Coalition of various faiths and human rights organizations join to raise awareness and advocate for US tougher policy. American leaders voice their support.
On March 4, a new coalition dedicated to shining the light on the intense religious persecution in China was rolled out in the US Capitol in Washington, DC. The event brought together representatives of the various faiths to tell their stories of surveillance, arrest, abuse, and torture, including Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and practitioners of Falun Gong. It demanded action from the US Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce to discourage and punish human rights violations in China. And it attracted the attention of some of the highest officials of the US government focused on human rights and religious liberty.
The Coalition to Advance Religious Freedom in China (CARFC) is a multi-faith group consisting of over a dozen religious and human rights organizations, including ChinaAid, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Citizen Power Initiatives for China, Falun Gong, The Church of Almighty God, and the International Campaign for Tibet. It was organized by the International Religious Freedom Roundtable (IRFR).
Greg Mitchell, the co-Chair of the IRFR, opened the press conference announcing the formation of the Coalition. Mitchell outlined the group’s goals for the day, including 1.) to publicize widely the formation of the Coalition, 2.) to educate Washington policymakers and the wider public about the intense and worsening religious persecution in China, and 3.) to demand that China abide by the tenets of its own constitution guaranteeing religious freedom as well as the international obligations of China to ensure religious liberty.
Bi-partisan US Government Leaders Speak of the Need for Tough Official Action Against China
Top US policymakers were the first to speak. Sam Brownback, the US State Department Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, spoke on behalf of the Trump Administration. Ambassador Brownback emphasized the deep concern of the US government, saying that persecution was not limited to one, or a few, groups, but was pervasive. He noted that persecution had, in fact, increased since the responsibility of policing religion had been transferred directly to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He called China’s treatment of religious people a violation of basic human dignity and called on China to respect the UN Charter, and its own constitution, to respect the rights of people of all faiths.
Next, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) spoke. McGovern is the Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, an official body of the US Congress charged with monitoring human rights around the world. He is also a member of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China. McGovern declared that the “police state tactics” used by China to suppress religion are a sign of weakness and fear on the part of the Chinese government. He also emphasized the need to engage the private sector in pressuring China to change its policies. Western companies, he said, should not be allowed to provide technology and materials that facilitate religious persecution, or buy products from Chinese firms that participate in religious persecution (such as the companies that produce goods made by prison labor). He called for “more inspired, out-of-the-box thinking” for ways to pressure China and support persecuted people.
Former Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), who gave his name to the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, and who remains deeply involved in these issues, gave an impassioned speech calling on the coalition to take action. He compared the situation of believers in China to the era of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, and named a variety of outrages currently occurring, including the suppression of the Underground Catholic Church and the 130 Tibetan monks who have doused themselves in kerosene and set themselves on fire to protest their treatment.
Congressman Wolf brought up a very interesting point about the roughly 100 so-called Confucius Institutes active on US college campuses. Confucius Institutes are “educational” centers located on campuses and offering Chinese language and culture courses to students. But they are under the control of the Chinese Ministry of Education in Beijing, and are considered by many to be tools of propaganda and espionage at important US institutions. Congressman Wolf challenged every Confucius Institute to invite a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Tibetan Monk, a Muslim imam, and a Falun Gong practitioner to speak at their events and talk about their co-religionists in China. Any Confucius Institute that fails to do so, he says, should be shut down.
Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) reserved the room in the US Capitol for the event, and had intended to speak, but was unable to attend. However, the active participation of the Trump Administration and leaders of both parties in Congress demonstrates the broad, bi-partisan consensus about the intolerable nature of Chinese persecution of religion.
During a question and answer session following their remarks, Ambassador Brownback and Congressman McGovern stressed the need for legislative and Executive action. McGovern spoke, for example, of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which would deny visas to America for any Chinese official that impedes the travel of US officials to Tibet. McGovern also stressed the need to apply the Global Magnitsky Act, which sanctions individual officials who are guilty of human rights violations, to officials in China. Ambassador Brownback said that, while no action had yet been taken on Magnitsky sanctions, it was under consideration. Brownback also said he had challenged Chinese officials at the United Nations in New York to help locate Uyghur and other Muslim prisoners of transformation through education camps. Brownback says he receives letters every week from suffering families asking for help, but that the Chinese officials refused to respond to his request.
Coalition Announces Drive for Executive Action in Two Specific Areas to Bring Pressure on China
After the US officials spoke, the coalition introduced its first two joint actions:
- Louisa Coan Greve of the Uyghur Human Rights Project presented a coalition letter calling on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin to impose sanctions on Chinese officials guilty of human rights violations.
- Lianchao Han of the Citizen Power Initiatives for China presented a coalition letter to US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross calling on him to ensure that US companies are not providing technology or other assistance to the surveillance or detention of religious believers in China.
Representatives of Persecuted Believers Share Their Personal Stories of Repression and Torture
The final part of the press conference gave a voice to the various religious groups to speak about their suffering and persecution in modern China. Representatives from The Church of Almighty God, ChinaAid (Christian), International Campaign for Tibet (Buddhist), the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Uyghur Entrepreneurs Network (Muslim), and the Falun Gong Association of Washington (Falun Gong) shared their stories. The stories were very personal and gave a firsthand account of daily life in China.
A particularly brutal story came from Yu Ming, a Falun Gong practitioner who had just escaped from China. Sean Lin, a representative of the Falun Dafa Association, introduced Mr. Yu and translated for him. Mr. Yu reports that he was arrested in 2013, out of revenge for helping a fellow believer escape from CCP custody. He was sentenced to four years in prison, and reports that he was regularly stripped naked, shocked with a 300,000 volt electric cattle prod, chained to chairs and gates in stress positions for weeks at a time, force-fed, drugged, and even tied to a device called a “death bed,” with his arms and legs bound to the four corners of the bed for a month. Upon being released, he put his life at risk by investigating hospitals and taking pictures and videos of organ harvesting from prisoners. In a chilling reference, he called the system China’s “living organ bank.”
A young woman named Kunrui (Christina) Li, a member of the Church of Almighty God (CAG), spoke of the immense trauma of being a police officer, when she was in secret a member of a banned group herself. She described graduating from the police academy in 2008 and later becoming aware (although she did not personally participate in them) of the so-called anti-terror campaigns against Muslims, including the quotas for arrests demanded by her superiors. She secretly converted to The Church of Almighty God in 2012, and soon became aware that her co-religionists were arrested, detained, and tortured both in police stations and hotels in her region. Although she worked in a different department and was not involved in the crackdown on religion, she described her feelings as some of her believers were being tortured just a few yards away from her desk in her places of work. She disguised herself when she went to Church meetings and helped Church members but soon found herself under suspicion nonetheless. Luckily, she was about to get married, and her visa to America for the honeymoon became the only and last lifeline for her. Concealing from her beloved or her mother the situation she was in and dangers she was encountering, she fled China and never went back, but she says she still suffers from nightmares of being arrested and tortured for her beliefs.
A fellow CAG believer, Tracy Jiao, told her story. She was a former teacher who converted to The Church of Almighty God in 2011. She went to a religious meeting outside mainland China, and that was enough to put her on the CCP’s watch list. Knowing she was about to be arrested, Ms. Jiao went into hiding for four years, eventually procuring false documents which she used to escape to the US in 2016. She ended her story by talking about her mother whom she left behind in China. Afterwards she learned that her mother got cancer. She has no one to take care of her, and as her daughter, she will likely never see her again. Ms. Jiao said the CCP destroyed her family and made her a fugitive.
Two Uyghur Muslim men also spoke. Omer Kanat, of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, declared that it was “time for action” on religious liberty in China, and that governments, businesses, and universities must ask themselves whether it is legitimate to work with China at “this unique moment in history.” He used as an example the story of a young Muslim mother with a one-year-old child who was arrested and detained on accusations of “terrorism,” pushed to renounce Islam, and forced to repeat atheist and pro-Communist slogans daily, including “I will trust only Xi Jinping and the Party” and “There is no god.”
Mr. Kanat’s fellow Uyghur, Kuzzat Altay of the Uyghur Entrepreneurs Network, spoke about his imprisoned father. Mr. Altay one day received a WeChat message from his father saying simply, “They are taking me.” He hasn’t seen his father since. Mr. Altay fears his father is dead, because he had health problems, and his father’s 70-year-old sister was taken away previously and she died in custody. Mr. Altay ridiculed the idea that China was providing “vocational education” to detainees: he said his elderly father is a wealthy businessman, and needs no vocational training. He cited others who were detained, including two university presidents with PhDs. How could they need vocational training? Another friend of his, a young athlete, was taken to the hospital for DNA tests and then disappeared. He fears his friend was taken away for organ harvesting. He also mentioned that many Party members are looking for wives, because China’s one-child policy has left a huge imbalance between men and women of marriage age. Some party members, Mr. Altay says, simply take Uyghur women for their own, while some Uyghur women volunteer to marry Han Chinese Party members in exchange for guarantees that their families will be left alone.
Bob Fu, a Christian from ChinaAid, spoke of his excitement that the different ethnic and religious groups were finally united. He explained that, while they cannot paper over their differences, they must all realize that if one group is not free, everyone is not free. After discussing the increase in arrests, prison sentences, and incidents of torture, Mr. Fu focused on the issue of forced “sinicization” – the policy to make religions with Chinese characteristics approved by the CCP. He said that protestant churches in China are being forced to hang pictures of Xi and Mao in places of honor. He even said that the Christian hymn, “How Great Thou Art” that is sung to God, is being forced to be sung as, “How Great Thou Art, Chairman Xi.” He reported that Christians are receiving prison sentences of four to 13 years simply for having copies of books like “Pilgrim’s Progress” and John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.”
Finally, Bhuchung Tsering from the International Campaign for Tibet spoke about the persecution of Buddhists. He talked about Tibetans setting themselves on fire because of “the wounds of three generations.” He says Tibetans suffered first during the 1930s before the Communist takeover of China; then during World War II during the Long March; and again, in the 1950-60s, during the Cultural Revolution. What’s more, he cites the restrictions put on Buddhist and Tibetan studies in modern China. Many Tibetans live outside of the official Tibet Autonomous Region; but it is vital in Tibetan culture that people are able to study at various monasteries, regardless of arbitrary political boundaries. Unfortunately, in today’s China, students may not study across administrative lines. Finally, Mr. Bhuchung called for America and the West to apply standards of reciprocity to human rights, not just trade, as ongoing negotiations with China continue. Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a respected NGO working on behalf of human rights in China, was also introduced as part of the Coalition.
Optimism in the Face of Brutal Persecution
Despite the sad stories shared during the press conference, and the real suffering that believers are experiencing each day in China, the mood of the press conference was fairly upbeat and optimistic. Participants were encouraged that such a broad coalition had come together to engage in the fight, and that such senior US policymakers were engaged as well. The coalition has specific goals to achieve, namely to raise awareness of the suffering in China among a larger audience, and to push policymakers to take specific steps in terms of sanctions and pressure. The members of the Coalition to Advance Religious Freedom in China demonstrated that they are ready to “take things to the next level,” as many participants announced from the stage, in their fight for change in China.