‘Total Control’: China Regime’s Communist Ideology the Common Thread of Web of Human-Rights Abuses

Human-rights advocates who spoke with the Register painted a picture of an emboldened Chinese regime, led by President Xi Jinping, that is bent on suppressing any and all dissent.

Members of the Muslim Uyghur minority keep symbolically their hands tied with a rope as they demonstrate to ask for news of their relatives at Uskudar square in Istanbul on February 26, 2021.
Members of the Muslim Uyghur minority keep symbolically their hands tied with a rope as they demonstrate to ask for news of their relatives at Uskudar square in Istanbul on February 26, 2021. (photo: Yasin Akgul / AFP/Getty)

China’s ruling regime has come under increased global scrutiny in recent years for a slew of human-rights abuses inflicted upon its own people. A campaign of “demographic genocide” against the Uyghur Muslims via reeducation camps and forced abortions and sterilization, the punitive suppression of free religious practice by Chinese Catholics and other Christians, and the dismantling of civil liberties in Hong Kong and subsequent crackdown on pro-democracy dissenters have each, in their own right, raised red flags and received condemnation.

But while Western media accounts tend to cover each instance in isolation of the others, human-rights advocates stress that there’s a common explanatory thread running through and connecting each abuse.

“The underlying factor is really about total control,” explained Benedict Rogers, East Asia senior analyst at Christian Solidarity Worldwide and founder of Hong Kong Watch.

Rogers and other experts paint a picture of an emboldened Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by President Xi Jinping, intent on suppressing any and all individuals, groups and institutions who indicate any lack of absolute adherence to the CCP and its communist ideology. 

Animated by what Rogers described as “a total disregard for any concept of human rights or human dignity,” no tools of coercion, propaganda or outright oppression are off-limits for Xi Jinping’s regime. Arrests made on fabricated charges, indefinite detainments, draconian levels of surveillance, and massive misinformation and censorship campaigns are some of the measures faced by political dissidents, ethnic minorities and religious practitioners alike.  

“It’s really one of the worst human-rights situations in the world,” Rogers said of the climate in China, a country of 1.4 billion people.

Nina Shea, an international human-rights lawyer who directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said much of the action taken under Xi is justified as part of an effort to establish “harmony” in China — an Orwellian term that implies forced conformity and forced assimilation in accord with the CCP’s principles and values.

“‘Crackdown’ doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Shea said of the regime’s current policies and practice. “It’s an eradication of communities that are independent of the Communist Party.”

In a recent interview, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, described China as enslaved “to an ideology that killed millions in the past” and is now blended with a kind of “reckless capitalism.”

“Unregulated market economy is a monster, and in the company of the Chinese Dragon, this is an end-time conflict between naked materialism and the struggle for human dignity,” said the cardinal.


From Mao to Now

China has been under communist rule since 1949, but the intensified suppression of religious practice and blatant human-rights abuses currently underway are somewhat of a departure from recent precedent. 

Although the intent of Mao Zedong and his Cultural Revolution — a violent sociopolitical purge that took place from 1966 until 1976 — was to eradicate religion from China, Mao only succeeded in driving religious practice underground. Subsequent periods of communist rule were less persecutorial of religious believers, with the first decades of the 2000s even characterized by a degree of tolerance, as the CCP adopted a more relaxed posture and prioritized improving China’s relationships with the international community. One Christian church, the Golden Lampstand in Shanxi Province, even boasted a congregation of 50,000 worshippers. 

During this era, Rogers recalled meeting with several Chinese human-rights lawyers defending Christians at a restaurant in Beijing. He says that while these lawyers had to stay within limits and that the communist regime was still repressive, there was a “certain freedom of movement” within which they could operate in their advocacy work.

But all that has changed since Xi ascended to power in 2012, first as the general secretary of the CCP, then as the president of the People’s Republic of China in 2013. Described by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a “true believer in a bankrupt, totalitarian ideology,” Xi has prioritized purging China of “foreign” and suspect elements as part of his “Chinese Dream,” a plan to establish the country as a world superpower by 2049. 

The Golden Lampstand church was dynamited by government forces in 2018, one of several churches that have been demolished or otherwise shutdown. Of the lawyers he met with more than 10 years ago, Rogers said each and every one of them is now either “disbarred, imprisoned or ‘disappeared.’”

“China today faces the most severe and systematic crackdown on human rights since the Tiananmen massacre 31 years ago and the worst assault on religion since the Cultural Revolution,” Rogers previously wrote in a piece calling for an end to silence over China’s human-rights atrocities.

Considered more ideologically-driven and less pragmatic than his predecessors, Xi has also cultivated a kind of cult of personality unseen around a political leader in China since the time of Mao. In 2018, the CCP abolished presidential term limits, potentially making Xi ruler for life, and constitutionally established “Xi Jinping Thought” as the governing ideology of China. His portrait is ubiquitous throughout China — perhaps most notably in state-controlled churches, where Xi’s image or other CCP propaganda is put up alongside of or, in some cases, instead of images of Christ.


Religious Suppression

This is just one aspect of the ruling regime’s “Sinicization” campaign, which aims at altering religious beliefs and practices in order to bring them into alignment with CCP values. 

Recent reports indicate that the government has censored the words “Christ” and “Jesus” from religious publications. Crosses have been removed from steeples, and the Chinese government has also pursued publishing its own version of the Bible, which intentionally distorts key parts of the sacred text to promote communist philosophy.

An additional disturbing policy is a prohibition on exposing anyone under 18 years of age to religion.

“That means that they cannot be baptized or receive the sacraments or go to Mass or be schooled in the Bible or any other kind of religious education,” explained Shea. “This means the Church in a generation or two will struggle to perpetuate itself because these people will grow up ignorant of religion.”

The CCP has long seen religion as a threat, given its rejection of the materialistic atheism at the foundation of Chinese communism and its adherence to a power higher than the CCP. Christianity, in particular, is considered problematic, characterized as a Western philosophy at odds with Chinese national identity. One Protestant pastor has described the regime’s repressive measures as “a war against the soul.”

Despite the difficulties of practicing the faith, estimates suggest that there are close to 100 million Christians in China. Most of them are Protestant Christians, as their numbers have surged over the past few decades. Given Christianity’s sizable foothold, the regime seems intent on establishing government-approved churches, which operate effectively as surveillance and propaganda organs for the state.


Approach to Catholics

That certainly describes the approach China has taken with the Catholic Church. The government established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957, an entity that rejects the Holy See’s authority, appoints its own bishops and is ultimately an organ of the state, while a parallel “underground” Catholic Church has remained faithful to Rome. Bishops, priests and nuns from the underground Church have been frequently imprisoned, harassed and beaten. 

Catholics in Hong Kong in particular have been targeted by the government lately, given the faith’s strong connection to human rights and religious freedom. Prominent Catholic human-rights advocates, such as Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee and Agnes Chao, have all been recently imprisoned.

In 2018, the Holy See and the Chinese government reached a provisional agreement concerning the appointment of bishops in China, establishing that they would be selected by the CCP but ultimately approved by the Pope. The agreement also recognized the Pope as head of China’s Catholics. However, numerous reports suggest that persecution of Catholics has intensified after the agreement was signed, while there are also indications that Xi’s regime is already flouting its terms. 

Rogers, Shea and many other advocates for Catholics in China have been highly critical of the agreement — notably including Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong. Despite such criticism, the Vatican renewed the arrangement last fall.


‘Genocide’ Against Uyghur Muslims

But while the Chinese government attempts to control the Catholic Church, they have a different approach with a sizable population of Uyghur Muslims that live in Xinjiang and other western provinces: genocide.

The label has been applied by both the Trump administration and now the Biden administration. And in February, Canada also recognized the ongoing atrocities committed by the Chinese regime against the Uyghurs as genocide. The actions were also characterized as violating every article of the United Nations’ definition of genocide, according to a comprehensive analysis conducted by the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, an independent Washington-based foreign-policy think tank. 

Since 2014, the Chinese government has forcibly detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslims in “reeducation” camps. The number is potentially as high as 3 million, making it the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II. In these camps, detainees are forced to violate their religious convictions — such as being made to eat pork or not fast during Ramadan — and are banned from speaking their native Kazakh.

Anecdotal accounts of forced sterilizations, abortions and artificial birth control received significant empirical backing when researcher Adrian Zenz published research using official Chinese government data indicating a dramatic reduction in the birth rate in regions with high Uyghur populations. 

In Hotan and Kashgar, birth rates plunged by more than 60% between 2015 and 2018, while birth rates in Xinjiang dropped by 24% last year alone, compared to a 4.2% decline in China overall. Allegations of systematic rape of Uyghur women by Chinese government personnel have also been made by many survivors of the reeducation camps.

Reports also suggest that 80,000 imprisoned Uyghurs have been shipped to factories around China to effectively serve as slave labor. One report claims that Uyghur slave labor is currently being used in the supply chains of 82 well-known global brands. Organ harvesting and human trafficking are other atrocities regularly committed against Uyghurs and other people designated enemies of the state.


‘Bleak Situation’

Besides the obvious reasons for Catholics to care about the human dignity of a significant minority population being trammeled on by a godless totalitarian regime, Shea suggests another.

“They are using the Uyghurs as a testing ground or laboratory for total consolidation of power across the board for all religious groups,” suggesting similar measures could soon be used against Catholics and other Christians.

But the atheistic materialism of China and its resulting totalitarian practices could also soon be having increased influence outside the country, as well. The Chinese government is increasingly aggressive on the international stage, practicing a “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy that belligerently confronts any criticism of the Xi regime. Through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy launched in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries across the world, the regime has also increased its influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“It’s a bleak situation,” said Shea. “It’s frightening because the West is only just beginning to wake up to this new downturn.”