China’s Faithful Endure a Long, Bitter Winter of Persecution

About a year ago, a startling image appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The enormous and beloved Golden Lampstand Church in China’s Shanxi Province — home to some 50,000 Christian worshippers —was blown to bits by Chinese government authorities. A Marian shrine in the same province met a similar fate not long thereafter.

At first glance, the image looked like yet another terrorist attack in the Middle East, which is indeed a danger zone for church-goers.  But in fact, the focus on Muslim radicals’ widespread abuses has somewhat eclipsed the outrageous harassment and persecution of religious believers by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Today, China continues to escalate its massive suppression of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, Jews and Uighur Muslims. 

In a recent speech at Hudson Institute, Arkansas US Senator Tom Cotton illuminated the problem:  “There’s perhaps no greater threat to freedom today than the communist regime in Beijing. Today the Chinese government is purging every vestige of its subjects’ freedoms at home to pave the way for its economic, military, and political expansion abroad. China has a plan for the world, and it’s as concrete as the prison cells where it keeps dissenters.” 

In February 2018 – just about a year after Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced a revolutionary “New Era” for China’s hardcore, atheistic regime – an intense crackdown on China’s people of faith was launched. 

Two months later, online Bible sales were suddenly banned, including those sold at  Christianity Today reported "Two days before the Bibles were banned from online purchase, the Chinese government released a document outlining how it intends to promote 'Chinese Christianity' over the next five years. According to the document, one of the government’s key objectives is to reinterpret and retranslate the Bible in order to enhance 'Chinese-style Christianity and theology.'"

A useful term to describe this tactic is the“Sinicization” of religions.

In some ways, persecution of Christians is nothing new. It’s a sad fact that China’s believers have suffered since Mao’s Communist regime came to power in 1948 – and well before in some cases. However, this present crackdown has caused some observers to say that it is the worst abuse Christians have suffered since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. 

And, it bears repeating that Christians aren’t the only religious believers suffering. 

For decades, Tibetan Buddhists have been mistreated, marginalized and accused of all sorts of anti-regime infractions. They have been targets for various forms of CCP hostility and abuse. In 2017 their passports were confiscated, according to USCIRF, to prevent them from traveling to religious celebrations and conferences. 

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is seen by the Chinese government as a dangerously subversive enemy. Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, who refuse to denounce their leader and who will not pledge loyalty to Beijing, have been “expelled from their monasteries, imprisoned, and tortured.” 

Perhaps most illustrative of their misery is the fact that, in the past 10 years, more than 150 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest and despair. 

Falun Gong is a Buddhist-based spiritual practice involving exercise and meditation. Adherents in China have experienced arrest, detention and torture. But perhaps most noteworthy is evidence, cited by US investigative journalist Ethan Guttman and other researchers, that some 65,000 Falun Gong prisoners were executed between 2000 and 2008 for the explicit purpose of harvesting their internal organs for lucrative marketing purposes. 

 Guttman reported in his shocking book, The Slaughter,that the primary imprisoned donors of vital organs to the lucrative Chinese market are Uighurs, Tibetans, underground Christians and, primarily, Falun Gong practitioners. This practice continues.

At the same time, even a tiny community of less than 1000 Jews in Kaifeng has been disrupted by CCP authorities. As I recently wrote for Jerusalem Post, following the 2018 crackdown, “…the carefully tended little Kaifeng Jewish center was not overlooked. During a raid, government agents reportedly tore loose a metal Star of David from the entryway and tossed it on the floor. They ripped Hebrew scriptural quotations off the walls. They filled up a well that had served as a mikveh (ritual bath) with dirt and stones. And all foreign plans to build up and support the Jews of Kaifeng were summarily canceled.”

Meanwhile, Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province are experiencing horrifying levels of hi-tech surveillance, arrest, detention in concentration camps, torture, and violence. Such abuses are not only shocking in their extremes, but also because such strategies will, doubtless, eventually be applied to all of China’s beleaguered faith groups. 

Bitter Winter is an online magazine based in Italy that monitors religious freedom. In February 2019,  Radio Free Asia reported that since 2017, Bitter Winter has seen “at least 45 of its contributors face arrest and interrogation based on charges of ‘divulging state secrets’ or ‘involvement in infiltration by foreign forces’ for filming incidents of, or gathering news about, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) persecution of religious freedom and violation of human rights.

“…Some of the reporters, according to Bitter Winter, have been sent for mandatory indoctrination at political ‘re-education camps,’ where authorities are believed to have detained up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring ‘strong religious views’ and ‘politically incorrect’ ideas…”

Sen. Cotton explained in his speech, “[Uigher] Residents who’ve so far been spared these concentration camps are nonetheless subjected to Orwellian security and assaults on their privacy, religious faith, and way of life. The Chinese government is spending tens of billions on facial recognition, electronic spying, and coercive DNA collection, to create a database capable of tracking a person’s every move. This is the definition of a totalitarian system—one that exercises total control of your person, down to the very strands of your DNA.”

I asked my colleague Nina Shea, Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, for her perspective on China’s abuses:

“No matter Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or syncretic, whether new or old, foreign or indigenous, the Xi regime is persecuting religions throughout China,” she told me.  “Today, China is on course to crush religion or else to coerce it to function as an arm of the CCP.  It is reinterpreting the Bible, appointing Catholic and Tibetan Buddhist leaders, and through the most brutal and comprehensive efforts eradicating Falun Gong and Uighur Muslim traditions.  It is employing both barbaric tortures and sophisticated technology in attempts to eliminate any free religious thought or practice.” 

Shea concluded, “Without international outcry, communist China might finally succeed in its long-term ideological goal of ensuring that all forms of religion wither away.”