Religious Repression Continues in China
By Alex Colvin
As people gathered on Tiananmen Square to celebrate of China’s National Day on October 1, small groups of Falun Gong members emerged from the crowd chanting slogans and unfurling banners. Startled onlookers gaped as squadrons of police rushed forward and beat the demonstrators, herding them into white minivans.
One middle-aged woman with blood streaming from her mouth escaped briefly from the police only to be r e c a p t u r e d , slapped across the face and stuffed into an overcrowded van. Another woman fleeing across the plaza had her legs knocked out from under her and was kicked repeatedly by police. A large portion of Tiananmen Square was closed as more than 350 Falun Gong members were arrested and carted away.
On the same day, the 51st anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Tse Tung, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the canonization of 120 martyrs who had died for their faith in China. Although none of these saints had been martyred under the communist regime, the Chinese government reacted furiously, chastising the Vatican for honoring "evil-doing sinners."
China’s commemoration was further marred by the release of a 64-page report by the Tibet Information Network detailing the brutal treatment that led to the suicide of five nuns in the Drapchi prison in 1998. The nuns had been beaten, shocked with cattle prods, and forced to stand in the hot sun for days after refusing to sing patriotic songs.
These are but a few recent incidents in an unfolding saga of religious repression as the secular Marxist government in Beijing seeks to control a rising tide of religiosity throughout China. China recognizes five state-sponsored "patriotic" religions. The government is trying to curtail the activities of unregistered groups such as the underground Catholic Church, unregistered Christian "house churches," Tibetan Buddhists loyal to the Dalai Lama, many Muslims in the northwest provinces, and followers of popular new spiritual movements such as Falun Gong.
The battle to eliminate the Falun Gong began after 10,000 Falun Gong members staged a peaceful protest in Tiananmen Square in April 1999. In July of that year, the government banned the group and began arresting its leaders. In October 1999, the national legislature passed legislation enabling authorities to sentence members of "evil cults" and those who engage in illegal religious activities to up to seven years in prison.
Since that time, police have arrested tens of thousands of Falun Gong members. Numerous beatings have been reported. According to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Hong Kong, 62 Falun Gong members have died in custody. The latest fatality was 32-year-old Xie Gulying, who died October 18 after a beating in the police station in the eastern city of Zhuman. As many as 300 persons have been sentenced to prison terms up to 18 years. In addition, thousands have been sentenced to three-year terms in reeducationthrough- labor camps. A spokesman for the Chinese government boasted to an anti-cult conference in Seattle this year that the government has succeeded in reducing the numbers of Falun Gong from 2 million to less than 80,000. Yet, in spite of these intensive efforts, the Falun Gong continues to exist, as evidenced by their protest at Tiananmen in October.
Other religious groups suffer as well. In September, Catholic Bishop Zeng Jiungmu, who had been released as a good-will gesture to the West around the time of President Clinton’s visit to China, was re-incarcerated for refusing to accept the authority of the official "Patriotic" Catholic church. The official church does not recognize the authority of the Pope. During the same month, another 82-year-old Catholic priest, Ye Gongfeng, was arrested and tortured by police in the coastal province of Fuijan. In addition, unregistered Protestant churches continue to be persecuted. Thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns have been fleeing to India, and Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region have been subjected to a harsh crackdown.
China maintains that it is in accord with international standards guaranteeing the rights of religious freedom because it allows believers within the five "patriotic" religions to exercise their faith. Official policy is that those who do not register with the official religions are criminals—"evil cultists," separatists, and/or agents of foreign powers who wish to unduly westernize the country, promote disunity, and undermine the authority of the state and the communist party.
China’s leadership is preparing to turn over the reins of government to a younger generation of leaders within the next two years. They want to maintain their power, as well as China’s stability and territorial integrity. Seen through their eyes, true religious freedom poses a threat. Yet, as seen in their futile efforts to eliminate the Falun Gong or to curtail the growth of underground churches, religious repression only deepens the faith and conviction of the persecuted, creates further resentment against the government, and alienates China further from the international human rights community.