Print Version    Email to Friend
Tough times today may herald tougher times to come

HONG KONG (UCAN): China convened its 19th National Congress of the Communist Party on October 18.
Regarded as a major high profile gathering every five years, this time round it is expected that the president, Xi Jinping, will be endorsed for a second term in the top job of the Communist Party.
But this may not be welcome news for religious minorities on the mainland, as to say it has been a tough year for them would be a gross understatement.
The government has been busy transforming the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region into a police state, while new laws almost completely shield the Tibetan region from the world outside of China.
Following the congress, a major reshuffle of the cabinet is expected and the core leadership of the Politburo will be settled, something which does not greatly excite human rights monitors, given that the current trajectory of Beijing will probably see the situation for religious minorities upset even more.
“So far, the Chinese government’s impulse to tighten control across the board—including on religion—indicates a grim outlook for religious freedom in China for years to come,” Maya Wang, a senior researcher at the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, said.
“On top of its basic framework of controlling religions… (restricting) religious activities to only five officially recognised religions and only in officially approved religious premises, I expect that the government will continue to push for greater Sinicisation of religions,” Wang went on.
“That means the government will continue its campaign to restrict foreign influences, ties and funding of religions in China,” Wang noted, adding that this is already the apparent trend in both Xinjiang and Tibet.
The Sinicisation of religion also embraces the Catholic Church through the supervision of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a body instituted by the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
However, this creates an immediate difficulty for the Church on the mainland, as the Patriotic Association has persistently refused to recognise Vatican authority in the Church, which has forced many people over the decades underground to join the unofficial non-registered communities.
An investigation into the large parishes in the Beijing area that are sponsored by the Patriotic Association carried out by UCAN last year, revealed that they are mostly empty.
Then in July this year, Wang Zuo'an, made another high profile appeal through the pages of the Global Times to all members of the Communist Party to give up any affiliation with or belief that they may have had in religion.
“Party members should not have religious beliefs, but follow atheist Marxism; otherwise, they will be punished,” he stressed, clarifying that the ban also includes giving any support to religion even for economic development or cultural purposes.
Wang’s move to curb these expressions of freedom, especially ahead of the Party Congress, wasn’t unexpected.
In April last year, Xi laid down a highly anticipated blueprint for how the government would handle religion—and the prognosis was grim, as the Chinese president put most of his emphasis on limiting religious freedom, while at the same time strengthening Communist Party power.
“He emphasised the themes of religion as a conduit for Communist Party governance, the government’s right to tightly regulate religion, the Sinicisation of religious doctrine and preventing so-called foreign infiltration of religion, ensuring Communist Party cadres are staunch atheists,” William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, commented.
“It may take several years for this blueprint to be implemented in detail, so I would foresee greater restrictions on religion as detailed policies and personnel are put in place,” Nee warned.
Those restrictions have already begun to manifest themselves and many of them have far-reaching consequences for religious minorities.
In Xinjiang, there appears to have been door-to-door checks to see if people have religious materials or spend any time praying.
Authorities have reportedly stopped people at random to see what is on their phones and extra-legal detention facilities for religious practitioners are said to have proliferated across the region to conduct political re-education.
Meanwhile in Tibet, people are facing the denial of the basic freedoms of speech, assembly and movement. In addition, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in China, Larung Gar, is faced with a systematic demolishing of its facilities.
“It is hard to see how things could seemingly get much worse in terms of freedom of religion in Tibet and Xinjiang, but it conceivably could,” Nee said. “To some extent, these regions serve as petri dishes for experimenting with new modes of extreme social control… and if the government perceives these policies as working well, then they may use them against other target populations as well.”
Much of these restrictions are the brainchild of party secretary, Chen Quanguo, who last year was transferred from Tibet, where the government has judged him as being successful at quelling unrest, to Xinjiang.
He is widely tipped to get a seat on the Politburo and the rapid raft of crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet could be an indication of his political ambition to rise in the government.
Intensified rhetoric in the lead-up to a Party Congress can be typical, as it occurs only once every five years and is surrounded by much pomp and ceremony.
So naturally, there is some speculation as to whether the hardline on religion is just tough talk.
“There’s a kind of hope among activists inside China that the government’s relentless campaign to exert greater control over society under President Xi will somehow ease after the 19th Party Congress, as he will have completed his usual drive to consolidate power during his first term,” Wang, from the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, said.
However, Wang is not quite convinced, believing that the tough times may only herald tougher times to come. “I do not necessarily share that optimism, as President Xi has shown great ambition in establishing himself as a powerful core leader,” she continued.
“In other words, his drive to gain more power might be far from over,” Wang concluded.

More from this section