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China’s Proxy War Against Faith

China’s growing influence provides a model for those who seek to repress religious institutions

On March 24, Honduras became the latest Latin American country to switch its allegiance from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. Costa Rica ended its diplomatic ties with Taiwan back in 2007, while Panama, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic all severed ties and entered relationships with China in 2017 and 2018. And Nicaragua, under the leadership of Daniel Ortega, has had an on and off relationship with China dating back to Ortega’s role on the governing Sandinista junta in the 1980s. Nicaragua officially broke ties with Taiwan and began its embrace of China in December 2021, shortly after Ortega was reelected to his fourth consecutive term in an election that was widely considered fraudulent. Most recently, the Ortega government has launched a campaign against the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, resulting in the abduction, sham trial, and imprisonment of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, the expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity and other Catholic organizations, and the closure of two Catholic universities. The government has also banned and repressed traditional public processions including the Way of the Cross and Los Cirineos, a tradition which commemorates the role of Simon the Cyrenian, who helped Jesus Christ carry the cross to Calvary.

Through strategic investment and infrastructure deals with developing nations including the Latin American examples listed, China has managed to sway Taiwanese allies, create a network of states reliant on Chinese funding, and has exported its model of authoritarian responses to dissent to wannabe dictators. China’s Belt and Road Initiative seeks to remake the old connections of the Silk Road under the Chinese empire with a modern network of global infrastructure that expands the People’s Republic of China’s commercial and geopolitical power. By funding projects such as railways, airports and energy pipelines, the Chinese government has expanded its geopolitical footprint, created special economic zones associated with the projects and established a network of developing countries which are economically indebted to it.

Much of the analysis of the Belt and Road Initiative has focused on its impacts in sub-Saharan Africa, where several countries have faced debt crises as a result of the infrastructure projects. But an underappreciated impact of the Belt and Road Initiative and significant economic ties with China is the potential for Chinese government influence in the human rights realm, including in regards to religious freedom.

China’s own track record of religious oppression and persecution remains one of the most abhorrent worldwide, with significant signs of deteriorating. While the Chinese Communist Party maintains official atheism, it recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. As detailed in the 2022 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Report, China engages in widespread persecution of various religious groups, most notably the genocide which has involved the detention, torture, and killings of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang province. Former detainees described experiencing widespread torture, sexual violence, and forced sterilization and abortion at the hands of camp officials. The atrocities committed against Uyghurs are just the most extreme example of the Chinese government’s compelled “sinicization” of minority religions, especially those associated with minority ethnic groups such as Uyghurs, Hui, or Tibetans.

Since the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover, Tibetan Buddhists have faced violent oppression of their religious heritage and practices, including the destruction of most monasteries, restrictions on monks and nuns and the exile of the Dalai Lama. Yet outside of Tibet, China has sought to redefine Buddhism as an inherently Chinese religion and increased its support for a sinicized, nationalized Buddhism under its government supervisory body, the Buddhist Association of China. Unrecognized Buddhist communities continue to suffer as the Chinese promotes its own version of Buddhism to make inroads with its southeast Asian neighbors.

Christians too face government oppression and co-optation. Chinese Christians are only permitted to join Christian organizations regulated by government supervisory entities, such as the Catholic Patriotic Church, China Christian Council, and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, all of which reinterpret religious beliefs in light of CCP doctrines and priorities. Due to this interference, a significant number of Christians in China belong to illegal underground churches. In the last year, the government demolished or closed several house churches and meeting sites, and a Catholic app was suspended in a push to eliminate online religious content.

Children in China are prohibited from entering houses of worship or being raised in a religion. In Wenzhou, which has a significant Christian population, parents of kindergarteners have recently been required to pledge not to hold or profess any religious beliefs or participate in religious activities.

The government has also continued to persecute and prosecute adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement which fuses traditional Chinese practices and new age beliefs, under a statute characterizing unrecognized religions as cults. Since 1999, Falun Gong practitioners have been subjected to a campaign of surveillance, arbitrary detention, and forced re-education programs. The labor camps and prisons which house them are alleged to have engaged in torture, extrajudicial killing, and organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners.

The Chinese government’s repression and restriction of religious groups is designed to quash potential opposition to the regime and to eliminate alternate sources of meaning beyond the CCP’s national communist agenda. As China expands its geopolitical and cultural Influence, it also has the potential to export its model of religious oppression to aspiring autocrats looking to eliminate dissent, as in the case of Nicaragua. Institutions like the Belt and Road Initiative, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and BRICS have facilitated China’s power projection and economic influence. Notably, Chinese companies and their subsidiaries have also used these blocs to promote local demand for export of surveillance technology. This practice is ostensibly targeted at reducing crime and ensuring public safety in countries which receive surveillance technology, many of which are located in the Global South. Yet it serves not only to legitimate China’s own all-encompassing surveillance state but also to endow emerging states with an increased capacity for monitoring potential dissidents.

Through an increasing network of diplomatic recognition and economic partners, bad actors will become increasingly able to harness such technology against dissident religious actors, as the Ortega government in Nicaragua has already done using Russian surveillance technology. Increased technological surveillance capacity and the example of the Chinese model of repressing and co-opting religion has the capacity to reach worldwide.

The CCP model removes religion from the lives of citizens. People of active faiths are viewed as obstacles to state control and the most significant internal threat to continued communist domination. If religious practices are to be allowed at all, they must be tightly monitored and reconfigured to support the government.

This isn’t freedom of religion—it is the worship of the state as the supreme being. We must sound the alarm to all people and, particularly, to people of faith around the world, that this is what Chinese Communist influenced leadership will look like in their own countries if they don’t start pushing back now.

Source : The Hill