CHINA’s Communist Party doesn’t like difference. So it has set about eradicating any trace of it among its 1.38 billion population.
First they moved on Tibet. Its ancient spirituality and unique identity has been suppressed for decades. Its remaining leadership has long since been co-opted by the Party.
China’s Christian community has also long been a source of embarrassment. The Bible has been banned. Crosses must not be displayed in public. Its leadership must be approved by the Communist Party. Its teachings must now conform to Party ideals.
But, for the moment, Beijing has another ancient community in its sights: the Uighurs. China invaded the East Turkestan Republic in 1949. It’s now named Xinjiang province, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.
To Beijing, it represents the nation’s largest reserve of coal and natural gas.
Now it’s not Chinese enough for the Communist Party.
It’s the primary focus of President Xi Jinping’s determination to “Sinicize” the entirety of China’s domain. “Chinese characteristics” must be incorporated into all activities, beliefs and traditions. Chief among them — unwavering loyalty to the Communists party.
And that’s not something that sits easily with China’s 200 million believers, of all faiths.
CHRISTIANITY ‘WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS’
In April, China’s religious affairs department published an article saying that churches must endorse the party’s leadership as part of “Sinicization.”
“Only Sinicized churches can obtain God’s love,” the article stated.
It’s part of Beijing’s “Principle for Promoting Chinese Christianity in China for the Next Five Years (2018-2022)” plan, which details how it will “Sinicize” Christianity within its borders.
Its censors immediately moved in.
Bibles have been seized and banned. Digital versions can no longer be found online. Only an officially approved version from the government-sanctioned open church is available.
But Beijing’s crackdown goes far beyond that.
Images of Christ are being replaced with posters of President Xi. As with the Tibetans and Uighur’s before them, Christian children are no longer allowed to attend church.
“Through our thought reform, they’ve voluntarily done it,” Qi Yan, a member of the township party committee, told the AP by phone.
“The move is aimed at Christian families in poverty, and we educated them to believe in science and not in superstition, making them believe in the party.”
One Beijing pastor told AP otherwise: “A lot of our flock are terrified by the pressure that the government is putting on them,” he said. “It’s painful to think that in our own country’s capital, we must pay so dearly just to practice our faith.”
Hundreds of small and private churches have been shut down. Party enforcers have been making life uncomfortable for many of the remainder, a Chinese Christian communities complain. Many of China’s Christian communities have responded in a time-honoured fashion: they’re now worshipping together in secret.
Beijing sees Christianity as a Western threat, and its 67 million followers as infected by dangerous Western ideals.
President Xi stated in 2016: “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.”
And any community that places any entity above himself is not putting the Party first.
“Chinese leaders have always been suspicious of the political challenge or threat that Christianity poses to the Communist regimen,” Xi Lian, a scholar of Christianity in China at Duke University, told AP.
“Under Xi, this fear of Western infiltration has intensified and gained a prominence that we haven’t seen for a long time.”
There are 11 million Uighurs in Xinjiang. With one million in detention, and two million forced into re-education camps, Beijing’s crackdown would be something felt by every family.
They are not ethnic Chinese. They speak Turkic. Their culture was heavily influenced by the Mongols and Islamic caliphates.
They are an ethnic minority in China.
Islamic crescents and minarets have been torn down from mosques. They’ve been banned from naming their children “Muhammad”. Children are not allowed to enter mosques. They’re not allowed to fast during Ramadan. Men cannot wear long beards. Veils are banned in public.
The Uighur detainees are being re-educated. They are being forced to sing Communist Party songs, and recite its slogans. They must vow personal loyalty to President-for-life Xi Jinping.
They must attend lectures about the anti-social nature of Islam.
It wasn’t always so.
One of China’s most revered historical figures — explorer Admiral Zheng He — was Muslim. Though you wouldn’t know that from modern interpretations of his story. However, he is now being used to help justify Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea, and beyond.
Since September 11, 2001, when terrorists claiming to represent Muslim beliefs hijacked aircraft and crashed them into buildings in the United States, Beijing declared the existence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — “a major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden”.
Its crackdown on the ethnic minority has been extreme.
Beijing’s state media, however, has become a little confused on which official Party line to adopt.
Yesterday it rejected UN human rights committee concerns, asserting that “arbitrary detention” or “re-education centres” do not exist.
But an editorial Communist-Party run Global Times appeared to contradict this assertion, stating its ‘security crackdown’ in Xinjiang was to “salvage” the region which was on “the verge of massive turmoil”.
“There is no doubt that the current peace and stability in Xinjiang is partly due to the high intensity of regulations,” it reads. “Police and security posts can be seen everywhere in Xinjiang.
“The security situation in Xinjiang has been turned around recently and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang.”
Beijing’s actions “has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or China’s Libya,” it stated.
The Global Times was reinforcing its previous harsh stance on Uighur issues, where it endorsed the extensive use of surveillance technology in the region as well as the enforced relocation of hundreds of thousands of its population.
Religious belief is not President Xi’s only concern. Critical-thought among China’s academics has also been deemed a problem.
Now, they’ve been told to “learn the proper kind of patriotism”.
The Communist Party’s propaganda arm recently announced a new effort to infuse a “patriotic striving spirit” among its universities and research institutes.
It’s all about “political guidance” and “ideological and political identification”.
The Communist Party’s People’s Daily news service declared it wanted to “make the vast numbers of intellectuals … more determinedly follow the party.”
President Xi must walk a tenuous tightrope.
He’s urgently pushed the need for greater creativity and faster research output in his bid to outstrip the rest of the world economically and technologically.
But educated minds do not always conform with Party lines.
A law professor in Beijing, Xu Zhangrun, is one such example. He recently dared to post to social media: “People throughout China — including the entire bureaucratic class — are feeling a sense of uncertainty, a mounting anxiety in relation both to the direction the country is taking as well as in regard to their personal security. These anxieties have generated something of a nationwide panic.”
He said China’s sudden return to strict ideological control, an international ‘closed-door policy’ the return to totalitarianism and President Xi’s unrestricted term in office had become a source of much anxiety.
“The amendments earlier this year shocked the world and caused a lot of concern among Chinese,” he wrote. “This amounts to a negation of the last 30 years of the reform and opening-up policy. It is feared that in one fell swoop, China will be cast back to the terrifying days of Mao.”
China’s delegation told the UN yesterday that “there is no arbitrary detention … there are no such things as re-education centres.”
It said authorities in Xinjiang have cracked down on “violent terrorist activities,” while convicted criminals are provided with skills to reintegrate themselves into society at “vocational education and employment training centres.”
Chinese delegate Hu Lianhe said through an interpreter: “there is no suppression of ethnic minorities or violations of their freedom of religious belief in the name of counter-terrorism.” But he also said “those who are deceived by religious extremism … shall be assisted through resettlement and education.”
Xinjiang has been enveloped in a suffocating blanket of security for years, especially since a deadly anti-government riot broke out in the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009. ‘
Gay McDougall, the committee vice-chairwoman who raised the issue of detentions last week, said she wasn’t convinced by China’s “flat denial”. She said China “didn’t quite deny” that re-education programs are taking place.
“You said that was false, the 1 million. Well, how many were there? Please tell me,” she said. “And what were the laws on which they were detained, the specific provisions?” There was no direct response to that, which addressed a broad range of issues that went well beyond the Uighurs.
But delegation leader Yu Jianhua said some panel members had treated “some of the unsubstantiated materials as credible information.” He contended that some of that information came from groups which “seek to split China” and have links to terrorist organisations.