Let’s be blunt: China is accumulating a record of Orwellian savagery toward religious people.
At times under Communist Party rule, repression of faith has eased, but now it is unmistakably worsening. China is engaging in internment, monitoring or persecution of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists on a scale almost unparalleled by a major nation in three-quarters of a century.
Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch argues that China under Xi Jinping “poses a threat to global freedoms unseen since the end of World War II.”
To its credit, China has overseen extraordinary progress against poverty, illiteracy and sickness. The bittersweet result is that Chinese people of faith are more likely than several decades ago to see their children survive and go to university – but also to be detained.
China’s roundup of Muslims in internment camps – which a Pentagon official called concentration camps – appears to be the largest such internment of people on the basis of religion since the collection of Jews for the Holocaust. Most estimates are that about 1 million Muslims have been detained in China’s Xinjiang region, although the Pentagon official suggested that the actual number may be closer to 3 million.
Muslims reportedly are being ordered to eat pork or drink alcohol, against their religious principles. China has also offered “free health checks” that are used to get fingerprints, photos and DNA samples from Muslims for a surveillance database.
While China hasn’t established concentration camps for Christians, it has harassed congregations, closed or destroyed churches, in some areas barred children from attending services and last year detained Christians about 100,000 times, according to China Aid, a religious watchdog group (if one person was detained five times over the year, that would count as five detentions).
China has tried to install monitoring cameras in churches, including on the pulpit aimed at the congregation. With China’s facial recognition software, that would enable security authorities to identify who shows up at services.
The country is also experimenting with even more Orwellian technology, including the Ministry of Public Security’s mass surveillance system and a “Social Credit System” that can create a blacklist for those who don’t pay debts or who cheat on taxes, break traffic rules or attend an unofficial church.
Blacklisted individuals can be barred from buying plane or train tickets: Although the system is still being tested in different ways at the local level, last year it barred people 17.5 million times from purchasing air tickets, the government reported.
It could also be used to deny people promotions or assign a ring tone to their phone warning callers that they are untrustworthy.
The system isn’t focused on religious people, and some argue that it isn’t as menacing as it is sometimes portrayed, but it’s easy to see how the Social Credit System could punish faith communities – especially if it is integrated with a mass surveillance network. The Xinjiang mass surveillance system explicitly targets people who collect money for a mosque “with enthusiasm.”
Through it all, Chinese people of faith have shown enormous courage. One Catholic bishop, James Su Zhimin, 87, has been detained by China since he led a religious procession in 1996. Counting previous detentions, he has spent a total of four decades in prisons and labor camps.
The paradox is that for half a century before the communist revolution in 1949, Western missionaries traveled around China, operated schools and orphanages and had negligible impact on the country.
Yet these days missionaries are banned, ministers are persecuted and Christianity has grown prodigiously. There are many tens of millions of Christians, mostly Protestants, with some estimates as high as 100 million.
Some are part of officially recognized churches that pledge loyalty to the government, but most are part of the underground church that has been the main target of the crackdown.
Tibetan Buddhists have likewise suffered brutally. Most extraordinary is the fate of the Panchen Lama, the No. 2 figure in Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama.
The previous Panchen Lama died in early 1989. Following tradition, Tibetans in 1995 chose a 6-year-old boy as the next incarnation of the Panchen Lama. Shortly afterward, the Chinese authorities kidnapped the boy and his family, and they haven’t been seen since. In his place, the Chinese helped pick a different person as a rival Panchen Lama.
(When the Dalai Lama dies, something similar may happen, so at that point there would be two Dalai Lamas and two Panchen Lamas.)
The true Panchen Lama, once the world’s youngest political prisoner, has now apparently been detained for 24 years, along with his entire family, through reformist Chinese leaders and repressive ones.
We can’t transform China, but we can apply levers like targeted sanctions on individuals and companies participating in abuses of freedom – plus we can certainly do more to speak up for prisoners of conscience of all faiths.
It’s as important to push for their freedom as to seek more soybean exports.
Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times columnist. Contact him at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.