China’s Religious Persecution in the Time of Coronavirus

By Susan Crabtree – RCP Staff

April 27, 2020

China's Religious Persecution in the Time of Coronavirus
(Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via AP)

It’s a portrait of contrasts in the age of pandemic. In the United States, small but passionate protests have broken out in recent weeks as some workers and worshipers chafe at being quarantined — even as most federal and state governments caution against full and abrupt re-openings.

Meanwhile, in the People’s Republic of China, where the coronavirus originated, citizens live in abject fear over voicing the mildest of criticism about their government’s response to the outbreak and aftermath, including government actions designed to place ethnic and religious minorities in harm’s way.

Among the abuses: Chinese authorities are continuing to operate some factories by forcing Uyghurs, Muslims from a Central Asian ethnic group, to fill in for workers sidelined by COVID-19. To groups monitoring religious freedom, this was merely the latest example of official persecution of the Uyghurs, predominantly Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims who number more than 10 million and live in the northwest area of the country known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region. Uyghurs consider Beijing as a colonizing power and have pushed for a separate homeland or, at least, greater autonomy for their region. In recent years, China has tightened its grip on the region, forcing at least 1 million Uyghurs into 85 identified detention camps.

The pandemic has also increased levels of mistreatment against other groups. African residents of Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub, have been force-tested for the virus, evicted from their homes and hotels, and corralled into quarantined areas with few resources. Images on social media have showed groups of black residents sleeping on a sidewalk, visibly shaking from the cold and wearing surgical masks to protect themselves. Several African ambassadors wrote a letter to China’s foreign minister earlier this month complaining that these people were being mistreated and falsely blamed for the spread of the virus to China.

“The Group of African Ambassadors in Beijing immediately demands the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans,” they wrote.

Beijing has also used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on churches that aren’t officially sanctioned by the government. In some regions, officials have removed crosses from Christian church rooftops on the pretext that religious symbols cannot be “higher” than the national flag. In December, as China’s began dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, church leaders reported that government officials told them the crosses were “too eye-catching” and would attract groups of people to gather, undermining the strict lockdowns in place.

Pastor Jian Zhu, who was raised in China and now serves as the director of the China Institute at Lincoln Christian University in Illinois, said persecution against unsanctioned Christian churches in China is “now the worst” he has seen since the late 1970s. The systematic harassment, according to Zhu, has included asking neighbors to spy on one another as well as pressuring schoolteachers, professors and students to sign a statement denouncing their faith.

“They are trying to eliminate Christianity from public life,” he told The Christian Post in mid-April. “Cameras are all over to watch church and Christians go to Sunday services. Families are threatened not to go to church or they will be punished or their relatives could be in trouble.”

Since the reports about forcing Uyghurs into factories began leaking two months ago, China’s systematic efforts to cover up the origins of the coronavirus and sow disinformation about it have sparked international outrage. But neither that indignation, nor the stepped-up persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, stopped the United Nations’ Asia-Pacific group from selecting China to represent the region on the United Nations Human Rights Council Consultative Group. The consultative body consists of five member states tasked with screening applicants to become independent U.N. human rights experts.

China’s selection on April 1 drew immediate condemnation from U.S. human rights advocates.

“The Chinese government is one of the worst abusers of religious freedom and other human rights,” said Gary Bauer of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal government entity that monitors international threats to religious freedom. In its 2019 annual report, USCIRF called on the Trump administration to impose targeted sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for severe religious freedom violations, especially Chen Quanguo, the current Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang region.

Other Washington officials see the pandemic as a warning against the natural tendency by those with autocratic impulses to impose top-down, heavy-handed controls.

Police in places as disparate as Kenya and India have beaten citizens avoiding curfew; nations such as Iran and North Korea are believed by health experts to have followed China’s example in vastly underreporting COVID-19 cases; and Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte has used the crisis to threaten declaring martial law.

But the United States has not been immune from these impulses. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was widely criticized for a sweeping stay-at-home order that precluded residents from driving from one house to another and for closing off entire sections of large stores that sell gardening supplies, include plant seeds. And when President Trump said he had “absolute power” over states to determine how and when to re-open their governments, the backslash from both conservatives and liberals was fast and furious. The president quickly backtracked and has allowed governors to make their own decisions, even as Trump has publicly second-guessed Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide re-opening of salons, gyms, and bowling alleys.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in early April warned that autocracies will use the crisis “to become more aggressive, deny people their rights,” and “lie more.” He said that “in the end, they do enormous harm to the people of their nation and put the rest of the world at risk as well.”

In Washington, most of the fury at China so far has focused on the government’s delay and dissembling over the source and extent of the epidemic and its unseemly sway over the World Health Organization, which initially minimized the effects the outbreak. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, through her advocacy group Stand for America, last week launched a petition to Congress urging lawmakers to investigate Beijing for its role in the coronavirus crisis and pass measures to halt China’s influence in the U.S. and around the world.

But China’s religious persecution amid the pandemic is also spurring congressional scrutiny.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who has sought to shed a light on the China’s oppression of religious minorities and political dissidents throughout his career, said he planned to amplify the need for several bills he has written aimed at punishing China for the forced Uyghur labor, along with other measures addressing Beijing’s ongoing suppression of medical experts, journalists and political dissidents.

“Those atrocities must be confronted, not just for their own sake but because, as we have now seen through the global spread of COVID-19, they are a direct threat to America’s national security and global public health,” Cruz spokeswoman Jessica Skaggs told RealClearPolitics. “Once we defeat this pandemic, Sen. Cruz will continue fighting to hold China accountable for its religious persecution of minorities and its broader repression on free expression and medical information.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking GOP member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said China’s and the WHO’s handling of the coronavirus crisis enabled a regional epidemic to become a global pandemic  resulting in innumerous deaths in China and around the world. McCaul, along with 16 other House Republicans, sent a letter to the White House last week asking the president to condition future funding of the WHO on Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ resignation.

“This malfeasance is another example of the CCP’s treatment of their own people and reminds us this is the same regime who puts millions of their own citizens in ‘concentration camps’ and uses them for forced labor,” he said.

“The international community cannot let these appalling abuses go unpunished,” he told RCP. “We must work together to hold the CCP accountable for these egregious human rights violations, especially amid this public health emergency that they exacerbated.”

This is not solely a Republican concern. Rep. James McGovern, who chairs the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, is calling on the international community to investigate Beijing’s efforts to repress religious and ethnic minorities in the midst of a pandemic. McGovern in March sponsored a bill that would bar the U.S. from importing any goods made in the Xinjiang factories and has urged all American companies, including Amazon, Nike, Apple and Calvin Klein, to investigate their supply chains in China and cease operation if they cannot definitively rule out the use of forced labor. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wrote a similar Senate bill.

“Forcing Uyghurs and others to work in factories while the risk of infection is high, tearing down Christian symbols and crosses, or condoning discrimination against African migrants is completely unacceptable an should be roundly condemned by the administration and investigated by the international community,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement to RCP.

“The virus exposed what we already knew: The Chinese government is all too willing to violate the human rights of the Chinese people, and its policies pose a real risk to the world’s health as well,” McGovern added.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.