Both the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the Dui Hua Foundation quote extensively from Bitter Winter.
by Massimo Introvigne
Bitter Winter was founded in 2018 to inform about violations of religious liberty in China, and when we are quoted in official or authoritative reports we have a feeling that our mission is accomplished. We are also grateful to those who read and quote us.
The annual report of the bipartisan and bicameral U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, released on March 31, is a well-crafted and comprehensive summary of what it calls “the horrors the Chinese government and Communist Party perpetrate against the Chinese people.” The text should really be read in full, and includes two substantial parts on the eradication of the Turkic identity in Xinjiang, the Tibetan Buddhist identity in Tibet, and the Mongolian identity in Inner Mongolia, and on the destruction of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. It also covers violations of human rights in the fields of freedom of the press, human trafficking (including bride trafficking from North Korea), workers’ rights, and discrimination of LGBT people.
Of special interest to our readers would be the not less substantial chapter on the dire state of religious freedom in China. The Commission agrees with Bitter Winter that the situation of all religions in China under Xi Jinping went from bad to worse. It also calls the attention on a subject we have covered often in our magazine, how COVID-19, which was of course a very real problem in China, was used to introduce more surveillance that targeted all forms of dissent, including “illegal” religion, a surveillance that is there to stay.
All religions, the report says, suffered, including the five authorized religions and Roman Catholicism, whose devotees according to the Commission so far did not derive any benefit from the Vatican-China Deal of 2018. In 2021, there was a marked increase of the repression of Hui Muslims, who are ethnically Han Chinese and in the past were treated less harshly than the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. While all religionists suffer, the report notes, “according to reporting from the religious freedom magazine Bitter Winter and other sources, the Chinese government has increased its repression of religious communities outside of the five religions subject to official regulation. Authorities have designated certain groups as ‘cults’ or ‘’heterodox teachings’ (xiejiao), including the Church of Almighty God and the Association of Disciples, and prosecuted adherents under Article 300 of the PRC Criminal Law.”
The Church of Almighty God appears as a main target. “Reports indicate that in fall 2020, authorities launched a three-year nationwide crackdown against The Church of Almighty God, leading to over 1,100 detentions within three months from September to November 2020, and prison sentences for some ranging from one year and six months to nine years under Article 300 of the PRC Criminal Law.” As Bitter Winter repeatedly reported, COVID also led to a renewed popularity of Falun Gong, whose exercises were successfully promoted as effective to strengthen the immune system, and to a renewed repression of the movement. The Commission notes that allegations of organ harvesting have been regarded as “credible” by authoritative international bodies, although it states that “the Chinese government’s failure to disclose relevant data” on organ transplants makes investigating the practice very difficult.
A different discussion of the groups labeled as “xie jiao” comes from a report by the Dui Hua Foundation just published under the title “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China.” Dui Hua maintains a difficult dialogue on human rights with the Chinese government, and its willingness to consider the latter’s points of view have led the Foundation in the past to conclusions on religion in China we did not always agree with.
However, Dui Hua’ study of “xie jiao,” which it translates as “unorthodox religious groups” while noting the official Chinese translation as “evil cults,” is a useful 66-page document about the persecution of new religious movements in China. In a comparatively short text, there are 26 quotes from Bitter Winter, which again we appreciate.
Some conclusions of the Dui Hua report concur with comments we made often in Bitter Winter, including identifying The Church of Almighty God (CAG) and Falun Gong as the most persecuted movements. Like us, Dui Hua also notes that the repression of Falun Gong, which somewhat decreased before COVID-19, with the specialized anti-xie-jiao police focusing more on the CAG, was revamped due to the new popularity of Falun Gong during the pandemic.
There is also a methodological comment Dui Hua, whose specialty is law, elaborates on, which Bitter Winter also mentioned. The Chinese government operates China Judgements Online (CJO), the largest legal data base in the world. At some stage in 2021, Chinese authorities realized that CJO was used by human rights and religious liberty activists to document persecution, and on June 25, 2021, all of a sudden cancelled 11 million decisions form the data base. As Dui Hua reports, the purge included “a large number of Article 300 cases.” As mentioned earlier, Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code punishes those active in a xie jiao. Dui Hua, the report comments, “drew extensively on China Judgements online to conduct research and advocacy” and information about the repression of some group, including the Muslim transnational movement Tablighi Jamaat, “was discovered almost exclusively from CJO.”
In 2019, I and my colleagues James T. Richardson and Rosita Šorytė published a study of hundreds of CAG cases based exclusively on CJO. Such a study would be impossible today; as for the past, we took the precaution of saving on CESNUR’s website all the decisions we studied before they disappeared from CJO.
The purge of CJO has been a problem for us too. As Dui Hua reports, a few xie jiao cases still appear on CJO, but without motivations and details, with the label “unsuitable for disclosure.” Dui Hua notes that, even after the 2021 purge of CJO, “state-run news media outlets continue to report Article 300 cases although these sources chiefly serve to disseminate CCP propaganda against cult organizations.” Dui Hua regularly searches for “xie jiao” on Chinese media, and so do we. We also rely on the invaluable network of our local citizen journalists, but undoubtedly CJO as it was before June 2021 was a very convenient resource for those defending human rights in China, which is the very reason why it was purged.
The Dui Hua study lists 41 “unorthodox groups,” while noting that not all appear in official lists of the xie jiao. For instance, the report notes that some Jehovah’s Witnesses have been sentenced under Article 300, although they are not officially listed as members of a xie jiao (the same remark appears in the report of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China).
Dui Hua is about law rather than religion, and we may occasionally disagree on how groups are classified and presented. We have covered in Bitter Winter “xie jiao” not mentioned in the report, and vice versa. At any rate, the Dui Hua report is an excellent resource and is literally full of references to little known persecution campaigns. For example, it mentions that Yiguandao, which was the most persecuted religious movement in China in the 1950s, is still persecuted today.
Another interesting comment by Dui Hua is that when discussing the enormously controversial issue of religious statistics in China, Western observers would do well to remember that for the Chinese authorities and scholars the xie jiao are not religions. Their members are not counted in the statistics. “If the number of unorthodox religious adherents was incorporated into official figures, then the number of all religious practitioners in China would far exceed the current government figure of 200 million official practitioners,” and perhaps even alternative figures suggested by Western scholars.
New reports on religion in China continue to be published, often using materials from Bitter Winter. But they also remind us that Bitter Winter is not the first nor the only source on the persecution of the groups labeled as xie jiao. Despite the shrinking of CJO, the first source for the repression remains the CCP itself through its official documents and media.
These sources evidence the increasingly blurred distinction between “xie jiao” and other forms of “illegal religion.” Although in theory Article 300 is enforceable only against the xie jiao, Chinese judges are quite creative when it comes to reasoning by analogy, and there are other legal provisions that come out handy when courts want to punish all forms of independent or unauthorized religion.