WARNINGS that religious freedom in China is at a 40-year low, and that the country is home to one of the largest populations of religious prisoners in the world, were the backdrop to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit last week.
In its annual report, released on Monday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said that the international community was “increasingly responsible for allowing the Chinese government . . . to get away with systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom without consequence or accountability”.
It noted the detention of up to two million Uighur Muslims in “concentration camps” (News, 14 December 2018).
In a resolution passed on 18 April, the European Parliament said that freedom of religion and conscience had “reached a new low point since the start of the economic reforms and the opening up of China in the late 1970s”. Christians were subject to “increasing repression . . . targeted through the harassment and detention of believers, the demolition of churches, the confiscation of religious symbols, and the crackdown on Christian gatherings”.
The Archbishop visited China from Wednesday to Friday last week, before attending the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Hong Kong. His second visit as Archbishop was hosted by the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China/China Christian Council, a body authorised by the Chinese government, and the National Religious Affairs Administration.
The visit would enable him to meet the new Protestant church leaders elected at the tenth National Chinese Christian Conference in November 2018, Lambeth Palace said, “and to develop the already strong relationship between the Church in China and the Anglican Communion”.
It is estimated that half to two-thirds of Protestants in China worship in house churches not registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. The USCIRF reports that the Chinese government raided or closed down hundreds of these churches, including Zion Church, Rongguili Church, and Early Rain Covenant Church, last year. It also notes that the China Christian Council has announced a five-year plan to “sinicize” Christianity in the country.
Religious repression in China has received increasing attention in recent months, focusing on the detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.
“Uighur Muslims are constantly surveilled, their phones confiscated and scanned, their skin pricked for blood samples to collect their DNA, their children prohibited from attending mosque,” the USCIRF report says. “Even worse, the Chinese government has ripped entire families apart, detaining between 800,000 and two million adults in concentration camps and relegating some of their children to orphanages. Families cannot contact one another due to fear of government monitoring; thus, countless Uighur Muslims have no idea where their loved ones are or if they are even alive.”
Since 2017, it reports, more than one million local government workers have been deployed to live in Muslim households “for at least five days every two months to assess each family’s ideological views and report on any religious activities”.
It notes that “China has faced few, if any, consequences,” and pushes for US sanctions.
The European Parliament resolution calls on the European Council to consider targeted sanctions against officials “responsible for the crackdown in Xinjiang”. It notes that the Chinese government has refused “numerous requests” for access to the region from the UN, and says that it “deplores” the fact that, at the EU-China summit last month, “urgent human-rights concerns once again played a marginal role”.
In Britain, the Government is keen to forge stronger trade ties with China in the wake of Brexit. The Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, attended a summit in Beijing last week. But, last month, the Foreign Affairs Committee warned that the UK’s approach to China “risks prioritising economic considerations over other interests, values, and national security”.
Noting the agreement to allow the Chinese company Huawei to help construct the UK’s 5G infrastructure, it listed “the treatment of the Uighur-Muslim population and other minorities in China’s Xinjiang province” among grounds for concern. It called on the Government to “respond to China’s attempts to subvert international human-rights mechanisms, and support UN efforts to investigate the extremely concerning situation in Xinjiang.”
“Under Xi Jinping, there has been a significant deterioration in human rights and the rule of law,” the chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, said last week. “Religious groups across the country are witnessing a crackdown on their freedom not seen in decades.”
A Christian human-rights lawyer, Tang Jingling, was released from jail in China on Monday, after being jailed for inciting subversion of state power in 2016.
“My imprisonment has confirmed my beliefs that [building] a democratic society that values human rights is the only way to prevent tragedies, such as what happened to me, from happening again to other people,” he told the China South Morning Post.