Sep 9, 2019

China plays no favourites. It persecutes all religions

An interview with a world authority on Xi Jinping’s policies


Massimo Introvigne

September 9  2019


Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religion who has become an expert on religious persecution in China. MercatorNet interviewed him recently about his latest book (available only in Italian at the moment).

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You have just published “The Black Book of Religious Persecution in China” with readings from the Bitter Winter news service. What prompted you to take an interest in this?

Massimo Introvigne: I realized that some of the articles in Bitter Winter could be put together and rearranged as a coherent narrative about religious persecution in China. The book was basically already written, although it needed editing and coordination between the different chapters in order to become readable. It is in Italian but we are ready to consider proposals for other languages,

It appears that old-fashioned Communism is alive and well in China – the kind that despised religion as “the opium of the people”. Is the persecution motivated by Marxist doctrines or just cultural xenophobia?

Persecution is mostly motivated by power and control. The CCP believes that civil society, including -- particularly -- religion, was left unchecked in Eastern Europe and caused the collapse of Communism there. It does not want to repeat the same mistake. For some CCP leaders, power means keeping their luxurious lifestyle. But others are true believers, persuaded that by saving the power of CCP, the last genuine fortress of Marxism, they are saving the world.

Is President Xi Jinping personally responsible for this hatred of religion and the persecution? Will things change if he departs?

Xi Jinping did bring some personal ideas. He promotes the thesis of the superiority of Chinese culture -- by which he means Han culture, to be imposed on non-Mandarin speaking minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, whose languages he would like to eradicate.

But he borrows from intellectuals of the Chinese Enlightenment of the fin de siècle (late 19th and early 20th century) the narrative that Chinese culture is superior because it is intrinsically irreligious and even atheistic. This theory predates the CCP but there are no serious Western scholars who accept it today. It is based on a word game. It is true that before opening to the West, the Chinese did not have terms for "religion" and "God" (Catholic missionaries had used "Lord of Heaven" or the like), but they believed in a great variety of gods and practiced an enormous number of folk rituals.

In China, statistics are manipulated. But if you interview Chinese in the diaspora (I am co-author of such a book about Italy) a majority will tell you they have no "religion" and do not believe in "God." Those who do not know Chinese culture stop at this and conclude they are atheists. There are some atheists but they are a tiny minority.

The same respondents who answer surveys that they have no religion and no God answer "yes" to questions about whether they worship in temples, believe in astrology, practice divination or use feng shui. What they meant to say is that they do not belong to an organized, Western-like religion and do not believe in a monotheistic God. But in the common use of the word "religion" by Western scholars, they are indeed religious.

Based on this myth of the irreligious Chinese culture, Xi Jinping is cracking down on all religions, even if some are more persecuted than others.

Bitter Winter has carried some ghastly stories which clash with China’s image as a progressive modern economy. Can you prove them? Are they well documented?

We are not alone. For instance the United Nations Rapporteur for Human Rights, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom, and the US Department of State have reported many stories of torture and extrajudicial killings.

As for the destruction of statues, temples and churches, these sources often quote Bitter Winter -- we are the only one publishing images and videos in most cases.

Totalitarian regimes do not deliver a "certificate of torture" to their victims, but the number of witnesses -- Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, members of groups labelled as "cults" such as Falun Gong and The Church of Almighty God, house church Christians -- is simply overwhelming.

Are traditional Chinese religions like Taoism and Buddhism under pressure, too?

In China, there are five state-controlled religious bodies: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Taoist, and Buddhist. They are what sociologist Yang Fenggang called the "red market" of religion.

The CCP publishes lists of groups they have banned as anti-government (xie jiao), including The Church of Almighty God, Falun Gong, and others. These are the mercilessly persecuted "black market."

In the middle, there is the "grey market" of groups which are not legal, but more or less tolerated, such as the Protestant house churches, what was used to be called the Underground Catholic Church before the China-Vatican agreement of 2018, and a plethora of independent Taoist and Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques.

This tolerance has always been precarious. Xi Jinping, particularly through the new law on religions of 2017, is trying to eliminate the "grey market."  So, either communities in the grey market join the official associations (the red market) or they are rejected in the hell of the black market, meaning – amongst other things -- that their places of worship are demolished.

Just in the province of Henan, after Xi became president, more than 15,000 "grey market" Christian house churches and places of worship were demolished. But this is also true for "grey market" Taoist and Buddhist temples and statues and Muslim mosques. We publish videos that many mainline media have reproduced.

Not even the “red market” is left alone. The provision that minors under 18 cannot enter houses of worship is enforced within the “red market” too, and churches, mosques, and temples found to be in violation of this rule have been demolished.

Have your correspondents confirmed reports that a million Uyghurs are behind bars, basically because they are Muslim? How long can this go on?

Based on satellite photographs and other sources, scholars such as Adrian Zenz and the US Department of State estimate that there are three million Uyghur, Kazakh and other Turkic Muslims in the so called "transformation through education camps". In Xinjiang, non-Muslims such as members of The Church of Almighty God are also in the camps.

At first, the CCP denied that the camps existed; now it claims that they are "schools." Bitter Winter was the first media outlet to shoot videos inside the camps and publish them (the reporter who did it was arrested and is still in jail). The videos proved that these are jails, not schools.

Harassment and persecution of the Catholic Church gets the most publicity in the international media. Are other Christian denominations being persecuted?

Some Christian movements are listed as "xie jiao" and being active in one of them is a crime. The most mercilessly persecuted group in China today is The Church of Almighty God. The structure of its theology is basically Christian but it believes that Christ came back as Almighty God incarnated in a Chinese woman who currently lives abroad. This leads some other Christians to regard them as not orthodox. There are other groups, including the more theologically mainstream Shouters, which are in the black market. But even being in the grey market is not easy today.

It seems bizarre that the CCP continues its policy of crushing the Catholic Church even after signing an agreement with the Vatican last year.

For several decades, although some prefer other versions of the narrative, there were two parallel Catholic Churches in China: the Patriotic Association, which was controlled by the CCP, and the persecuted Underground Church, which was loyal to the Vatican. Pius XII had excommunicated the Patriotic Association but under John Paul II and Benedict XVI a dialogue started. This eventually led to a 2018 agreement, whose text is secret.

In 2019, however, the Vatican published public guidelines about its implementation and complained it is often being misinterpreted by the CCP. The guidelines explain that the Vatican allows Catholic priests and bishops to join the Patriotic Association -- one can even read between the lines that the Vatican regards it as the normal situation -- even if Rome knows that some Patriotic positions and language are problematic.

At the same time, the guidelines say that the conscientious objectors who believe they cannot join the Patriotic Association for reasons of conscience should be "respected." The CCP interprets the agreement to the effect that those who do not join the Patriotic Association are rebels and should be persecuted and put under heavy pressure until they join.

I’ve heard horrific stories about forced organ donation from Falun Gong and The Church of God Almighty. Is there any truth to them? They seem too lurid to be true.

I believe the China Tribunal that examined the evidence in London was serious enough and concluded that most, or at least several, of these stories are true.

How have the persecuted religions responded? Sometimes persecution makes people even more devout and draws converts.

Yes, and this enrages the CCP about The Church of Almighty God. Persecuted as they are, they grow. The CCP states that it has four million members. Perhaps they are fewer -- nobody knows for sure -- but few doubt that its growth has been phenomenal. A look at the history of Christianity would have taught the CCP that persecutions do not stop the growth of Christians.

How should the international community react to these atrocities? How should we?  

This is difficult because of the commercial ties many countries have with China. But atrocities should be exposed. There is now a good level of media coverage and international protests about the Uyghurs and Falun Gong. There is much less about The Church of Almighty God, which appears now to be the most persecuted group. But slowly the drama of this Church is becoming better known, as well.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, established by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.

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