Neo-Xenophobia and Religious Persecution in China

By: Timothy A. Grose

March 16, 2020

Regulating Religion in China

During Xi Jinping’s tenure as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the space in which members of faith-based communities can freely express their piety has caved in and crumbled—literally and metaphorically. We may aptly trace Xi and the CPC’s most recent efforts to curtail the influence of religion in China to the general secretary’s April 2016 speech when he demanded that religious groups “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture, abide by Chinese laws and regulations, and devote themselves to China’s reform and opening up drive and socialist modernization in order to contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.” Almost immediately after Xi delivered his address, which was infused with allusions to secular Han nationalism, officials throughout the country responded by cracking down on public expressions of faith. In 2016 alone, local governments razed dozens of Christian places of worship, removed nearly 1,700 crucifixes from church exteriors, and expelled thousands of students from Larung Gar, an important Tibetan Buddhist center for learning, before demolishing many of the dormitories. The same year, Chen Quanguo was promoted to general secretary of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region where he has overseen the desecration of cemeteries, the closure and destruction of mosques, and, most troubling, the mass incarceration of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Hui.

It is tempting and not entirely inaccurate to draw the conclusion that Xi’s policies are unprecedented. In other words, in the last four years, the CPC has unveiled a new arsenal for a final violent attack on “foreign” faith in Chinese socialism’s epic battle against religion. Certainly, the party currently enjoys—and does not hesitate to brandish—organization, technology, and resources to carry out these plans in ways unavailable and even inconceivable for past China-based polities. 

However, students of contemporary, modern, and imperial Chinese histories will point out that the CPC’s current strategies are far from exceptional. Indeed, Confucian ideas of laihua or “come to the center and be civilized,” late-Qing reformers’ conceptualization of the Zhonghua minzu (Chinese nation), Jiang Jieshi’s insistence that ethnic diversity in China was due to “religious and geographical differences and not to race or blood,” the Maoist era’s “Big Family” of nationalities, and even the second generation minzu scholars’ “de-politicization” of ethnicity all seek similar ends: amalgamation. Therefore, it may be instructive if we tie together the frayed strings of history to reveal a potential common thread: China-based polities have sought to fuse all ethnic and ethno-national groups into an all-encompassing nation, but one that retains mostly what can be referred to now as Han elements.

To be sure, the CPC’s policies are not simply derivative of Confucianism. Indeed, it would be naive to believe the Party’s top brass continues to cling to ideas of statecraft presented in The Analects or pontificated by Mencius. Yet, CPC leaders are undoubtedly versed in a narrow presentation of the past that places them near the telos of a history—although “glorious”— that has been punctuated by examples of failed states, often caused by the hands of “outsiders.” 

Therefore it’s my belief that the CPC’s growing anxiety over religious groups does not stem solely from theistic intolerance per se (remember that Chinese citizens are extended the freedom to believe) but is reflective of a new xenophobia. Indeed, faith communities in China are possibly more global than ever before. Although Tibet is bound by administrative borders and monitored carefully using a “grid system of social management,” its major religious and cultural centers—not to mention its “patron saint,” the Dalai Lama—now operate from India. Although Turkic Muslims face strict restrictions on travel, they created and strengthened transnational-religious bonds with co-religionists using social media apps. Meanwhile, the history of Christianity in China (both Catholicism and Protestantism) is also a story of European and American imperialism. 

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to deny that those ethno-religious groups with the strongest ties to the outside have been persecuted most severely under Xi. The crisis in Xinjiang—the mass incarceration and forced labor programs targeting Uighur, Kazakh, and Hui—is a case in point. Although scholars and activists continue to debate the extent that the CPC focuses its crosshairs on these groups because of “culture” or “religion,” bureaucrats in Beijing and Xinjiang do not acknowledge the complexities of these ethno-national groups. Rather, they consider these collectivities and their corresponding identities, regardless of individual religious convictions, as being animated by Islamic norms. Even though the Qaraqash documents reveal violations of birth control policy as the single-most reported reason for incarceration, this fact does not invalidate this argument. Ethnographies have shown at least indirect connections between Uighur preferences for large families and Islam; CPC leaders assume these connections are linked to “sharia” law.

Regardless of the motivations behind these atrocities, they must be stopped. Although the United States has anointed itself as the world’s champion for religious freedom, President Donald Trump would not mention Xinjiang in a recent speech to the UN, likely to avoid derailing the U.S.-China “trade deal.” Instead, the Trump administration has largely placed the issue of religious persecution in China on the desks and in the speeches of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador-at-Large Samuel Brownback, Congressman Marco Rubio, and State Department officials. Yet, Trump’s deafening silence on the issue effectively mutes these voices and undermines their efforts. To compound matters, many of Washington’s staunchest advocates for religious freedom in China are conservative politicians who carry records bloodstained by U.S.-led campaigns in Muslim-majority countries and tend to be hawks on China. Therefore, it is understandable that many remain suspicious about the U.S. government’s intentions for thrusting itself—in any capacity—in this matter. 

Yet, condemnation needed to start somewhere, and it needs to continue even more forcefully. Although religious persecution in China and the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang may have become “right-wing” issues in the United States, they do not need to remain pigeonholed in these clumsy categories. In fact, this crisis provides a rare opportunity for bipartisanship, civic engagement, and global partnerships. Before this type of unity is forged, however, we as individuals need to set aside our own political biases. Surely, only a global effort can persuade the CPC to scale back its violence.

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