China at 70: religion under threat

This month marked the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Patriotic processions made their way across the country, prompting fresh protests in Hong Kong and the trending of a new hashtag: #NotMyNationalDay.

The credentials of the PRC at 70 are indeed impressive: the world’s most populous nation, the largest exporter and the second largest economy. More than 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the last four decades.

Despite dizzying economic accomplishment, China has not replicated this success across all spheres and its human rights record remains a blot on its copybook.

Last month my colleague MEP Šojdrová and I hosted a conference in the European Parliament on the situation of Catholics in China. Expert speakers from academia and NGOs spoke of persecution of religious minorities at a level which has not been seen since the Cultural Revolution.

In the last year, China has risen 16 places on the World Watch List and now sits at number 27. The List, produced annually by Open Doors International, details the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Why has the situation taken a nosedive in such a short amount of time? Simply put, Christianity is the largest social force not controlled by the government and is therefore seen as a threat. China has around 97 million Christians – more members than the Communist Party.

And Christianity continues to grow despite many attempts to stifle it. February 2018 saw the introduction of new Regulations on Religious Affairs which included limits on posting content online, a ban on under 18s entering places of worship and increased red tape for churches hoping to gain a building permit. Around 7000 crosses have been removed from church roofs since 2018, mostly in Zheijiang and Henan provinces, known for their large Christian populations. Congregations have been asked to replace hymns with the national anthem and to fly the Chinese flag higher than the cross. These are clear infringements of the right to freedom of religion or belief, enshrined in both Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human and Article 36 of China’s own constitution.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he has set about bringing all religion into line with Communist thought, a process known as Sinicization. There are five official religious associations – Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic. Each of their leaders is government-chosen and teaching is tightly controlled. Unsurprisingly, millions of Christians choose to remain outside of the state-controlled bodies and worship in unregistered, ‘underground’ churches. Tolerance of those is rapidly shrinking. In one county in Henan alone, 410 churches were closed in 2018. Priests and pastors are lured to join the official associations with the promise of a government position or better housing.

Christians are by no means the only religious minority to suffer. 931 Falun Gong practitioners were arrested in 2018 according to advocates. Tibetan Buddhists who refuse to denounce the Dalai Lama have been expelled from monasteries and tortured. Perhaps most shocking of all is the treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, 1 million of whom are imprisoned in detention camps, accused of religious extremism. Their crimes can be anything from growing a beard, having WhatsApp on their phone, contacting relatives abroad or worshipping at the mosque. Whilst China maintains these camps are for re-education and even boasts of the curriculum offered, we must continue to insist on EU and UN observer visits to the region and its camps as a first step to ending such a grave violation of human rights.

What else can the EU do? Let us not underestimate the leverage we could have as a bloc. The EU is China’s biggest trading partner with bilateral trade in goods amounting to 1.5 billion euros per day.  

At the last EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, held in April 2019, China did not participate in a scheduled meeting with civil society, preferring to shift the focus to its economic achievements. We must be coherent and link human rights to any discussion of economy and trade, using our leverage to do so.

As a new parliamentary term begins, we need to engage with China proactively. Change will come through personal meetings between leaders and sharing of best practice. Within the Parliament, we can support an intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), which would help highlight the issues minorities face not only in China but around the world. Finally, we should recommend that the Commission reappoint an EU Special Envoy on FoRB, a vital component of our foreign policy.

The first 70 years of the People’s Republic of China were marked by rapid economic progress and growing international influence. In the decades to come, we should continue to remind China that defending citizens’ rights and celebrating religious diversity will lead the nation to true prosperity.

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