The last time I wrote for this column, I wrote about the dangers of mixing nationalism and religion. At the same time, though, it is important to acknowledge how authoritarian government threatens religious adherents and religions themselves.
China is an important example. On the face of things, China has some freedom of religion. I’ve been to many temples all over China, and on any day, they are busy places. But only five approved religions are tolerated. Further, as religious studies professor John Powers as pointed out, school children are taught that religion is nothing but superstition. Religious believers are banned from joining the Chinese Communist Party.
In Tibet and Xinjiang, repression of religion goes hand in hand with attempts to erase minority culture. Tibet is the home of Tibetan Buddhism, an important feature of Tibetan cultural identity – nine out of ten Tibetans identify as Buddhist – but as the U.S. State Department reports, the Chinese government controls all aspects of the religion.
The effects on monks and nuns have been profound. I have spoken with monks who have told me and others their stories of imprisonment and torture, in grave and horrifying detail. They explained how they managed to stay alive through it, and they also informed us of the many who did not survive the beatings and the electric prods. Over the past decade, over 150 men and women, many of whom were monastics, have set themselves on fire to protest the repression of their beliefs and culture. Most have died. The world is largely unaware of their deaths.
Now stories of brutality are emerging from Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur ethnic minority. Uyghurs are Muslim. Islam, ironically, is one of the five religions allowed by the Chinese government to be practiced. It appears, though, that the state is determined to eradicate Uyghur culture. People are being held in detention camps, and the stories emerging of torture in those camps – both methods (including rape, beatings, and electric prods among others) and systematic dehumanization – are strikingly similar to the stories I heard first hand from Tibetan Buddhist monks.
The CCP has a set ideology. To deviate from its ideology is a kind of heresy. It uses propaganda relentlessly to instill its ideology, and it tolerates no threat to its dominance. When Mao was alive, I would have called him a cult leader, and his cult was deadly; the world still does not know how many Chinese people died as a result of Maoism’s deadly ideology. The CCP may not be a cult, but it is certainly ideological.
In Party thinking, Professor Powers explains, if you are a Chinese citizen in a city or the countryside, for instance, and you want to be a Christian, go ahead – but you are not supposed to believe in God, because the CCP says that supernatural beings don’t exist, and you are not supposed to believe in the Resurrection, because the CCP says there is no life after death, either. Nothing is allowed to challenge the ideology and primacy of the Party, especially not the desire for autonomy by cultural minorities for whom religion is a central part of cultural identity.
When I am in China, I know that I may not discuss Tibet. Certainly, now I would not be able to discuss Xinjiang either. The Dalai Lama is aging; when he dies, the CCP will install its own new “Dalai Lama”; it has already disappeared the traditionally-identified Panchen Lama and installed its own.
China is certainly not the first or only example of government targeting religious groups. For example, Myanmar associates itself with Theravada Buddhism (though it has no official state religion). A core belief in Buddhism is non-violence, non-harm. Yet Myanmar’s government and military pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority that included rape, killing, and burning of villages. Starting in 2017 over a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, where the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports that hundreds of thousands still now remain in refugee settlements, while those remaining in Myanmar are at threat of further violence. Meanwhile, In Iraq, the U.N. and journalists and scholars report that 80% of Christians have fled the country over the past few years because of persecution by the Islamic State and the Iraqi-state sponsored PMF.
Under authoritarian governments, religion can be either part of the “brand” or a target. Power wants to sustain itself and to expand, and while religions can wield that power – to violent ends as well as beneficial ones (The Islamic State provides an example of the former)– they can also be crushed under it. Belief may endure – but the cost can be wrenching.