By Gina Goh
09/27/2017 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The Chinese government is gearing up for the five-yearly Party Congress, which is less than a month away. The 19th Party Congress will provide a venue for Chinese President Xi Jinping to reshuffle the members of his Politburo Standing Committee, the government’s highest decision making body, and showcase the consolidation of power that he has prioritized with in the past five years. Beijing is on high alert and wants no accident for the sake of “maintaining stability.” The price of that, however, is a crackdown on freedom and human rights, starting months ago and leading up to the most important meeting in the country.
China’s internet is already heavily censored and its notorious firewall cuts off access to websites of the free world. Several liberal Chinese websites and magazines that provide political analysis were shut down last year. Their public profiles on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp or Line, can no longer be found. Recent measures to further clamp down on internet freedom include banning virtual private networks (VPN), commanding WeChat chat group owners to monitor chat messages or else they will face charges, arresting netizens who nicknamed Xi to “Steamed bun Xi” or “Xitler,” and restricting the use of the encrypted messaging app WhatsApp.
In addition, a number of Chinese news and entertainment programs have been banned, so as to “better welcome the major propaganda period of the 19th Party Congress” and “uphold a strong and comprehensive political view,” according to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT).
Accusing the West of attempting to infiltrate the country with Western ideologies and “subversive” ideas, the Chinese government demands that education institutions shun textbooks that promote Western values, while also sacking a few outspoken scholars. Academics were further offended last month when Chinese State Council Information Office requested that Cambridge University block online access in China to hundreds of articles and book reviews in the China Quarterly, a leading academic journal on Chinese studies that has existed for decades.
The crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers continues as Beijing seeks to silence any potential anti-government speeches and protests. Many vocal advocates have disappeared or were arrested even after the 709 lawyer repression in 2015. Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer who is called the “Conscience of China,” is among the several prominent dissidents who were recently abducted or detained by the government. No details were given by the government about their arrests or charges. Under the government’s custody, they often endure torture and receive threats against their family.
Religious freedom, though enshrined in Article 36 of the Chinese constitution, is not respected in the country. The government harasses, arrests, detains, and tortures faith practitioners who are deemed to be “non-patriotic” or “threats to the government.” The underground Church suffers various degrees of persecution, from cross removal, service disruption, detention of church leaders, to false sentencing of Christians. Muslims, especially Uyghur Muslims, face discrimination and constant harassment by the government. In its latest attempt to Sinicize the Turkic-speaking ethnic group, the Chinese government has brought tens of thousands of Han people into Xinjiang. Heavy military surveillance and the ban of religious symbols have also been put into place in the region to suppress religious expression. Tibetan Buddhism suffers as well, with monks and nuns at Sichuan’s Larung Gar Buddhist Academy witnessing the destruction of their center and thousands of residences.
On top of that, recently published regulations of religious affairs, set to come into effect next February, further tighten the state’s control of religion. Hefty fines are imposed for unregistered religious groups for their activities. Religious education not vetted by the government is banned. Online discussion of religious matters, the financing of religious groups, and religious venues, among other things, are subject to government oversight.
Yang Fenggang, founding director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, believes that “the government aims to increase control of religion. While in their eyes different religions have different problems, for Christianity and Islam, they seek to bring foreign religions under their control.” He adds that the regulations “clearly target house church and Catholic churches. They want to push underground church into joining respective patriotic associations, namely the Three Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council. Government will impose heavy punishment on religious groups outside of patriotic associations.”
There are still six months before the regulations come into effect, yet cases of church persecution have begun to pop up. Across the country, Christian Sunday schools were shut down, a Christian academy was banned from teaching children, house churches have to meet in small groups to avoid police crackdown, leaders of house churches were forced to provide information of their members, and cross removals have reached Henan province for the first time.
Pastor Wang Yi, a house church pastor in Sichuan who has been detained and harassed numerous times, responding to the new regulations, said, “I encourage every Christian who is faithful to the Gospel and every church that submits to Christ’s authority to prepare themselves – for the sake of Gospel and conscience, while respecting and submitting to government’s rights of law enforcement, peacefully resisting this set of evil regulations that are anti-Christ and unconstitutional, not taking part in this evil that is against faith and violating constitutional rights, willingly bear losses of benefits and physical harm. Also, I urge Christians who work in the field of law, politics, public interest, and education, to either courageously speak out, or silently promote the abolishment or changes to these illegal decrees.”
While one might feel uneasy and hopeless about China’s treatment of its citizens, and are unsure whether or not these ‘stability-maintaining’ measures will loosen up after the Party Congress, Chinese civil society continues to resist and speak out. Dissidents and human rights lawyers did not cease to update the world about the latest government’s human rights abuse, netizens are getting creative in their attempts to censure the government, and Christians in China, despite facing punishment for practicing their faith, continue to stand firm in their faith. Prayers are critically needed for this rising power in Asia, so that people will have the strength to persevere in times like this and hopefully taste true freedom one day.