“There is a saying in China: ‘If you are not one of our kind, your heart is toward another side.’ Being different is what is so threatening to the Chinese government.”
These are the words of Jewher Ilham, spoken during a recent event at Family Research Council. Ms. Ilham is the daughter of a well-known Uyghur economist, writer, and academic who was given a life sentence for speaking out about freedom of religion and thought, and for seeking reconciliation between his people and the Han Chinese.
Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic community, the majority of whom live in Xinjiang province. It’s there that some of China’s most blatant abuses of religious liberty are currently taking place.
Eyewitness testimonies, leaked documents, and even Google Earth searches over the past year have all revealed a chilling reality: China has imprisoned at least a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities in detention camps in Xinjiang. Initially, Chinese authorities flatly denied the existence of the camps. But as World Magazine reported, with evidence mounting, the Chinese authorities changed their tune to claim these camps were “vocational training centers for Muslim minorities with terrorist tendencies.”
According to Ms. Ilham, the family members of the missing are told that their loved ones are being “trained to be productive workers.” But she says many of the imprisoned Uyghurs are scholars or doctors who require no such vocational training.
Undercover footage from one of the camps under construction—obtained by a reporter for the website Bitter Winter who was later arrested by Chinese authorities and is still missing—revealed double-locked doors, barred windows fitted with metal screens, and surveillance cameras in every room, including bathrooms.Leaked government documents detail a daily regimen of indoctrination in communist thought, Han Chinese (Mandarin) language lessons, and strictly monitored activities from toileting to daily exercise, which takes place in a yard surrounded by barbed wire. Other documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists detail education in basic human interaction and daily living, reflecting a widespread Chinese belief that Uyghurs are “backward.”
Leaked specifications from one camp reveal a facility built to hold detainees for a year at a minimum. The detainees are permitted contact with their families, however this concession seems to have been engineered only to bolster the Chinese characterization of the camps as a benevolent social program. Testimony from ex-inmates reveals the reality: despite a stated goal of health and safety for “students,” ex-detainees relate having seen others die from poor living conditions and a lack of medical treatment. They have also reported experiencing or witnessing torture, beatings, and rape.
Some past incidents of violence provided Beijing with official reasoning for their “anti-terrorism” efforts among Uyghurs, but the methods they use to determine who is to be imprisoned reveal a goal of assimilation, not correction or rehabilitation. Using a massive network of surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology, access to utility and cell phone usage data, and monitoring other odd indicators of “suspicious behavior” such as entering one’s home through the back door, the government has largely used artificial intelligence to produce huge lists of “potential threats.”
According to reporting in Foreign Policy, when detainees complete their indoctrination, they do not return to freedom. Most, if not all, are involuntarily sent to work in sweatshops, even though many are skilled scholars, scientists, or businesspeople. This involuntary labor allows for continued state surveillance and control. Of particular concern for Americans is the mounting evidence that American apparel brands may be benefiting directly from the cheap labor Uyghurs are being forced to supply. The White House has yet to act, but experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies are recommending the Trump administration impose sanctions on companies engaged in human rights abuses.
Despite the state’s efforts to put a benevolent face on “re-education” efforts among Uyghur “students,” it is clear that this “re-education” is actually ideological ethnic cleansing enabled by technology from which there is no escape. President Xi Jinping himself is quoted in leaked documents, saying the government should use the tools of “dictatorship” to rid the region of Islam. Another government document likens the “unhealthy thoughts” of Uyghurs to a virus that must be eradicated.
Christians Come Under Communist Party Scrutiny
The detention camps are a horrifying example of the extremes to which China’s state-run religious persecution will go, but Uyghurs are by no means the only people group targeted by the Chinese Communist Party. As Ms. Ilham relates, Beijing in recent years has increasingly targeted Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, and even non-religious groups like human rights lawyers. In fact, says Ilham, “China is the number one nation in the world for [numbers of] journalists and lawyers locked up in prison.”
Christians in the West have long been aware of China’s persecution of Christians. In recent years, however, many “unregistered” churches had emerged from secrecy—meeting in public, buying buildings or operating out of leased spaces, and erecting crosses to mark their church homes. Some congregations grew to be quite large, such as prominent house church Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu.
But as the church in China grew, Beijing once again took notice, and the crackdowns began. As International Christian Concern has reported, government forces have toppled crosses, demolished church buildings, arrested and intimidated pastors and church members, pressured landlords to terminate church leases, and installed facial recognition technology inside those church buildings that remain open.
Early Rain Covenant Church pastor Wang Yi, a former legal scholar, had been outspoken in his criticism of the Chinese government and its persecution of Christians. Wang, along with his wife and over 100 other church members, was placed under arrest last year. Most were released soon after, but those who were not natives of Chengdu were sent back to their hometowns. Pastor Wang’s wife was finally released in June of last year, but she remains under house arrest.
Wang, after a closed-door trial, was recently sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” and “operating an illegal business.” According to Bob Fu of ChinaAid, this is the longest prison sentence given to a house church pastor in more than a decade. Pastor Wang remains in good spirits and health, but members of the Early Rain congregation continue to face the loss of their community and fear over future government action, even as they have been forced back underground.
It comes as no surprise that China’s persecution of Christians has spread to include the resources upon which they depend. As World Magazine reported, when users of the popular YouVersion app experienced the program crashing because of China’s firewall technology, three Chinese Christians developed their own Bible reading app called WeDevote. The app grew in popularity until it was the top-ranked Bible app in China.
WeDevote became a source for Bible study resources, reading plans, commentaries, devotionals, and—as the creators were thrilled to discover—an evangelism tool. Trouble began when officials contacted one of the creators and let him know they were monitoring his every move, as well as his wife’s. Authorities threatened to charge the company with creating an illegal app, so the creators elected to shut down and transfer ownership to Hong Kong.
This solved access issues for a time, but the app was recently removed from the Android App Store (operated by Google). It remains available in Apple’s App Store, but most cell phone users in China use Android-based technology.
Many Christians in China recently learned even death cannot end their persecution—as, in some provinces, only secular funerals are now permitted. World News recently reported how, in other areas, strict regulations now dictate who may participate in funerals and how many attendees may read from the Bible or sing. Authorities threaten arrest and, in some cases, have interrupted services and even arrested a family member of the deceased while she was praying.
In late December, Christians received news of yet another crackdown in the form of a nationwide mandate. According to the Catholic News Agency, the 41 articles of this new policy contain new threats to those who dare to pledge their allegiance to Jesus, rather than the Communist Party. Yet millions of believers remain faithful.
When the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with a question of government loyalty, He responded in wisdom, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17 ESV). Xi Jinping and the Chinese communist regime do not understand that the hearts and minds of Chinese Christians do not and never will belong to them. Christians have found freedom that transcends earthly circumstances and daily live out Jesus’ admonition: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:38, ESV).
Will We Let Them Stand Alone?
We must not abandon our brothers and sisters in Christ, nor the other vulnerable minorities subjected to oppression and persecution for their beliefs. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right upon which all other freedoms depend. Thankfully, some of our nation’s leaders recognize this right and have taken action in the following ways:
- The U.S. Congressional Commission on China produced a lengthy report listing four acts that qualify the nation as committing crimes against humanity.
- The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which calls for targeted sanctions against officials in the Chinese Communist Party. The act encourages the U.S. president to condemn China’s persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and call for the closure of the detention camps there.
- The Commerce Department has blacklisted 28 Chinese surveillance technology companies, barring them from buying technology from the United States without government approval.
As you consider the plight of Christians, Uyghurs, and others experiencing persecution for their beliefs in China, here are a few areas we encourage you to focus your prayers:
- Pray for protection for Pastor Wang Yi and the rest of the Early Rain Covenant Church community, that they would find new joy and peace in their faith and that God would raise leaders to continue the work of the church.
- Pray for revival in China and supernatural conversions within the Chinese Communist Party.
- Pray for comfort for Uyghurs living abroad—according to Jewher Ilham, every Uyghur overseas has between one and ten family members in the detention camps. Pray they would encounter the hope that only Jesus can give.
- Pray for the leaders of the United States, the international community, and governing bodies, that they would continue calling out injustice and using their influence to affect change for millions of vulnerable people.
- Pray that the Chinese government will not use the coronavirus pandemic as a cover to place additional restrictions on the religious freedom of Christians and other minority groups.
Bethany Bachman is a Contributing Writer at Family Research Council.