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Having survived China’s biggest crackdown on religion during the Cultural Revolution, religious groups across China were only left with their battered selves and got used to living under the shadow of repression. Over the past two decades, the U.S. State Department’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom has repeatedly identified China as a country of particular concern because it has “engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Open Doors USA’s World Watch List has also placed China among the world’s fifty worst persecutors of Christians.

China’s hostility toward religious groups has only escalated since Xi Jinping became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2013, and Xi is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi views religions of foreign origin, particularly Islam and Christianity, as “dangerous foreign import,” and is concerned that these religions are capable of undermining both communist state authority and patriotic fervor. In April 2016, he gave a speech at the National Religious Work Conference in which he emphasized the need to “actively guide” and “sinicize” religions. This was followed by the release of newly revised Regulations on Religious Affairs which proclaimed that religions must “practice the core socialist values” and drew a close correlation between religion, religious extremism, terrorist, and separatist activities. These regulations put restrictions on religious liberties like religious schooling and freedom to choose places of worship. They also allow the government to monitor online religious discussions and established new penalties for violations of the regulations, coinciding with Xi’s aim to both secularize and subjugate religious belief and activity to the control of the CCP.  

Throughout 2017 and 2018, Chinese authorities have torn down hundreds of crosses from churches, forcefully demolished churches, banned online sales of the Bible, censored and added state propaganda to pastors’ sermons, used physical violence against parishioners, and imprisoned countless pastors and human rights advocates. The state continued to pursue its antagonistic strategy toward Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong members by expelling, imprisoning, and torturing monks and nuns who refuse to pledge loyalty to Beijing and prosecuting members of Falun Gong as evil sectarians under Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Law. Official restrictions on religious freedom of Hui Muslims have also increased, as the authorities launched a “rectification campaign” that has included the removal of Arabic signs and decor from mosques and other buildings, prohibitions on calls to prayer, and bans on sale of the Quran.

China is also adopting an idiosyncratic approach in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The government has cited Islamic extremism as a justification for its repressive policies in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has imprisoned up to one million Uyghurs into reeducation camps, where they are being detained for prolonged periods of time without due process, subjected to torture, and forced to renounce Islam and to respect Xi’s political dogma in a quasi-religious manner.

Chinese law ostensibly guarantees religious freedom. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution grants citizens “freedom of religious belief” and the protection of “normal religious activities.” However, the scope of “normal” religious activities is not specified, thus making it unclear whether China’s Constitution protects the same range of beliefs that is universally recognized under international law or whether determination of “normal” religious activities should be left to the discretion of Chinese authorities. In addition, Article 251 of the Chinese Criminal Law penalizes state officials who “illegally deprive citizens’ right to religious beliefs or who encroach on minority nationalities’ customs or habits.” Unfortunately, China’s own law is a paper tiger, broad-gauged but susceptible to political influence, and it is therefore hardly a real judicial constraint.

China’s repression, persecution, and internment of people of faith violates international law codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As a signatory of the UDHR, China must recognize freedom of religious belief under Article 18. Moreover, because China signed the ICCPR, expressed its commitment to advance the rights recognized by the ICCPR, and promised to eventually ratify it, China should refrain from intentional acts that counteract the treaty’s object and purpose. In particular, Article 18 of the ICCPR encompasses both the right to form and hold religious beliefs and precludes states from impairing these rights. Furthermore, Article 2 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), ratified by China in 1988, precludes China from using exceptional circumstances such as a fight against “radical Islamism” as a justification for torture of detainees in Xinjiang.

With its economic power and influence over developing countries, China’s state policies toward religious minority groups are creating a repressive blueprint for other authoritarian regimes looking to quell religious and ethnic tensions. Thus, the persecution of religious minorities in China should trigger a regulatory response from the international community to prevent further erosion of the right to religious freedom.