US Secretary of State says China ‘criminalises religious expression’ as report on religious freedom is released


The US State Department released its annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world on Wednesday, slamming Beijing for suppressing Christians, Uygur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists and sanctioning a senior Communist Party official.

In releasing the 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Chinese Communist Party official Yu Hui, the former director of a Chengdu office aimed at suppressing “heretical religions”, would be denied entry to the United States, along with his immediate family.

“He is designated for his involvement in gross violations of human rights, namely the arbitrary detention of Falun Gong practitioners for their spiritual beliefs,” said Blinken, referring to the exercise and meditation group founded in 1992 and banned in China as an “evil cult” in 1999.

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“We will continue to consider all appropriate tools to promote accountability for those responsible for human rights violations and abuses in China,” Blinken added.

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The 2,400-page survey examined religious tolerance in some 200 countries and territories. China accounted for the largest section, and the State Department cited persistent reports of Chinese human rights violations, including torture, physical abuse, arrests, detention, forced indoctrination of Communist Party ideology and deaths in custody of religious believers.

“China broadly criminalises religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uygurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups,” Blinken told reporters.

Separately, John Kerry, the US special envoy on climate, told Congress on Wednesday that the Biden administration was considering whether to impose sanctions on solar panels and other products made in Xinjiang believed to have been made using Uygur forced labour.

China only recognises five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. And in theory, to hold worship services, religious groups must register and belong to one of five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations”, though many unofficial groups operate without approval.

The report found that the Chinese government “continued its 2019-2024 campaign of ‘Sinicization’ to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts”.

Washington designated China in 1999 a “country of particular interest” – a term to express concern over its suppression of religious beliefs – and it has remained on the list ever since. In 2020, it was one of 10 nations so designated, along with others including Iran, Myanmar, Russia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

“One might say they are charter members of the country-of-particular-concern club,” Daniel Nadel, director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, said in an interview.

While the Biden administration in its first four months has often sought to draw a sharp line between itself and the often-mercurial Trump administration on policy and tone, the report suggested a strong continuity on religion.

On issues of religious expression, Nadel said, there was virtually no daylight between Republicans and Democrats on their view of China or broader concerns.

Daniel Nadel, head of the department’s international religious freedom office, said of China that “unfortunately when it comes to issues of fundamental freedoms, there is no path but an adversarial approach”. Photo: AFP

“Religious freedom has been an unbelievably bipartisan effort,” he said. “Our relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be and adversarial where it must be.

“And unfortunately when it comes to issues of fundamental freedoms, there is no path but an adversarial approach.”

According to the State Council, China’s cabinet, the county of 1.4 billion has more than 200 million religious adherents – international civic groups estimate it is nearly double that figure – and around 5,500 religious groups.

The US estimates that Buddhists make up around 18.2 per cent, Christians 5.1 per cent, Muslims 1.8 per cent, followers of folk religions 21.9 per cent and atheists some 52.2 per cent of the population. Hindus, Taoists and Jews make up less than one per cent.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the report. But Beijing has frequently condemned the US for what it terms its meddling, hypocrisy and attempts to impose its human rights standards on the rest of the world.

In March, Beijing released an 18-page report analysing the US human rights record that cited racial injustice, gun violence and the US response to the pandemic. The United States “has always considered itself an exception and superior” and “sees itself as “the so-called ‘city upon a hill’ and ’beacon of democracy’“, it said.

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Nadel said that the US welcomes scrutiny and is hardly perfect, adding that it has a series of institutions – including rule of law, a free media, an independent judiciary and periodic elections “so you can vote the bums out” when officials fall short.

“None of these checks are available to the vast majority of Chinese people,” he said. “They are simply subjects of their government, rather than participants in their government.”

The State Department report said that religious groups in Hong Kong were divided about how the national security law Beijing imposed on the city last summer would affect worship. In 2020, religious freedom remained unchanged, the groups reportedly said, “although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities”.

The State Department cited a huge gap between Chinese religious freedoms and the wide latitude Chinese officials have to limit worship to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal”.

In the Tibetan region, it said, reports persist of “forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices”.

And in Xinjiang, it added, Uygurs were subject to political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, forced sterilisation, sexual abuse and forced labour, among other practices, due to their religion and ethnicity.

“There‘s no question that the PRC government is among the worst abusers of religious freedom in the entire world,” Nadel said.

Additional reporting by Jacob Fromer

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