May 4, 2020
Last week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that China keep its designation as a “Country of Particular Concern”—a label the U.S. government gives to the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. USCIRF’s 2020 annual report found China deserving of this title because “religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate” in 2019, noting abuses against Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Falun Gong, and other religious groups. USCIRF’s report offers policy recommendations for the U.S. government to address the swift decline of religious freedom in China, and American officials should take these recommendations to heart as religious believers endure persecution in China.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) detains an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang facilities the CCP calls “vocational schools” but operate as brainwashing centers. USCIRF noted that former detainees “report that they suffered torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses.” It is not just the detained individuals who suffer; their families feel the effects as well. USCIRF’s report noted that almost half a million Muslim children are separated from their parents and left to be raised by the state. Communist party officials are sent to live with and report on other Uyghur families in Xinjiang.
USCIRF also found that Tibetan Buddhists continue to be victims of the CCP’s disdain. Last summer, the CCP displaced up to 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns after destroying their residences. The Commission also highlighted the Chinese government’s strange obsession with interfering in the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
By the end of 2019, the CCP proved it has no intention of slowing down—or even hiding—its accelerating religious persecution. Pastor Wang Yi, a well-known house church pastor who had long avoided the state-affiliated church association, was sentenced to nine years in prison in December 2019. USCIRF reported that several local governments offered money to anyone willing to inform on house churches in their area.
Meanwhile, the decades-long persecution of peaceful Falun Gong practitioners continues. Thousands of Falun Gong adherents were arrested last year alone, and evidence continues to mount that the government is harvesting the organs of political prisoners, including Uyghurs and the Falun Gong.
The Commission’s report also noted that, while the Hong Kong protests were not about religious freedom, many pastors joined the protests against the Chinese government’s encroachment into the semi-autonomous city. Church leaders feared that the extradition bill which sparked the protests “would have undermined their ability to advocate without fear of retaliation.”
Early 2020, which is beyond the reporting period of USCIRF’s report, saw the Chinese government scrambling to deal with the coronavirus. But during this worldwide pandemic, which originated within its borders, the CCP continued its oppression of religious believers largely uninterrupted.
While the rest of the world battled the virus, the CCP continued removing crosses from church buildings across China. In one case, Xiangbaishu Church in Yixing City was vandalized and completely gutted.
The government exploited the pandemic, using it as an excuse to further abuse the Uyghur Muslim minority. In Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live, the coronavirus lockdown instituted by the government was particularly intense, enforced suddenly and without warning. Residents did not have time to store food and supplies, leaving many families hungry. Governments reveal their priorities by what they choose to focus on during a crisis. For the Chinese government, religious suppression is a priority.
To address China’s egregious religious freedom violations, USCIRF recommends the U.S. government take several actions. One notable recommendation is to express concern that Beijing will be holding the 2022 Winter Olympic Games while perpetrating grave human rights violations. Significantly, the Commission also calls for the U.S. government to support the Uyghur Forced Labor Act that has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. If passed, the U.S. would assume all products imported from Xinjiang are made with forced labor and thereby ban them unless the company can prove otherwise. The Uyghur Forced Labor Act would be an effective way to address China’s human rights violations because it prevents the government from profiting from their forced labor program, which is suspected of using Uyghur detainees in Xinjiang.
USCIRF’s latest report confirms that the ruling Chinese Communist Party has little tolerance for religion and that holding an allegiance to a higher power than the state can make you a target for government surveillance, intimidation, or arbitrary detention. While China seeks to consolidate global influence, its leaders continue to dig their heels in on their repressive policies toward religion. USCIRF has called upon the U.S. government to address China’s stark religious freedom violations. For the sake of millions of religious believers suffering at the hands of the Chinese government, the U.S. government should embrace USCIRF’s recommendations, and the rest of the world should be inspired to follow suit.