Student Blog: Silenced at Home and Silence Abroad — Religious Persecution in China

Since reforms began 40 years ago post-Cultural Revolution, government policy in China has largely turned a blind eye to followers of religious organizations, provided they didn’t overtly protest or challenge the government like Falun Gong did in the 1990s with its massive demonstrations in the capital. As long as the faithful registered their religious organizations with the government and reported their activities, harsh crackdowns could be avoided.

However, the model under President Xi Jinping has shifted to the state playing a much more active role in not only increasing registration requirements for and bureaucratic power over religious organizations, but also shaping religious doctrine to be more in line with socialist ideology. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi increased focus on the need to “sinicize” religious activity in China and mandated that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) move to strictly enforce rules that will remove any party members who practice religion from their posts and the party. As for the “sinciziation” of religion, the term has given the CCP the mandate to “actively guide religions to adapt to the socialist society.” In practice, this means that churches, temples, and mosques will have to take part in flag raising ceremonies, preach about supporting the state, promote socialism, and even hang pictures of Mao Zedong and Xi in prominent locations. These actions are unprecedented; although the Chinese state has often interfered in the religious organizations’ functional ability to conduct services, the new guidelines go further by directly trying to shape the content of those services themselves.

China’s government has also learned from its past experiments with religious repression and is now expanding the scope of methods to increase social control in the present day. In recent years, China’s government has interned hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs[1] in “re-education camps,” where the Chinese Muslims are forced to routinely denounce religion and praise the Communist Party. Reports of such practices often make it seem like the crackdown on Uighurs is a unique and recent change; however, the current repression of Chinese Muslims extends far back into China’s repressive practices in Tibet. China’s government has long viewed Tibetan Buddhism with suspicion, and for the past 70 years has engaged in tearing down monasteries and sending Tibetans to “re-education programs”. These efforts to erase and replace Tibetan identity with a “Chinese” identity are now being replicated in re-education centers in the Xinjiang province for China’s Muslims.

The response to the Chinese government’s religious policies provides insight into China’s increased influence with other nations. For instance, most Muslim-majority countries have not publicly denounced China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. In Saudi Arabia, which styles itself as the defender of Muslims around the world by virtue of maintaining the two holiest cities in Islam, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has gone as far as to offer tacit support by affirming China’s right to engage in “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures. Given that China is the Saudi kingdom’s largest trading partner and immediately stepped in to offer the Saudis increased economic partnership and arms sales after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder led to Western divestment, MBS’ statements seem to reflect China’s growing ability to leverage growing dependence on its military and economic deals to shape other states’ behavior. Pakistan, where China has invested billions in infrastructure development, censured China for its treatment of Uighurs in September, but has since changed its tune; Pakistan now says that the Western media “sensationalized” the issue and redirects discussions toward the two nations’ economic partnership. Some observers have attributed Pakistan’s change in behavior as proof that the Chinese government’s One Belt, One Road initiative is paving the way for China to dominate other nations through “debt diplomacy.”  In addition, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has not publicly criticized the Chinese government’s actions, even though the organization was quick to speak out against the Myanmar government’s treatment of its Muslim minority, and formed a new committee on accountability for crimes against the Rohingya.[2]

Only two Muslim-majority countries have not backed down to China thus far. Turkey’s foreign ministry has called upon China to “close its concentration camps [that are] a great cause of shame for humanity” and Malaysia has refused requests from the Chinese government to deport 11 Uighurs to China, instead sending them to Turkey. It’s also worth noting that the silence of Islamic governments doesn’t mean that people in those nations are turning a blind eye to the events in Xinjiang. Activist groups from Indonesia to Kazakhstan and Bangladesh are protesting China’s treatment of the Uighurs, but it remains to be seen if such protests will lead to any changes in the official statements of these states.

The unprecedented changes in and reactions to religious persecution in China should be viewed in the context of the country’s growing domestic and international power. Xi Jinping’s plan for the CCP to shape religious teachings to be in line with party doctrine is a huge expansion of political indoctrination and state control in an already tightly controlled nation. Additionally, the selective silence of international institutions and Muslim nations toward the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang demonstrates that China’s global stature has begun to loom large over other nations.

[1] Uighurs are Turkic people of northwestern China.

[2] The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar.

Jefferson Ren, a rising junior at Rice University majoring in political science and religious studies, is a student research assistant for fellow Steven Lewis, who leads the China Studies Program.