The Chinese Communist persecution of Muslims and Christians is not new, and dates to the beginnings of the regime. Fierce persecution of Christians in the 1950s was matched by a concerted and successful regime effort to change the demographic character of the Muslim majority of Xinjiang by bringing in millions of Han Chinese settlers.
But if tension between Chinese and Turkic Muslims in Central Asia is an old, indeed ancient, story, the current wave is very new. Accelerating under the regime of President Xi Jinping, the brutal Chinese repression of religion, particularly Muslims and Christians, is particularly worrying because it comes wrapped inside both technological innovation and a global will to power.
Chinese re-education camps for more than a million Muslims (the number of detainees may be as high as three million), forced abortions and sterilization, forced labor, and the destruction of the region's physical religious heritage by destroying mosques, shrines and cemeteries have been matched by the growth of a police state unparalleled even in China. The implementer on the ground of this coercive totalitarian surveillance state is a regime official previously in charge of controlling and suppressing China's restive Tibetan population. China even has plans to rewrite the Quran to fit the regime's ideological values.
The Bible is already being rewritten by the regime, as persecution of Christians also soars. The blasphemous regime rewriting of the passage of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery in the Gospel of John makes Jesus a murderer, but also enforces a message of obedience to the state and its officials.
There is a difference between the persecution of Muslims and Christians in China, of course. First of all, there may be more Chinese Christians than Muslims. But, more importantly, most Christians in China are ethnic Han Chinese, not ethnic minorities such as Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples who are also found in specific zones. Christians are imprisoned and persecuted, but have not as yet been placed in concentration camps by the millions as Muslims have been. However, there have historically been many cases of individual Christians who spent decades jailed for their faith in China.
But the "Sinicization" campaigns targeting Christians and Muslims are similar in many ways. Both campaigns are widespread, coercive, and destructive. Both aim, through social engineering, technology, and raw power, to prevent the growth of these faiths, to stop adherents from raising their children in their faith, and to strip these religions of their distinctiveness and make them "fit" into the dominant ideology promoted by the party and the state. The growth of both religions is seen as a major threat to that ideology.
One would think that the jailing of millions, the indoctrination, the violence, the blowing up of mosques and churches, and the rewriting of holy writ would have led to massive global repudiation and anger against China. After all, the burning of ONE Quran in Florida once led to riots. The printing of content insulting the Prophet Muhammad by one publication has actually now led to three terrorist attacks (2011, 2015, 2020) on Charlie Hebdo, and violent riots against the publication broke out in Niger, Algeria, Jordan, and Pakistan.
But it isn't just the sensitivities of Muslims. Is there no more loudly trumpeted value in the liberal West than "freedom?" The freedom to believe or to dissent, to do what you want – which would presumably include believing in a religion and worshiping in peace. But the astonishing reality is that there has been more global turmoil over the actions of the Minneapolis police in killing one man than there has been over a coldly calculated massive campaign of state terror and savage repression targeting tens of millions of people. China's repression of religion has cost them little in terms of trade or economic relations.
The lust for profit and greed has trumped what political activist Maajid Nawaz has called "the most technologically sophisticated genocide in history." Muslim states that stridently trumpet their Islamic credentials – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan – have not only been largely silent about China but actually seek closer ties with Beijing while all this is going on. But the same is true in the West. Emblematic Western institutions – Hollywood, the National Basketball Association, powerful social media companies, elite Western universities – are not only silent but actually go out of their way not to offend the Chinese regime. These are the same institutions exquisitely attuned to leading in the latest causes or trends assailing the West, from identity politics to gender issues. The Trump administration has been much more openly critical than others – including previous American administrations and the European Union – on China, but that difference is only in relative terms, because those others were so shamelessly obsequious for so long.
Obviously, part of this global complicity is deeply rooted in greed. That would certainly be true of Western institutions. For Muslim states, greed is also an element, but what China is doing is not that different than what many regimes already do. Many Muslim states also discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and religion, using national security as an excuse. Xi Jinping locks up Muslims and persecutes Christians. But so do Erdogan and Khamenei. And while Western liberal states haven't gone that far, there is a coercive and intolerant element in Western liberal institutions, especially when it comes to religion, and this element seems to be growing.
Contempt for religion is, increasingly, a Western liberal trait, and in this, China and Western progressives' worldviews overlap. Both see organized religion as an obstacle to their plans. China's "Great Firewall" (which began as the "Golden Shield Project) to surveil citizens and control content, including religious content, was built with the help of American companies, including Cisco.
With Western and Muslim institutions largely indifferent to China's savage religious persecution campaign, what is to be done? A logical step would be a drawing together of Muslims and Christians, along with others of good will, to aggressively challenge this infamy. It will not be easy given longstanding grievances between the two faiths, and the bitter reality that in most of the Muslim world, official Islam is cynically controlled and manipulated by the state – states that are often collaborators and enablers of China. Institutions like the Holy See, which could play a useful convening role in such a struggle, are paralyzed because of a controversial accord between the Vatican and China which has yielded very few real benefits to Chinese Catholics.
But a way forward must be found. Regardless of the challenges of this low, dishonest decade, we must speak out. We must be bold in exposing and documenting the Chinese regime's crimes against people of faith, all of them, and at the very least seek to raise the reputation costs for their willing collaborators, whether in American boardrooms or European councils or in the lands of Islam.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
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