President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) China is becoming a more fearful place. The government has been cracking down both on dissent and contact with the West. Religious persecution is also rising: The communist god that failed fears competition.
A new Freedom House report says “the authorities have intensified many of their restrictions, resulting in an overall increase in religious persecution” since Xi took power in November 2012.
Persecution reveals a leadership which is nervous, even scared. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is filled with ambitious time-servers, people too smart to believe Marxist and Maoist nonsense, but too venal to reject the fictions by which China’s rulers justify their power.
In recent decades, reforms have expanded the space for expressions of religious faith. That liberty is not easily retracted.
“Rather than checking religion’s natural expansion and keeping it under political control, the CCP’s rigid constraints have essentially created an enormous black market, forcing many believers to operate outside the law and to view the regime as unreasonable, unjust, or illegitimate,” Freedom House says.
In turn, “believers have responded with a surprising degree of resistance, including in faith communities that have generally enjoyed cooperative relationships with state and party officials,” it says.
Worse from Beijing’s viewpoint, religious believers are adopting tactics which can be adapted for political protests.
Christians “have published joint letters, boycotted ceremonies, worshipped outdoors, asserted their legal rights and physically blocked demolitions or cross removals. Many Christians also employ more subtle tactics to reduce the impact of state controls, such as incorporating religious outreach into charity work, attending private mountainside trainings, or cultivating cooperative relations with local officials,” Freedom House says.
Freedom House estimates there are about 350 million believers in China, more than a fourth of the population. There might be 185 million to 250 million Buddhists, 60 million to 80 million Protestant Christians, 21 million to 23 million Muslims, 7 million to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholic Christians, and 6 million to 8 million Tibetan Buddhists.
Persecution is low to very low for Taoists, Chinese Buddhists and Hui Muslims. Catholics face moderate restrictions; Protestants high persecution. Very high levels of repression are applied to Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners.
Xi’s record has been negative, but not entirely so. For instance, Falun Gong practitioners and Catholics might be doing slightly better — the latter because of improving relations between China and the Vatican.
Little has changed for Taoists and Chinese Buddhists. Hui Muslims are somewhat worse off, suffering “some intensified restrictions and Islamophobia.” So, too, Tibetan Muslims, who face new punitive measures.
Uighur Muslims face greater persecution. Freedom House observes that “controls on religion have deepened and expanded” in Xinjiang.
And so do Protestants: “As the larger of the two main Christian denominations in China, Protestants have been particularly affected by cross-removal and church-demolition campaigns, punishment of state-sanctioned leaders and the arrest of human rights lawyers who take up Christians’ cases,” Freedom House says.
Freedom House’s findings are backed by other analysts and organizations. The US Department of State issues an annual report on religious liberty.
The latest issue points to “reports that the government physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities relating to their religious beliefs and practices.”
Of course, abstract summaries do not convey the individual and community hardship involved. Believers die, go to prison and lose their livelihoods while attempting to live out their faiths. Religious persecution is a crime, not a policy.
Despite the intensive and extensive repression detailed by Freedom House, religious beliefs and groups “have survived or spread, representing a remarkable failure of the party’s repressive capability. Meanwhile, official actions are generating resentment, assertiveness and activism among populations that might previously have been apolitical and largely content with CCP rule.”
In short, while the hardship faced by individual believers is very real, the long-term prospects for religious liberty look promising. Either China’s rulers come to their political senses and choose to accommodate religious believers, or Beijing continues on its current repressive course, making political upheaval and the collapse of communist rule more likely.
Either way, the Chinese people will eventually be free to worship God as they wish.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to former US president Ronald Reagan. This article appeared on the American Spectator Web site on April 4 and on the Cato Institute’s Web site.
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