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Repression of all religions in China

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book BUYING THE DRAGON'S TEETH: How Your Money Empowers a Cruel and Dangerous Authoritarian Regime in China and Undermines Jobs, Industries and Freedom Back Home.

The Communist Party of China has always regarded religion as a dangerous and unacceptable challenge to its exclusive right to the obedience and even devotion of the Chinese people. Although the Chinese constitution guarantees
freedom of religion, in actual practice every religious group has to undergo an onerous registration process and their activities are rigorously monitored. Printing and distribution of religious publications are strictly
controlled by the government. Any group seen as attempting to move away from the strict and intrusive controls the Chinese government exercises is immediately charged with "criminal activities" or "illegal gatherings." This
invariably results in police action, with routine physical abuse, torture and long-term imprisonment of religious leaders and practitioners. Official demolition of churches, monasteries and mosques are not uncommon.

Human Rights Watch/Asia has published a useful handbook on the subject, China: State Control of Religion, in addition to other reports on this issue.[1] The handbook is essential reading for a fundamental understanding of the means by which the Communist Party of China suppresses, controls and perverts religious beliefs. Information on the persecution of specific religions and sects is available through agencies related to these religious bodies, chief among them being Tibet Information News Network (TIN),
Cardinal Kung Foundation, Free Church for China, Falun Dafa Information Center, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), Uyhgur Information Center and others.

On February 11, 2002, Freedom House in Washington, D.C. released a report analyzing seven Chinese government documents.[2] These secret documents, issued between April 1999 and October 2001, detail the goals and actions of
China's national, provincial and local security officials in repressing religion. They provide irrefutable evidence that China's government, at the highest levels, aims to repress religious expression outside its control and
is using more determined, systematic and harsher criminal penalties in this effort. Hu Jintao (now president of China), regarded by some China observers as a member of a younger, more liberal generation of communist party leaders
is quoted in the document as endorsing the drive against the Real God church (Document 4).

"These documents provide irrefutable evidence that China remains determined to eradicate all religion it cannot control, using extreme tactics," said the Center for Religious Freedom (Freedom House) Director Nina Shea. "Normal religious activity is criminalized and, as the December death sentences brought against South China church Pastor Gong Shengliang and several of his
co-workers attest, the directives outlined in these documents are being carried out with ruthless determination."

On August 8, 2003, the Commission on International Religious Freedom (a U.S. federal agency) called off its proposed visit to China after the Chinese authorities imposed "unacceptable last-minute conditions."[3] A visit to
Hong Kong by the group was also blocked by China. Michael K. Young, the chairman of the commission said: "It further raises the concern that just years after the handover, Hong Kong's autonomy is already seriously in doubt." In light of the fact that China had previously permitted similar
Congressional and State Department bodies on religious freedoms to visit China, these restrictions could reflect a hardening of Beijing's anti-religion policies and a new attitude of rejecting the concerns of the outside world on such matters.


On February 8, 2001, The New York Times reported that seven more members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group had died in custody, raising the known death toll to 112. Four reportedly died in forced labor camps, while two were apparently injured during force-feeding to break up a hunger-strike attempt. As of June 27, 2001, Falun Gong claimed that some 234 practitioners had died suspicious deaths in custody or immediately following release.[4]
To date many thousands of members have been detained (for varying periods), while at least ten thousand are serving lengthy terms in forced labor camps. An unknown number have been committed to psychiatric detention centers. Beatings and torture of those arrested are routine and have resulted in many deaths. The massive and brutal crack down of the Falun Gong - the intensity of the campaign blitz (in nationwide public demonstrations and mass meetings) with even far-flung regions having to demonstrate their active
antagonism to the sect - recall the Maoist campaigns of the 50s and 60s.

By September 2001, the Falun Gong movement in China, with the rare exception of a determined group or two, had been forced underground. In addition to the harsh and intensive crackdown, a sophisticated nationwide propaganda campaign successfully demonizing the spiritual group and its leader, Li Hongzhi, and extolling the benign treatment afforded Falun Gong followers in "bright, cheerful" reeducation camps, ensured that the Chinese public would go along with the government's crackdown of this "evil cult" (as former
President Jiang Zemin called it). Yet as Human Rights Watch put it: "The internal propaganda campaign not withstanding, Chinese officials continued to violate the right to freedom of association, assembly, expression, and belief; freedom from torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention; and the
right to due process and a fair trial."[5]

While the Falun Gong is the most well known indigenous religious group facing persecution in China, it is certainly not alone. For instance, another group, the Zhong Gong, has faced police crackdowns and its leader has also sought political asylum in the United States. Earlier in Sichuan province in the 1980s, the Yiguan Dao (One Unity Way) spiritual movement was crushed ruthlessly by provincial security forces, with its leaders being
executed and thousands of its members being sentenced to forced labor camps.


Tibetan Buddhists have for the last few years been subjected to an intensely harsh, well-planned and coordinated campaign to crush their religion and
culture. This was locally termed the "second cultural revolution" because of its severity, and the Dalai Lama has denounced it as "cultural genocide." Arrests, savage beatings, torture of monks and rape of nuns in custody, and
occasional executions are routine. Moreover, there is strict official regulation of religious life, which includes daily political reeducation of monks and nuns (conducted by State Security or military units permanently
stationed at the monasteries or nunneries), a complete ban on pictures of the Dalai Lama, a ban on maintenance of household shrines or religious objects for anyone in official employment and a rigorous and intrusive
supervision of the activities of all important lamas and monastic heads. But the escapes in 2001 of two of Beijing's show-case religious leaders in Tibet, the young Karmapa lama and Agya Rinpoche, abbot of Kumbum monastery,
to the free world forced a temporary lull in the campaign while a reassessment took place. The pause was a brief one. In the summer of 2001, Chinese officials commenced a crackdown on the Serthar Buddhist Institute in Eastern Tibet (Sichuan province) in the Larung Gar valley. Large contingents of troops, armed police and teams of Chinese officials sealed off the valley and began the demolition of more than a thousand dwellings and other structures. The Institute housed about six to seven thousand monks and nuns
and about a thousand Chinese students and Chinese Buddhist scholars who were all expelled and forced to leave the area. The founder and senior teacher of this unique spiritual community, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog, was taken away.[6] Readers should take a look at the photographs of the Institute on the TCHRD website[7] to get an idea of the impressive scale of this deeply moving religious revival.

On Sunday, January 26, 2003, the Higher People's Court of Sichuan Province in Chengdu confirmed the death sentences given to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and his aide and relative Lobsang Thondup.[8] According to the Chinese official news agency Xinhua, the sentences were
applied for "sabotage [of] the unity of the country and the unity of various ethnic groups" and "crimes of terror." Lobsang Thondup was executed shortly after.

Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche's real crime, however, appears to be the enormous religious and moral influence he exerted over the people of Lithang in Eastern Tibet. Wang Lixiong, the Chinese author of a book on Tibet who has visited the Litang region several times in recent years, said that in the mountain communities - dispirited by cycles of repression, poverty and alcoholism - Tenzin Deleg was revered for "showing a new path."

"What he did was to set a moral example, and that had a big effect on the people," Mr. Wang said. "But the government saw him as a threat."[9]

The child Panchen Lama, Tibet's second most important religious leader and the world's youngest political prisoner, arrested at the age of six, still remains in unknown confinement since1995, the year of his secret abduction. British writer Isabel Hilton provides a meticulously researched and beautifully written account of this strange and tragic event in her book The Search for the Panchen Lama.

The latest first-hand report (September 2003) of religious repression in Tibet came from Philip P. Pan, correspondent for the Washington Post, who undertook an eight-day trip across Tibet and conducted numerous interviews.[10] Some excerpts from his article:

"The government maintains tight control of Tibet's monasteries, restricting the number of monks and nuns who can worship. It has banned religious teachings considered politically sensitive and has suspended various tests
that would allow monks to advance in their studies. It has also established Democratic Management Committees to run every monastery, though the monks who serve on these committees acknowledge that they are no longer elected by
their peers."

"We don't regard it as democratic; the committee represents the government," said Nyima Tsering, deputy director at the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa's holiest shrine. He said the government appointed him and six other monks to the
committee after evaluating their patriotism. Two government officials also sit on the committee and have the final say in any decisions, he said.

"Every March, it (the Chinese administration) orders government work units to make sure employees do not celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday, threatening officials with dismissal if police catch any of their subordinates doing so. The party has also banned all government employees
from displaying photos of the Dalai Lama at home and has even tried to force them to take down Buddhist statues."

"At Tibet University in Lhasa, officials said students are prohibited from praying at temples or taking part in other religious activities, and face expulsion if they do. Even in high schools and middle schools, students are often told not to practice religion, residents said. The government is also trying to end the rural tradition of sending children to study in the monasteries."


Every day up to one hundred million Christians in China risk their lives by defying government orders banning free worship. Catholic organizations and congregations that recognize the spiritual authority of the Pope have been
forced to go underground and Chinese bishops and priests and laymen have regularly been arrested, tortured and harassed. There have also been cases of outright murder of priests by security forces, as in the case of Father
Yan Weiping of Hebei province who after his arrest in March 1996 was found beaten to death on a street in Beijing.

At least ten bishops and nineteen priests are presently confirmed as under incarceration,[11] while the fate of about forty more churchmen is simply unknown, with authorities refusing to confirm or deny whether they have been arrested or whether they are dead. Many more lay Catholics are suffering the same fate as their spiritual guides.

The frail 81-year-old Bishop Zeng Jingmu of Jiangxi province was rearrested on September 14, 2000, immediately following the completion of a three-year prison term. He had previously been imprisoned for 30 years from 1955 to
1995. On September 11, 2000, in Fujian province about 70 security police surrounded the house of an underground Catholic priest, the 82-year-old Father Ye Gong Feng, who was savagely tortured by security police until he fell into a coma.

In February 2003, Bishop Joseph Zen, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong, said that mainland China had been stepping up its repression of the Catholic Church in China.[12] The bishop added that the Chinese
authorities had closed down a Catholic seminary in China but faced a younger generation of Catholic priests who were less obedient than the older priests. On May 28, 2003, a China expert in Rome reported that Beijing had ordered stricter control over the lives of Chinese Catholics according to three government documents recently acquired.[13]


All Protestant denominations are required like Catholics to observe the "three-self" policy, which demands that they abjure support from foreign missionary organizations, and that they give up theoretical, doctrinal, and liturgical differences to join a "post-denominational Christian church"
loyal to the Communist Party of China. The "three-fix" policy requires that all congregations meet at a fixed location, that they have a fixed and professional religious leader, and that they confine their activities to a
fixed geographical sphere. For non-mainstream Protestant groups, which rely on lay leaders and which recruit members through evangelical preaching, the regulation effectively checks growth and allows effective official monitoring of groups. Therefore, many churches have attempted to remain
unregistered but when discovered have had their leaders and members arrested, beaten and tortured.

In the Zhoukou area of Henan such unregistered "house" churches have proliferated and with it an intensified crackdown on worshippers. In the first ten months of 1995, police in the area took more than 200 Protestants
into custody. Their leaders were sentenced to three-year terms of imprisonment. The evangelical network in the Zhoukou area also has links outside their area. A November 19, 1994 police raid netted 152 church leaders, many from other localities and provinces.

On February 18, 1995, Li Dezian a preacher from Guangzhou had his church raided by Public Security officials. Five officers reportedly used a Bible to beat Li on his face and neck in an attempt to break his windpipe. They used steel rods to break his ribs and injure his back and legs, and jumped on and kicked his prone body until he vomited blood. All those present at the church - some one hundred - were dragged away.

Human Rights Watch/Asia has reported raids, fines and detentions from other provinces and cities such as Shenyang, Xi'an, Fuzhou, Guilin, Tianjin and several locales in Sichuan province, as well as in Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone in Southern China.

In December 2001, two leaders of a Chinese Christian sect were sentenced to death, the first time such executions had been ordered under the country's 1999 anti-cult law.[14] Gong Shengliang, the founder of the unauthorized South China Church, and his niece Li Ying, were ordered to die in Hubei Province in central China for crimes including "hooliganism and rape," according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and
Democracy. Following a global outcry, the accused were re-sentenced on October 10, 2002, to life in prison. A New York Times report on the case drew this conclusion,"...diplomats said they thought that Chinese authorities were hoping to defuse international criticism, especially as Mr. Jiang prepares for the summit meeting with Mr. Bush in the United States later this month."[15]

Most recently, Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong citizen, was arrested for bringing annotated Bibles into China for use by a banned evangelical Christian group. He was arrested on the very serious charge of "using a cult to subvert the
law," which can carry the death sentence. But in order to create "a positive atmosphere" for President Bush's visit to Beijing on February 21, 2002, Li was only sentenced to two years' imprisonment.[16] Two others, Wang Xuexiao
and Liu Xishu, who were facing similar severe charges in Anhui Province were given heavy sentences, according to Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong-based group.

Many other indigenous Protestant sects, as the Shouters,[17] the Disciples, Ling Ling Religion, the Holistic sect and the Beiliwang sects have been outlawed and authorities have declared that they would be "hunted down and
severely punished."


China has more than 17 million Muslims[18] but this figure is believed to understate the actual numbers by as much as 50 percent. The Hui are the largest officially recognized Muslim group at about 8.6 million and are ethnically and linguistically Chinese. Hui minority populations are found
throughout China and they do not have a traditional territorial homeland.

The Uighurs are the most important Muslims of Turkic origin and are the dominant ethnic group in Xinjiang, numbering about 7.2 million out of a total population of some 15 million. The Hui and the Turkic Muslims have different relationships with the Han Chinese and the two groups are not natural allies. The former are frequently referred to as "Chinese Muslims" and are culturally closer to the mainstream Chinese community. The Hui have no inherent connection with the Turkic-origin Islamic groups but have often served as a bridge between them and Beijing. Even so, the Hui have also suffered discrimination at the hands of the Chinese and have demonstrated their desire for greater cultural and religious freedom on numerous occasions.

In Xinjiang, because Islam is essentially indistinguishable from local cultural and national identity, Beijing perceives it to be a particular threat to its rule. As a result, mosques and religious schools in Xinjiang, which are regarded as hot-beds of anti-régime sentiment, have periodically been closed and religious activists arrested and harassed.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Xinjiang and throughout China, mosques were destroyed or closed, ancient religious sites desecrated and religious leaders imprisoned and executed. The situation improved in the eighties. According to Dr. Paul George, a Canadian researcher on international security and development, "Mosques were rebuilt or reopened and greater interaction between China's Muslims and the wider Islamic community was permitted. Chinese Muslim participation in the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca grew steadily from the mid-1980s, exposing many ordinary people to international Islamic thought and political developments. Similarly, foreign Muslims were allowed to visit Islamic sites in China, creating a greater awareness of the wider Muslim community."[19]

But by the early 1990s, mosque construction and renovation was severely curtailed, public broadcasting of sermons outside mosques was banned, religious education was proscribed, only religious material published by the state Religious Affairs Bureau was allowed, religious activists were purged from state positions and Haj pilgrimages were tightly controlled and limited to participants over 50 years of age.[20]

Furthermore, the traditional Arabic script that had been used in the region for more than a thousand years is now being superseded by Chinese, and thousands of traditional historical books have been destroyed. The Uighur language itself has been banned in Xinjiang University according to the testimony of members of the Uyghur American Association to a U.S. Congressional Commission on China.[21]

The first serious outbreaks of violence directed at the Chinese authorities occurred in response to the imposition of these restrictive measures and reflected the local communities' anger and frustration at Beijing's about-turn on greater religious freedom.

"Whereas there has clearly been heightened awareness of their ethno-religious roots amongst the Muslims of Xinjiang in recent years, it is not apparent that this can be equated with the beginning of an Islamic fundamentalist movement," Dr. Paul George claims. "In fact, with some exceptions, Uighurs are not generally considered to be fundamentalists and the organized lethal combination of religion and violence seen in the Islamic world from Algeria to Afghanistan is so far missing in Xinjiang."[22]

Still a small number of Xinjiang Muslims are known to have fought alongside the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and were also later connected to the Taliban. But Uighur leaders-in-exile maintain that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which the United States recently included in its list of Foreign Terrorist organizations, is an obscure group that most Uighurs know nothing about and that the political implication of this decision would be disastrous for the Uighur freedom movement worldwide, and to the ever-deteriorating human rights situation in East Turkestan. The editor of the Uyghur Information Agency in Washington, D.C., declared that America's action would "legitimize China's aggressive clampdown on any form of Uyghur dissent, no matter how nonviolent and peaceful they may be."[23]

© Copyright 2002-2007 AFAR