them. Some of those chopsticks are for export." Other labor camp prisoners have reported being burned with cigarettes, forced to sit motionless for long periods of time, and shocked with electric batons, all while being forced to make soap, costume jewelry or plush toys.
Before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the world watched to see if China would relax some of their communist restrictions (especially since they promised when campaigning for the Games they would improve human rights). What they saw was China turning up the heat on house churches and "illegal" religious activity in an effort to create a perfect image for the Games. They also wanted to control the dissemination of information likely to be shared by the many international visitors they were now expecting. China is very uncomfortable with foreigners coming in to proselytize, and they usually limit travelers to carrying only one Bible or Qu’ran per person. Nina Shea, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Center for Religious Freedom, says "officials fear that contact with foreign co-religionists could encourage a flowering of religious practice that is not sanctioned or controlled by the state."
In an open letter prior to the Olympics, human rights activists Hu Jia and Teng Biao said, "When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing, you will see skyscrapers, spacious streets, modern stadiums and enthusiastic people. You will see the truth, but not the whole truth, just as you see only the tip of an iceberg. You may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood."
GROWTH OF HOUSE CHURCHES
An important aspect of religion is the practice, the worship. But people gathering together to worship anything other than the State is a threat to Communism. The government claims to be the ultimate moral, cultural and political authority. Therefore, they have a vested interest in persecuting churches not sanctioned by them because free, enlightened people will begin to mobilize, challenge the state’s ideology and, in some cases, change a society. The Apostle Peter said "We must obey God rather than men." That is death to a repressive regime.
Christians in China are watched closely. China has always looked upon Christianity as a threat to society because it is most closely associated with Western values and democracy. Although there are two official Christian organizations in China—the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council (TSPM/CCC)— Christian religious activities are rigorously monitored and strict regulations are placed on the religion. For instance, the Pope is not recognized as a religious leader; bishops are imprisoned; the one-child rule is enforced whether it goes against your religious beliefs or not; and church materials have to be okayed by the state.
Not surprisingly, in an environment with so much control, many believers simply refuse to go along with what the state wants—so Christians have chosen to go underground for their worship at illegal, unregistered "house churches." Evidence suggests that house church membership is actually much greater than that of state-sanctioned Christian organizations. TSPM/CCC reports that 20 million citizens worship in official churches; yet the Pew Research Center estimates between 50 million and 70 million people attend house churches. Although members of registered churches are just as burdened with restrictions as unregistered ones, "they just aren’t openly persecuted like underground ones," Shea says. Without the backing of the CCP, house church members are subject to mistreatment. They are, after all, doing something the government considers illegal. Church leaders are the most susceptible to arrest, but any member of the congregation is fair game. Sometimes believers are prosecuted on trumped-up charges of illegal business practices; and occasionally the offender is beaten but most are sentenced to "re-education through labor" programs.
This usually entails the offender being sent to a hard labor camp for up to three years.
That was the case in late November 2009, when five house church leaders were arrested and sentenced to two years in a labor camp while they were staging a peaceful protest. Church members were upset that police had raided their facilities a few months prior and were registering their outrage. Now they will spend two years locked away from their families, their congregation, and the world.
Besides the aggression toward Christianity, there are three other religious targets in China:
Tibet is the poster child for religious intolerance in China. Religion is extremely important to the Tibetan people; their entire culture revolves around it. They want to be free to worship as they please and they want to allow their children to worship. The PRC has forcibly suppressed the Tibetan people and called the Dalai Lama a "splittist." No one under the age of 18 is permitted to enter the monastery and they cannot elect their own religious leaders. As part of its "patriotic education" campaign, the PRC required nuns and monks to study communist theory several hours a day and sign statements personally denouncing the Dalai Lama. Despite a long history of peaceful protests by members of the monastery, Tibet has become a very volatile and dangerous place due to the religious interference of the PRC. Protestors have disappeared, been detained and beaten and deprived of food and water.
Because it is located in the westernmost part of China, Xinjiang is predominantly Muslim. The PRC has gone overboard in dictating what residents can do, including banning headscarves for women, requiring men to shave, prohibiting children from engaging in religious activities and restricting Hajj pilgrimages. Many Muslims have been arrested and charged with terrorism or illegal religious activities.
The PRC has designated Falun Gong as a cult and, as such, they have launched an unrelenting attack on its followers. Falun Gong is a very new system of beliefs, founded in 1992. Its central tenets are truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance. Like many new spiritual movements, it draws on core concepts from other religions.
Falun Gong also incorporates modern science and exercise in its teachings. Members of Falun Gong have accused the CCP of torture, forced labor, and even organ harvesting. The PRC has banned the religion and accused its followers of being part of a political movement to overthrow the government.
WHY DO WE CARE?
Aside from wondering where our chopsticks came from the next time we sit down for some Mo Shu pork, China’s violations should bother us because we are human beings; it’s our nature to care. But also, we are officially supposed to care. In 1998, the United States passed the International Religious Freedom Act, making the promotion of religious freedom part of our foreign policy goals. Each year, our State Department lists "Countries of Particular Concern," calling out countries with severe human rights violations as they relate to religious freedom. China has been on this CPC list every year since its inception.
Shea says it is in our national interest to have China stable and free—and also our responsibility. "This is one of our definining principles [religious freedom], and we need to keep this issue as a priority."
Implied approval of activities emboldens China to continue the abuse. In February 2009, Secretary of State Clinton said human rights "shouldn’t interfere" with U.S.-China relations. In October 2009, President Obama refused to meet with the Dalai Lama because he was about to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and he didn’t want to upset U.S.-China relations. However, on Feb. 18, 2010, over strong objections from the Chinese government, Obama did host the Dalai Lama at the White House, but not in the formal setting of the Oval Office. Instead they met in the Map Room, which is part of the residence. The non-political setting was most noticeable when the Dalai Lama was shuffled out of the building past bags of trash on the sidewalk, after Obama expressed "strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity…"
Weak statements and half-hearted attempts at outrage are not going to change the situation. We also can’t pretend to separate China’s economic policies from their social policies. Sophie Richardson, Asia advocate for Human Rights Watch, explains: "This idea that if you are nice to the Chinese Communist Party up front you can cash in later is just wrong. If you lower the bar on human rights they will just move it lower and lower."
HOPE ON THE HORIZON?
The government’s acceptance of charity from religious organizations, allowing CCP members to join state-approved religions, provides evidence that change is happening—however slow it may be. China has adjusted certain religious policies, probably due to the demands of a more global society, international pressures and image concerns. Shea says China learned twin lessons from the fall of the Soviet Union: the economy couldn’t sustain Communism, and the Eastern European churches played a big role in de-legitimizing the Communists. Although China has started to embrace capitalism in some forms, it’s still not comfortable giving up control of political or social organizations—and that includes churches.
We have to put pressure on our government to make religious freedom around the world a priority. Religious freedom is not a government program, so therefore it’s not something the PRC can hand to its citizens. True change will happen when individuals and families push back against Communism, control and oppression. A liberated society requires giving power to the people so they can freely and creatively live their lives, and that means being able to worship as they please. The CCP knows this, and it is their greatest fear.