Religious controls have intensified across China during the four-year rule of President Xi Jinping and authorities have focussed on electronic surveillance and targeted social media platforms used by believers to bypass online censorship, according to a new report.
The report released on Tuesday says Xi has presided over an overall increase in religious persecution and four communities have borne the brunt - Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Hui and Uyghur Muslims.
Religious activities commonly practiced around the world, such as fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramzan, can be harshly punished in China, said the report titled The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping from Washington-based rights watchdog Freedom House.
The report analysed the status of seven religious groups accounting for some 350 million people – Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Falun Gong (banned in China since 1999).
China officially recognises five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism and Islam.
“The Battle for China’s Spirit examines the evolution of the Communist Party’s policies of religious control and citizens’ responses to them since November 2012,” Freedom House said, calling it the “first comprehensive analysis of its kind”.
Sarah Cook, the report’s author, said: “The scale and severity of controls over religion, and the trajectory of both growing persecution and pushback, are affecting Chinese society and politics far beyond the realm of religious policy alone.
“The party’s rigid constraints render it impossible for state-sanctioned institutions to meet the growing demand for religion in Chinese society,” Cook said. “The result is an enormous black market, forcing many believers—from Taoists and Protestants to Tibetan Buddhists—to operate outside the law and to view the regime as unreasonable, unjust, or illegitimate.”
The report found and examined positive developments in China’s religious sphere as well as the country’s gradually improving relations with the Vatican. It also found, rather inexplicably as the report put it, “cracks in the crackdown against Falun Gong” practitioners.
The Chinese government, under Communist Party general secretary Jiang Zemin, banned and cracked down on Falun Gong, described as a spiritual practice that combines meditation and exercise, in 1999. Its practitioners continue to be among the worst hit by religious persecution in China.
“Falun Gong practitioners, though still subject to severe abuses, are experiencing reduced persecution in many locales, as top officials driving the campaign have been purged in intra-party struggles, and years of grassroots outreach by adherents and their supporters have won over some lower level authorities,” the report said.
“Incidents that would have been unimaginable a few years ago - the release of a practitioner after only a few days’ detention, police permitting adherents to meditate in custody, or officers actively protecting individuals from punishment - have occurred across the country and do not appear to be isolated,” it said.
Among other communities to be hit are the Uyghurs (from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region or XUAR) and Protestant Christians.
“Controls on religion have deepened and expanded in the XUAR, where a majority of Uighur Muslims reside. Previously informal or local restrictions in Xinjiang - on issues such as religious dress - have been codified at the regional and national levels. Authorities have launched new campaigns to more closely monitor smartphone usage and force businesses to sell alcohol, while incidents of security forces opening fire on Uighur civilians have become more common,” the report said.
The report made particular mention of Protestants being targeted after Xi’s call to “sinicise” religions.
“Since early 2014, local authorities have intensified efforts to stem the spread of Christianity amid official rhetoric about the threat of ‘Western’ values and the need to ‘Sinicise’ religions. As the larger of the two main Christian denominations in China, Protestants have been particularly affected by cross-removal and church-demolition campaigns, punishment of state-sanctioned leaders, and the arrest of human rights lawyers who take up Christians’ cases,” the report said.