- The US State Department released a blistering assessment of China’s treatment of groups in a report on religious freedom
- This year’s paper marked the second time the report has devoted a stand-alone section on Xinjiang
Owen Churchill in Washington, DC
Published: 5:03am, 11 Jun, 2020
Updated: 5:36am, 11 Jun, 2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. Photo: AFP
The state of religious freedom in China has further deteriorated over the past year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday, as his department unveiled a blistering assessment of the country’s treatment of religious groups.
China’s “state-sponsored repression against all religions continues to intensify”, Pompeo told reporters at the release of the “2019 International Religious Freedom Report”.
“The mass detentions of Uygurs in [the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region] continues, so does the repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong and Christians,” said Pompeo, accusing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of seeking to “infuse communist dogma” into faith groups’ teachings.
Last year began with China’s formal adoption of a five-year plan to “Sinicise” Islam, a strategy to bring the religion and its practitioners in line with Party doctrine.
In 2019 the Chinese government had “tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices,” said the report, which devoted some 45,000 words to the situation in China.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the State Department’s report.
Among the many individual cases it cited, the report highlighted the prosecution of Wang Yi, a Christian pastor sentenced last December to nine years in prison on charges of inciting state subversion and other crimes.
The right to faith is enshrined in China’s constitution, which provides protection to those who practise “normal religious activities” but does not define “normal”. The state officially recognises only five faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam.
This year’s paper marked the second time the report has devoted a stand-alone section on Xinjiang, introduced last year “given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations” specific to the region. Previous reports singled out only Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau.
The US government believes that “more than one million” Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups have been detained in mass internment camps for the purpose of forced indoctrination since April 2017, said the report, echoing similar estimates made by the United Nations.
Throughout 2019, Beijing had continued to cite the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” to justify its crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang, the report noted, going on to highlight testimonies of individuals who had either been detained themselves or knew of relatives who had.
Among them was Zulhumar “Humar” Issac, a Uygur woman living in Sweden who believed her parents were sent to a camp for “re-education”, despite her mother being a Communist Party member and her father having worked for a Party-run local newspaper.
China has defended the mass internment camps as a humane and legitimate response to the threat of religious extremism, while a regional official said last summer that most detainees had “completed their study and found new jobs”.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Washington’s special envoy for international religious freedom said that the government had seen “no evidence” to support such claims.
“Even if they were released, they’re released into a virtual police state that China has created,” said Samuel Brownback, expressing concern that the deployment of hi-tech surveillance in Xinjiang offered a picture of “the future of what oppression is going to look like” in other parts of the country.
The US Department of Commerce has cited complicity in high-technology surveillance, arbitrary detention and forced labour among its reasons for adding multiple Chinese companies and government bodies to an expanding blacklist, restricting their ability to buy US products.
Wednesday’s report came as US President Donald Trump prepares to enact legislation that will compel the administration to sanction Chinese officials over the treatment of Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. Trump is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming days.
Religious freedom has become a foreign policy focus for the Trump administration, marked most recently by a presidential executive order last Tuesday directing the State Department to spend more money on programmes that advance religious freedoms abroad.
Trump issued the order amid growing allegations at home of disproportionate police force response to protests against racism and police brutality, and notably, outrage from faith leaders that authorities had used chemical agents the day before to clear a path for Trump to pose outside a church with a Bible.
On Wednesday, Pompeo shot back at critics of the US administration, including officials in Beijing, who have questioned its moral authority to critique the human rights records of other countries overseas given such events.
“There is no equivalence between our two forms of government,” Pompeo said of the US and China. “We have the rule of law; China does not. We have free speech and embrace peaceful protests. They don’t. We defend religious freedom … China continues its decades-long war on faith.”
But Pompeo admitted that foreign governments had complained to his department that their countries’ correspondents covering the protests had been “treated inappropriately” by US law enforcement.
“Those countries should know we will handle [the allegations] in a completely appropriate way,” he said. “We will do our best to investigate them to the extent the State Department is capable of doing that.”