The Question of Religious Freedom in China: An Assessment of America’s Views

Souravie Ghimiray
February 07, 2019


There has been a consistent dissatisfaction in US regarding the human rights abuses in China in the past decades but the recent awareness of the existence of internment camps in Xinjiang province with 100,000 ethnic Muslim Uyghurs and worsening conditions of other minorities raised apprehensions in the US Congress. Subsequently the congressional response led to the tabeling of the bill titled “Uighur human Rights Policy Act 2018” in the light to uphold the fundamental  right of religious freedom and address the issue of gross violation of human rights in China. While the Chinese government has constantly repudiated the allegationsof human rights abuses and bristled at US threat of sanctions. China’s oppression of the religious communities needs the attention of the world to deter other countries from emulating such practices. For that matter it needs to be seen if the issue of religious freedom takes a centrality in US-China relations despite Trump’s administration emphasis on the commitment of International Religious Freedom and if at all it will deter China from oppressing the religious minorities.

China has the highest restrictions on religious freedom among 25 most populated countries in the world according to Pew research centre reporton religious freedom. The indicators of government restrictions on religious freedom include limits on proselytizing, public preaching or assault and detentions of religious groups or individuals. Due to the worsening condition of the religious minorities in China including that of Christian, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falung Gong the US State department has continually designated China as a country of particular concern (designation given to countries engaging in severe violation of religious freedom by the US International Religious freedom Act 1998) since 1999. China officially recognizes only five religions i.e. Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity (Protestant) that can hold worship services while other unregistered religions are considered illegal and formally prohibited. The government regulates any form of religious practices/activities and only allows it after getting sanctioned by the government which includes religious preaching, proselytizing, and missionary work. With such strict control on religion already in place President Xi Jingping has now gained unbridled authority over religion through the process of ‘sinicization’ which fundamentally aims at remodeling all the religions by imbibing core values of socialism, Chinese culture and rejecting western ideas. It has literally waged war against religions in China, this reveals the insecurity that the Communist Party faces when it comes to ideological rivalryapparently caused by religion due to the increasing number of religious believers. Every religion has come under scrutiny in China but the treatment of ethnic Uyghur Muslims resembles that of a dystopian rule.

The ‘re-education’ centers with around 1 million Uyghurs faces indiscriminate arrests, torture, detention, physical abuse, harassment at the hands of the government official, worse the Uyghurs living in their homes live under invasive surveillance. The introduction of legislation – “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2018” in the US Congress  called to putsanctionsagainst the Chinese officials involved in the Xinjiang region. But the imposition of sanctions can be problematic for several reasons- it can be seen as anti-Chinese legislation which will widen the hostilities between the two countries. The Chinese government views the issue of human rights abuses and religious freedom violation as an outrageous allegations and imposing sanctions will subsequently be seen as meddling in their internal affairs. Although Trump himself has not been vocal about the issue of religious freedom in China Vice President Mike Pence and other officials has criticizedChina and has highlighted religious freedom to be a matter of growing concern for the United States. If indiscriminate arrests and persecution of Christian population persists further in China, promotion of Religious freedom backed by the US Congress, evangelical baseand top aides in the Trump administration may pressurize the Chinese government to change its policies which runs the risks of intensification of already existing cold relations with China. As Christianity has been spread in china mainly through American missionaries the government perceives it through the lens of western cultural imperialism, the very idea of the ‘sinicization’ process under Xi Jingping relates to embedding Chinese culture in Christianity and opposes the imported version of it, which explains the reasons for shutting downof thousand of churches in China.

As China is opposed to theistic concepts which falls into Marxist framework there is a little chance that government of China will comply with any pressure from outside to alter that reality. Any attempt at expansion of religious freedom must be under the Chinese government terms, and can be considered if it serves the overall productivity and economic growth of the country. US and China have a very complicated relationship from the beginning and have vastly differing perspectives on various issues. Resolving religious violation can be difficult for US and resorting to force in its attempts to influence China’s religious freedom policy may not lead to fruitful results. It may not be ideally possible to achieve the aims of persuading China to straighten its Human rights record which has been continually resistant to outside pressure and may seemingly be futile at the very least but the US must act on moral grounds when the issue of Uyghurs is met with silence by the world at large.

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***