The Debate

Confronting China’s Suppression of Religion

Instead of the Communist party’s intolerance, democratic Taiwan offers a positive example.

By Farahnaz Ispahani for
Confronting China’s Suppression of Religion
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

China’s hardline response to protests in Hong Kong this summer are part of a wider policy shift under President Xi Jinping that includes increasing persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. The Chinese Communist Party and Xi appear to have decided to consolidate power by reverting to a harder line on human rights than was witnessed in the years since China opened to the rest of the world after the era of Mao Zedong.

Beijing’s repression of more than 13 million Muslims in Xinjiang and its increased surveillance of Christians and Tibetan Buddhists is getting worse. China has not respected freedom of religion and belief since the 1949 communist takeover. But just as the suppression of dissent in Hong Kong represents a turning away from the promise and practice of relative freedom over the last few years, mass arbitrary detention, torture, and prohibitions on Islam in Xinjiang are appalling even by China’s standards.

The current set of China’s policies are described as “Xi Jinping Thought” or “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” It is becoming increasingly clear that in this set of beliefs, there is no place for religious tolerance or the freedom of conscience and belief.

In addition to the so-called “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, where a million Muslims are believed to be detained, reports have surfaced of suppression of Christians in Henan province and increasing scrutiny of Hui Muslims in Ningxia. Unlike the Turkic Uyghurs and Tibetan Buddhists, who are accused of nurturing separatist ideas, China’s Christians and the Hui Muslims are being punished for no reason other than their religious beliefs.

The Chinese government has also cracked down on Falun Gong practitioners, sending many in that community to labor camps. Survivors have recalled suffering torture and sleep deprivation at these camps.

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Under the Trump administration, the United States has been vocal in condemning China’s abuses against faith communities. Earlier this year, Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for International Religious Freedom, said during a speech in Hong Kong that the Chinese government is “at war with faith.”

Some Congressional leaders have also called for a tougher U.S. policy towards China over suppression of religion. Congressman Chris. Smith (R-N.J.) chairman of the House of Representatives’ global human rights subcommittee, observed, “Xi Jinping talks about realizing the ‘China Dream.’ But when Bibles are burned, when a simple prayer over a meal in public maybe an illegal religious gathering, and when over a million Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims are interned in ‘reeducation camps’ and forced to renounce their faith, that dream is a nightmare.”

Just as China embraces restrictions on practice of religion, Taiwan is stepping up as a supporter of democratic freedoms and religious, as if to prove that democracy, liberal economics, and religion freedom can thrive amid Chinese culture. In spring this year, Taiwan hosted a relatively under-reported event on “Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region.”

The meeting in Taipei was a regional follow up after the first United States Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, D.C. last year. It resulted in the Taipei Declaration on Religious Freedom, which re-emphasizes Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That article recognizes everyone’s “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Taiwan included atheists and humanists in its assembly of believers, overcoming the difficulty people of faith have had in applying the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to people of another religion or to humanists and atheists. The Taipei Declaration pledges religious freedom activists to advocate for both, followers of one’s own religion as well as other communities suffering restrictions on religious freedom or outright persecution.

As China’s response to the protests in Hong Kong remind us, China is constantly developing technologies for social control. As it challenges the international rules-based order, its attitude towards religion will most likely be emulated by other authoritarian governments, who would probably also import Chinese methods of surveillance and forced re-education, to suppress dissent, including religion disapproved by the state.

The Taipei Declaration, and its emphasis on freedoms first listed in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, serves as a reminder for the principles on which democracies might confront China and other violators of religious freedom. The United States, and other democratic countries, also need to apply these principles stringently at home to gain the moral high ground.

The next step would be to link religious freedom in China with other economic and political issues, just as the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe linked cooperation between Communist and Western countries to the observance of human rights.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament where she served on the foreign affairs and human rights committees. Her book ‘Purifying The Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’ was published in 2017 (Oxford) She is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute.