China's Oppression of the Church
Benedict Rogers reveals what is happening under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
China today faces the worst assault on human rights since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and the most severe crackdown on religious freedom since the Cultural Revolution. Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church in Chengdu, who was sentenced to nine years in jail just after Christmas 2019, has said that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime has launched “a war against the soul.” The former United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has used similar language, saying the regime is “at war with faith.”
The CCP has always been hostile to faith, but not since Chairman Mao Zedong’s era has the repression been so intense.
When the CCP first took power it sought to eliminate religion in general – and Christianity in particular – but failed to do so, only succeeding in driving believers underground. As China began to open to the world under Deng Xiaoping, the approach changed from the goal of eradication of religion to one of ‘control’.
Until Xi Jinping became President of China in 2012, the picture varied throughout the country, dependent more on the attitudes of provincial authorities than central government. That meant that while harsh persecution persisted in some parts of the country, life for religious adherents in other areas became more relaxed.
There was never full religious freedom, but, in general, if believers met in small groups and kept
their heads down, they could practice their faith. In some cities even large, unregistered Protestant churches – outside the State sanctioned religious body – functioned, owning their own property or renting venues and meeting openly. Beijing’s Zion Church operated for years with hundreds of worshippers, while the Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi province attracted a staggering 50,000 members before it was destroyed in 2018.
Campaign of repression
All that has changed in the past decade as Xi Jinping has increasingly determined religious affairs policy in Beijing and accelerated a campaign of repression throughout the country. Churches have been closed or in some cases dynamited, thousands of crosses destroyed, CCP propaganda and portraits of Xi placed alongside – or sometimes instead of
– religious imagery in State controlled churches, surveillance cameras erected at the altar to record the attendance of worshippers and under-18s prohibited from going to places of worship.
Without doubt, the most egregious persecution has been inflicted on the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang region. Both the previous and current United States Administrations and the Canadian, Dutch and British Parliaments, as well as a growing number of legal experts and scholars, conclude that what the Uyghurs are enduring amounts to crimes against humanity and genocide. An independent Uyghur Tribunal is underway this year, chaired by the barrister who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, to investigate these claims.
At least a million, perhaps as many as three million, Uyghurs and other Muslims are held in prison camps, subjected to the worst forms of torture, sexual violence and slave labour. Those outside the camps endure an Orwellian surveillance state, with a combination of facial recognition technology, artificial intelligence, cameras on every street corner, frequent checkpoints and the presence of Han Chinese agents inhabiting Uyghur homes to watch their every move. At least a million, perhaps as many as three million, Uyghurs and other Muslims are held in prison camps, subjected to the worst forms of torture, sexual violence and slave labour. Mosques have been destroyed, Muslim burial grounds desecrated, and Muslims found praying, having long beards or wearing headscarves are accused of ‘extremism’ and thrown into the prison camps. Muslims are prohibited from fasting during Ramadan or forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Children have been separated from their families and placed in boarding schools where they are forbidden from practicing their faith, speaking their own language and are indoctrinated by Communist Party propaganda. Uyghurs have been transported en masse on trains across the country, for use as slave labour in supply chains for global brands, and Uyghur women have been subjected to a campaign of forced sterilization, forced abortion and birth prevention.
In a highly unusual move, the Jewish community has itself pointed to comparisons with the Holocaust. Last year, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, wrote to the Chinese ambassador in London, observing “similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded on to trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps.” Her letter followed frontpage coverage by the Jewish News of the discovery of 13 tonnes of Uyghur hair on a US bound ship, describing this as having “Nazi resonance”.
The repression of Tibetan Buddhism has intensified, too. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), religious practice in Tibet is “tightly controlled” with “ongoing reports of religious services being disrupted, religious institutions intrusively monitored, religious sites closed, property confiscated, as well as cases of arbitrary detention and restrictions on religious teaching and training.” Falun Gong, an ancient Chinese spiritual discipline in the Buddhist tradition, continues to be severely persecuted, as well. In particular, jailed Falun Gong practitioners have been targeted for their organs. In 2019 an independent tribunal into forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, known as the China Tribunal, concluded that it was “beyond reasonable doubt” that “forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale … and Falun Gong practitioners have been one – and probably the main – source of organ supply.” The distinguished seven-member panel, consisting of four experienced lawyers from different jurisdictions, an eminent medical expert, an academic and a businessman, argue in their final judgment that this amounts to a “crime against humanity” and that anyone interacting with the Chinese regime must do so in the knowledge that they are “interacting with a criminal state.”
To return to the situation for Christians, according to a report published last year by CSW called Repressed, Removed, Re-educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China, one of the first to experience this new wave of repression was the Protestant Living Stone Church in Guizhou, closed in 2015. Both its pastors, Yang Hua and Su Tianfu, were arrested and accused of revealing state secrets, while Yang was imprisoned and threatened with death. A church member told CSW: “The crackdown on Living Stone Church was like an experiment. Now the authorities see that this is an effective approach, they have adopted this approach in many different regions.” Revised regulations on religion issued in 2018 show, according to this same Christian, “the government’s determination to tightly control the churches.”
The regime has even said it wants to produce a new translation of the Bible, to “reflect socialist values.” Wang Yang, Chairman of the
Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which oversees ethnic and religious affairs, called for “a comprehensive evaluation of the existing religious classics, aiming at contents which do not conform to the progress of the times.”
Just under three years ago the Vatican signed an agreement with Beijing in an attempt to ‘normalise’ the status of the Catholic Church in China. While the Vatican’s intention was to better protect and unify Catholics, it has had the opposite result, leading to disunity in the Church and no improvement in religious freedom. In fact, life for Catholics in China has got worse. Not only were no Catholic clergy or laity released from prison before the deal – something that ought to have been made a precondition – but a number have been detained since the deal was signed. Many dioceses in China are without bishops, and some who have been loyal to Rome for decades have been forced to retire in favour of Beijing’s appointees. Clergy – Catholic or Protestant – who refuse to join the State-controlled churches risk jail.
The Catholic bishop of Baoding Diocese in Hebei province, Bishop James Su Zhimin, is one of the world’s longest serving prisoners of conscience. In 1996, while leading a reli- gious procession, Bishop Su was taken into police custody and has not been heard of since. He had already been imprisoned for 26 years and severely tortured under Mao Zedong’s rule. Last year Congressman Chris Smith held a hearing in the United States Congress titled: “Where is Bishop Su?” Just two months after the deal was announced, Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou was arrested for the fifth time in two years. He was released later that month but continues to face harassment. Father Zhang Guilin and Father Wang Zhong of Chongli Xiwanzi Diocese were detained in late 2018 and their whereabouts are unknown.
In January 2020, Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong, Fujian Province, who had already been demoted to the position of auxiliary bishop to make way for a Beijing appointed bishop, was forced by the authorities to leave his residence, which was shut down. This 61 year-old prelate ended up sleeping in the doorway of his church office and only after an international outcry was he permitted to return to his apartment, but with the utilities cut off. In June last year, 70 year-old Bishop Augustine Cui Tai, coadjutor bishop of the underground church in Xuanhua, was taken away again – having already endured 13 years in detention.In September last year in Jiangxi Province dissenting Catholic priests were placed under house arrest – in breach of an agreement to protect clergy from coercion. Priests from Yujiang Diocese, under surveillance, were forbidden from “engaging in any religious activity in the capacity of clergy” after they refused to join the regime’s so-called “patriotic church,” and Bishop Lu Xinping was barred from celebrating Mass.
As Xi Jinping’s regime has dismantled Hong Kong’s promised freedoms, in flagrant breach of an international treaty, the Sino British Joint Declaration, religious freedom in Hong Kong is already showing signs of being under pressure. Freedom of worship may still be intact, but freedom of conscience is already threatened. Consider the case of Protestant pastor Roy Chan, whose Good Neighbour North District Church was raided by police last year, in retaliation for his pastoral support for young pro-democracy protesters. “Beat me, not the kids,” Chan said at the time. And he was beaten — not just by the police but by HSBC which, under pressure from the authorities, have frozen the assets of the church, pastor Chan, and his family.
Despite the courageous example of Hong Kong’s Bishop Emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen, a long-standing outspoken critic of the CCP, the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese is already showing signs of surrender. Last year, when a group of lay Catholics tried to organise a public prayer campaign for the city, the diocese actively discouraged it. The lay Catholics were inspired by a call to pray for Hong Kong by the President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo. A few weeks later, Hong Kong’s Apostolic Administrator, Cardinal John Tong, issued an instruction to clergy to “watch your language” in homilies, and the diocese has since published religious textbooks with guidance on how Hong Kong students can “contribute to their nation” — a clear pro-Beijing slant. Whether it wants to or not, the diocese is undoubtedly feeling — or at least anticipating — the CCP’s pressure.
Assaults on freedom
In addition to direct assaults on religious freedom, it is important not to forget the crackdown on human rights defenders, many of whom are motivated by their religious faith, who try to defend religious freedom. In 2015 the regime launched a severe crackdown on human rights lawyers and their associates that resulted in over 300 being detained, disappeared or dis barred. In August 2017 China’s best-known human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, who defended many religious freedom cases and had disappeared and been jailed multiple times previously, went missing again and today his whereabouts are unknown. On 28 December last year Christian human rights defender and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was jailed for four years after positing videos and articles on social media about the Covid-19 pandemic. And on 2 February this year her lawyer Ren Quanniu was disbarred, his license revoked.
One of the biggest tragedies of the current situation is the position in which the Vatican has found itself. The deal it agreed with Beijing in 2018 and renewed – seemingly with no review or transparency– last year has not only failed to improve the lives of the faithful in China or enhance religious freedom, but it appears to have bought the Pope’s silence. Pope Francis – who most Sundays highlights one or another area of injustice and human rights around the world and rightly so when he prays the Angelus – has stayed conspicuously silent on the persecution of Christians in China, the atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs which may well amount to a genocide, or the repression in Hong Kong or Tibet. Until now not a word of prayer or solidarity for the repressed peoples of China has passed his lips publicly. The most he has said is a passing reference to the Uyghurs in his latest book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, published late last year, where he mentioned them as one of the “persecuted peoples” he thinks of often. It drew a flurry of attention not because it was anything of substance, but because the mere fact that he mentioned them at all was progress. But could he not reference China in his Urbi et Orbi address, or in his Angelus prayers, even just once?
Listen to Chinese Christians
Perhaps current Vatican officials are still trapped too much in the mentality of ‘Ostpolitik’, a belief that they can somehow find compromises with the CCP that will protect the Church. The reality is, the current regime in Beijing cannot be trusted to abide by any agreement, and does not respect weakness. Perhaps the example of St. John Paul II, in standing up to dictatorship, is one to reflect upon and take inspiration from, rather than the policy of kowtowing, appeasement and silence. And at the very least, next time Vatican officials are in China, perhaps they should devote more time to meeting with and listening to Chinese Christians – Catholic and Protestant – rather than CCP officials.
Yet while the Vatican keeps its silence, other Church leaders are increasingly speaking out. A year ago, 75 faith leaders including Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, Indonesia’s Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo and the Bishop of Clifton Declan Lang, alongside former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, signed an open letter expressing concern about the plight of the Uyghurs.
And earlier this year, just as his own country was plunged into bloody turmoil following the military coup d’etat on 1 February, Cardinal Bo issued a call for a Global Week of Prayer for China. In a statement on 14 March, in his capacity as President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Cardinal Bo urged the faithful to extend the annual Worldwide Day of Prayer for the Church in China, designated in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI as 24 May – the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians – to a week of prayer. While referencing his own country’s plight, he focused on humanity as a whole, and the interconnectedness of the world today. “Many parts of the world are currently challenged, including my own country of Myanmar at this time, but in a spirit of solidarity it is right to focus not only on our own challenges but to pray also for others, in the clear knowledge that their well-being is closely linked to ours,” he said.
Cardinal Bo emphasised the importance of prayer for both for the Church specifically, and all the peoples of China, saying: “Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the peoples of China have faced increasing challenges, which impact us all. It is right that we should pray not only for the Church but for all persons in the People’s Republic of China. We should ask Our Lady of Sheshan to protect all humanity and therefore the dignity of each and every person in China.” He added: “In proposing this Week of Prayer I am expressing my love for the peoples of China, my respect for their ancient civilization and extraordinary economic growth, and my hopes that as it continues to rise as a global power, it may become a force for good and a protector of the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized in the world.” Pope Francis rightly reminds us that “there is also a deeper hunger, the hunger for a happiness that only God can satisfy, the hunger for dignity. I am calling for prayer for each person in China, that they may seek and realize the full measure of happiness that our Creator has given to them.”
In response to Cardinal Bo’s call, a group of lay Christians from six continents, including prominent Catholic legislators such as US Congressman Chris Smith, British politician Lord Alton of Liverpool, Canadian Member of Parliament Garnett Genuis and Australian Parliamentarian Kevin Andrews, together with Canada’s former ambassador for religious freedom Andrew Bennett, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Nina Shea, Ave Maria Law Professor Jane Adolphe, myself and numerous others, came together to facilitate the Global Week of Prayer.
The last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten of Barnes, endorsed it, saying: “I support very strongly Cardinal Bo’s call for special prayer for China and of course for Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party has always been and remains an enemy of religious belief. Whether one is talking about Muslims, Buddhists or Christians we should remember in our prayers all those who practice their faith despite tyranny and repression. We should also pray for the day when the clouds part and there is again a Chinese regime in power which recognises the spiritual dimension of life.”
And the Bishop of Paisley, Bishop John Keenan, got it right when he said: “The Church in China is facing increasing persecution, the plight of the Uyghurs is increasingly recognised as a genocide, Hong Kong’s freedoms have been dismantled and any form of dissent, civil society activism or independent media in China is repressed. Cardinal Charles Bo, on behalf of Asia’s bishops, has called for a worldwide Week of Prayer for the Church and the Peoples of China, building on the annual Day of Prayer established by Pope Benedict XVI, and I am delighted to support him in this call. I have invited all parishes in my diocese to participate, and I encourage my brother bishops and priests, religious, lay Catholics and Christians of other traditions around the world to take up this call at this critical time for China and her peoples.”
The Vatican should reflect on these messages from Cardinal Bo, Bishop Keenan and Lord Patten, or on the words of the former US religious freedom ambassador Sam Brownback, who said recently that “the moral authority of the Vatican is significant. You do not negotiate with evil. You kick it out.” When faced with a regime in Beijing that is at war with faith, surely it is the responsibility of the Church to defend religious freedom for everyone in China?
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, and Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW.