In a time when religious and racial prejudice are once again on the rise around the world, few people have managed to grasp the full extent of the religious persecution that is occurring in China.
In early April, new laws meant to curb religious extremism were passed in China’s northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang. A list was released of 15 new behaviors that are viewed as extremism, such as wearing a veil or growing abnormal beards, without specifying what “abnormal” means. It is now also illegal for the Muslim Uyghur minority to refuse to watch Chinese state television or not listen to state radio.
Imposed in any other country, similar rules would have made headlines around the world. But in China, these measures are implemented almost without any reaction from the international community. The new laws are just the latest in a string of extraordinarily harsh rules imposed on the Uyghur community since Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the country.
In 2014, Xi’s first full year as president, a “strike-hard campaign” in Xinjiang led to a 95 percent increase in arrests made throughout the region, putting the total number at 27,164. The campaign kicked off with a giant public trial at a sports stadium with 7,000 spectators, where 55 individuals were sentenced on terror charges, of which three were handed the death penalty.
The following summer, authorities stepped up controls during the monthlong Muslim holiday of Ramadan by prohibiting civil servants, students, and teachers from fasting. Universities and public workplaces were running lists of who ate during lunch hours, and Uyghur restaurant owners were forced to keep their establishments open during daytime.
Other regional measures included banning people with beards or “Islamic clothing” from traveling on public buses, and taxi drivers being told they could lose their job over picking up customers with beards. In 2015, a man in Kashgar was jailed for six years for refusing to shave his beard. The following year, a farmer in Aksu was sentenced to seven years in prison after watching a “sensitive” film on migration, supposedly as part of his plan to go abroad to “wage jihad.”
In 2014, Xi’s first full year as president, a “strike-hard campaign” in Xinjiang led to a 95 percent increase in arrests made throughout the region, putting the total number at 27,164.
The above strike-hard campaign was launched after a devastating knife attack at the Kunming train station in March 2014, leaving 29 people dead, followed by an attack at a market in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi in May, where 44 people lost their lives after two jeeps rammed into crowds and the drivers used homemade explosives.
China is blaming the dramatic increase in deadly attacks since 2013 on the East Turkestan Independence Movement, or ETIM, which it claims has orchestrated the attacks from abroad with increasing support from international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Immediately after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, President Xi expressed his will to cooperate with France and the international community to strengthen global security. The same weekend, the Ministry of Security beefed up its presence in schools and at public places throughout Xinjiang, due to an alleged need to prepare for similar attacks from Islamic State.
At the following G20 meeting in Turkey, foreign minister Wang Yi emphasized China as a victim of terrorism, saying that an important part of the fight against global terrorism was taking place in Xinjiang. He was also seeking international support for China’s own “war on terror,” warning the international community against the use of “double standards”.
But double standards with Chinese characteristics could already be seen the week after the Paris attacks, when China reported it had “killed 28 terrorists” belonging to a group “led by foreign extremists.” In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, journalists from all over the world were allowed to conduct interviews and report freely in the French capital. But Xinjiang remained closed to foreign press, and questioning official information from the region was punishable, even for foreigners.
This was made obvious when French reporter Ursula Gauthier — rightly, indeed — wrote for her publication L’Obs that China would likely use the Paris attacks to justify further crackdowns on the Muslim community in Xinjiang. The Chinese government immediately demanded an official apology from Gauthier. When no apology was given, she was denied a new journalist visa and had to leave the country by year’s end.
And while the odd Uyghur has been fighting with Islamic organisations abroad, Reuters and other media have repeatedly pointed out that the Chinese government never offers much proof of any militant activity from the ETIM, let alone cooperation with foreign governments or terrorist groups. Rather, the increasing violence is seen by many rights groups as a reaction to repressive government policies, further alienating Xinjiang’s Uyghur community.
It is somewhat ironic that ethnic violence in China has reached new heights under Xi’s watch. In the 1980s, his father Xi Zhongxun, together with liberal politicians such as Hu Yaobang, was responsible for a range of policies designed to improve relations between Uyghurs, Tibetans and the central government by granting the former a bigger amount of regional independence and religious freedom.
The violence, of course, has flared up following the gradual abandoning of those policies, something that both resulted in and accelerated further after the ethnic riots in Lhasa (2008) and Urumqi (2009). The Urumqi riots, in which about 200 people lost their lives, was predictably blamed on hostile foreign forces, and provoked two responses from the Chinese government.
To begin with, a display of power. Tens of thousands of security forces were deployed on the streets of Urumqi, mosques were closed, and the Internet almost entirely shut down in all of Xinjiang for 10 months. Countless arrests were made in the sealed off region, and the first executions took place a mere four months after the riots.
Secondly, an injection of some US$10 billion was announced to “fight extremism” in Xinjiang. But according to critics, those investments only served to further polarize the region, as the heart of the strategy was to “sinicize” the area by creating economic incentives for Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang to work, further diminishing local Uyghur culture.
Vocal critics of this strategy have been severely punished ever since. The most known case is that of Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economics professor at the Minzu University in Beijing, who was sentenced to life in prison 2014. Another less known but equally horrifying case is that of the ethnic Han Chinese Zhang Haitao, who last year was sentenced to 19 year in prison for subversion after questioning online the policies in Xinjiang.
Against the constitution
As we know, the government response to the Urumqi riots of 2009 didn’t serve to diminish neither the violence nor ethnic conflict in Xinjiang. Rather, it did quite the opposite. Nevertheless, the plan is now being implemented all over again.
In an attempt to handle the situation in Xinjiang, hardliner Chen Quanguo was appointed as party chief last summer, and began this year with a string of mass displays of military power in several cities throughout the region, including heavily armed soldiers and armored vehicles. During the annual two-session political meeting in Beijing last month, Xi urges security forces to erect a “Great Wall of Steel” around Xinjiang to maintain stability.
Chen, an ambitious politician known for his uncompromising hardline policies, is said to have a good opportunity to grab a Politburo seat during the 19th party congress later this year. Prior to his appointment in Xinjiang, he served as party chief in Tibet for five years, receiving high praise from Beijing for his uncompromising hardline policies there; policies that made dozens of buddhist monks self-immolate in acts of desperation.
In 2012, Chen was responsible for recalling all ordinary passports held by residents of Tibet. After just two months with Chen in Xinjiang, citizens in many parts of the region were told to hand over their passports to local police for “safekeeping,” forcing residents to seek permission to reclaim the travel documents if planning to go abroad.
Also the sticks-and-carrots “household management system” that Chen used in Tibet to encourage neighbors to spy on each other was soon replicated in Xinjiang, as well as a net of “convenience police stations” that can easily be converted into checkpoints.
According to China’s constitution, every citizen enjoys religious freedom. Five religions are officially recognized; Buddism, Islam, Taoism, Protestantism and Catholicism. But religious affairs under Xi are not about following the constitution as much as a question of control.
During an April 2016 weekend conference on religious affairs with the Politburo Standing Committee, the first of its kind in 15 years, Xi called for a “sinicization” of religion in China, saying that preachers and imams alike should bow to the power of the Communist party. He also ordered party members to act as unyielding marxist atheists, and warned: “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.”
No surprise then that Christianity has also been subject to increasing repression under Xi. Estimates put the number of Christians in China at around 100 million, higher than the membership of the Communist party. This, combined with the fact that Christianity attracts many middle class followers, makes for the religion to be viewed as an increasingly big threat to the party’s power monopoly that must be controlled accordingly.
In China, the government organizes Protestantism around the Three-self Patriotic Movement (三自愛國運動) and the China Christian Council (中國基督教協會), whereas Catholicism is organized by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (中國天主教愛國會). As the names suggest, those organizations are loyal to the state, which also appoints pastors and bishops that are all educated at government-run seminars.
This makes for an obvious conflict in Catholicism, as China do not recognise the authority of the Vatican, effectively forcing into “underground churches” any Chinese Catholic who deems the Pope a more rightful religious authority than the Communist party. As a result, about half of all Christians in China are worshipping in such underground churches or Protestant ”house churches.”
In April 2013, a month after Xi assumed the presidency, seven leaders for a house church in Henan Province were sentenced to between three and seven-and-a-half years in prison, for “using a cult to undermine law enforcement.” By the end of the same year, the government also initiated a campaign to remove crosses from secret and state sanctioned churches alike, demolishing several places of worship and dismantling over 2,000 crosses from building in the Zhejiang Province alone.
‘Black population problem’
Just as was the case in Xinjiang, Xi’s first full year as president saw a dramatic increase in the number of arrested Christians, which during 2014 totalled 3,000, according to Christian human rights group China Aid. That same year 1,274 Christians were convicted compared to only 12 the year before. China Aid also noted an increase in the number of church raids, during which facilities was being smashed and money, computers, and other assets confiscated.
Cases drawing international attention includes the 12 year long prison sentence handed to Henan church leader Zhang Shaojie in 2014 for “gathering crowds to disturb public order,, and the 14-year sentence in 2016 of government-approved pastor Bao Guohua, one of the loudest critics against church cross removals in Zhejiang Province. For good measure, Baos wife was also handed a 12-year prison sentence.
In April this year, new reports came from Zhejiang of Christians being treated at hospital after trying to resist the installation of surveillance cameras being installed in churches throughout the province for “anti-terrorism and security purposes.”
Political discrimination in China is not limited to religion but also includes race. It is always hard to measure racism, but a reference point was given during the annual two sessions meeting in March this year. Quartz reported how a member of Chinese People’s Political Consultation Conference proudly shared with reporters his proposal on how to “solve the problem of the black population in Guangdong.” Part of the proposal read:
Black brothers often travel in droves; they are out at night out on the streets, nightclubs, and remote areas. They engage in drug trafficking, harassment of women, and fighting, which seriously disturbs law and order in Guangzhou… Africans have a high rate of AIDS and the Ebola virus that can be transmitted via body fluids… If their population [keeps growing], China will change from a nation-state to an immigration country, from a yellow country to a black-and-yellow country.
Racial and religious prejudice exist in every society, even in Taiwan and my native Sweden. But as governments in the US and EU are busy accusing each other of islamophobia and racism, the persecution in China is much more severe than in most others countries, not to mention the policies and signals from the Chinese government.
In Taiwan, as a matter of fact, religious groups play an important role in the civil society by promoting a healthy lifestyle. Buddhist organisation Tzu Chi has opened several hospitals in Taiwan, and Lee Zen, another buddhist group, runs some 100 vegetarian and organic food stores.
Moreover, Taiwan’s largest buddhist organisation, Fo Guang Shan, is present in 173 countries and encompasses over 3,500 monastics, contributing more to soft power than any Chinese blockbuster movie ever could. Fo Guang Shan also maintains universities, libraries, mobile medical clinics, art galleries, publishing houses and translation centers.
Since 2013, the Chinese budget for internal security has been larger than that of the military. A vast share is spent on “stability maintenance” in Xinjiang and Tibet, or monitoring religious communities. Would the Communist party choose a path of reconciliation rather than being instinctively suspicious of everything not Han Chinese and under total control of the state, it might soon find out that a really prosperous society is built on cooperation between government and civil society.