Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, discusses religious persecution in China, including topics covered in Human Rights Watch’s recent report Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
We’re delighted to have Sophie Richardson with us today to talk about religious persecution in China. Sophie Richardson is the China director at Human Rights Watch. She’s the author of numerous articles on domestic Chinese political reform, democratization, and human rights in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Dr. Richardson has testified before the European Parliament and the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and has provided commentary to numerous media outlets. She is the author of the 2009 book China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which provides an in-depth examination of China’s foreign policy since 1954’s Geneva conference.
She’s also the editor of Human Rights Watch’s September 2018 report Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims.
Sophie, thank you very much for being with us today. It would be great if you could start us off by talking about the restrictions on religious freedom in China, as well as China’s campaign of oppression against Xinjiang’s Muslims.
RICHARDSON: Sure. Thanks very much. And thanks to the CFR and to Irina for having me.
I’m going to try not to talk for too long, mostly to accommodate discussion, which might be, I think, more illuminating, and possibly bounce around some ideas about what people who are interested in these issues can do about them.
I think it’s important to restate the premise from which Human Rights Watch approaches the issue of religious freedom. Most importantly, it’s that that’s a right that belongs to every single individual. It is not one that states have to give or take away or restrict. And in this sense, the Chinese government is extremely problematic in that it restricts religious practice to five officially recognized religions in officially approved premises. Authorities retain control over religious bodies’ personnel appointments, publications, finances, and seminary applications.
And obviously people do participate in religious activities in other communities, most notably underground house churches, for example. But the challenge is that the state labels those practices as abnormal, and it leaves people who participate in those activities vulnerable to prosecution and other kinds of ill treatment at the hands of authorities for having participated. We’ve documented members of independent religious groups being subjected to police harassment, arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance, and imprisonment.
I wanted to highlight this morning a couple of the different areas of encroachments on religious freedom we’ve looked at just in the past year. In Tibet, we have written recently about the state’s increasing pathology to manage religion. And you can’t see me, but I’m using air quotes around the word manage.
What we’re seeing not so much is restrictions on practice, but rather increasing infiltration by state and party authorities into monasteries and nunneries to observe, in a very close detail, what’s being discussed. And we’re expecting to see, as a result, further restrictions on things like teaching practices and actual interpretations of doctrine. There is, of course, the looming issue of reincarnation when the Dalai Lama passes and who will actually have control of that. So that’s one area of concern for us.
We’ve written for years now about the crackdown on underground house churches. I would certainly commend everyone on this call to the piece that’s on the front page of The New York Times today and a piece that was in the Washington Post a few days ago that detail some of these cases. Again, these are people who are engaging in behavior that the state considers abnormal and who are seeing not only their ability to worship limited, but seeing the facilities that they use being bulldozed or otherwise, you know, quite aggressively shut down by local authorities.
We are certainly concerned about the tentative agreement that’s been reached between the Vatican and the Chinese government; concerned about, you know, who will make decisions that should be within the control of the religious community that will allow for interference by the Chinese government.
And then last, but certainly not least, I wanted to spend a few minutes talking about a report we issued a few weeks ago about the latest strike-hard campaign in the Xinjiang region. It’s the northwestern part of China whose population is now a little more than half ethnic Turkic Muslims. This is a community that practices Sunni Islam, and it’s primarily an ethnic minority known as the Uighurs. There are also ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hui.
Starting in 2014, the Chinese government launched another strike-hard campaign that was ostensibly designed to address concerns about terrorism in the region. But consistent with forty years of practice, authorities were also conflating expressions of Turkic Muslims’ identity, including their religion, as evidence of political disloyalty and potential separatist or terrorist behavior.
And what we’ve seen since that time is not only an acceleration of restrictions on religion that perhaps culminated, or perhaps bottomed out is a better term, about six months ago in authorities announcing that they were going to restrict what names people could give their children, because some of those were deemed by the authorities to be too Islamic.
The level of surveillance across this region is unprecedented, largely enabled by technology, but monitors, among other things, how often people pray, where they pray, what religious texts they’re using, what communications they have with religious communities outside the country. We were especially concerned last summer when China pressured Egypt to send back to China a community of Uighurs who were studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
The rise of political education camps since about the fall of 2017 is of deep concern to us. A member of the UN Security Council has established camps in which people from this community are being arbitrarily detained, essentially for being Uighurs or for being Muslims. And we associate ourselves with estimates that up to a million people are being detained, wholly outside of any sort of legal process. And while held in camps, they are effectively obliged to not just renounce or forego religious practices, but to swear their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and to the Chinese government. They’re forced to study Mandarin rather than use ethnic minority languages. And obviously there are constant messages being given to them by prison camp authorities that Islam is a problematic ideology that they must reject.
We had a number of interviewees tell us that they had found the treatment in the camps so humiliating and degrading and so fundamentally antithetical to who they were as individuals that they had contemplated suicide. We also documented a number of cases of families that are divided between some family members inside China and others, either in Central Asia or in the diaspora community in places like the U.S. or Germany or Australia.
We also wanted to make the point with that report that repression outside these camps in Xinjiang is not significantly less than it is inside, particularly with respect to the practice of Islam. You know, we’ve documented people who have been detained simply for saying prayers at certain ceremonies, for going to particular facilities to gather for prayer if they feel that the surveillance at the mosques is too problematic for them. And we said in the report that the Chinese government has effectively criminalized the practice or the observation of Islam in this region.
And so of the many things we could discuss on this topic, one would certainly be what role there is for religious communities worldwide to express their concerns about what the Chinese government is doing and express a sense of solidarity with practitioners of different faiths inside China and communities of people who have left the country.
So maybe I will stop there and not go on for too long. But I’m certainly happy to answer questions or discuss possible responses to these developments.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Sophie, for that terrific overview, and sobering one.
Let’s open up to the group for questions, comments, shared experiences.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will come from Inamul Haq with Elmhurst College.
HAQ: Yes. My question is that, you know, sometimes dealing with political situations, states do want to monitor a certain religion, and particularly in the case of Islam, which is seen as kind of more politicized than other religions. And we had similar situation in the United States after 9/11, where mosques were heavily under surveillance and individual profiles were made on the basis of people’s practice of faith. And it was assumed that certain kind of religious person is more prone to join extremist groups or ideologies.
So the question is that where does it lead—where are the boundaries that we say that here it’s a violation of the rights and here it is a genuine concern of the state to protect itself?
RICHARDSON: Sure. Let me try to break that into a couple of different pieces. I mean, obviously states have an obligation to provide public security, but not at the expense of individuals’ rights. And if states have credible information to suggest that people are about to engage in some sort of criminal activity, they certainly have rights within certain parameters to gather information about those people.
But I think that’s—if that were the problem that we were having in China, this would be a very different conversation. You know, what we’re observing is a government label an entire community of religious practitioners as potential terrorists and treat them that way.
And maybe I should say a little bit more about some of the surveillance practices that are being used in the region. We first started to gather information about this latest campaign when we observed Xinjiang authorities starting to insist on DNA samples for people in Xinjiang in order to get passports. And then those authorities went on to gather DNA samples from everyone across the region under the guise of a free public health-care program between the ages of twelve and sixty-five.
And at no point did police justify the collection of this kind of data. They have yet to explain why they feel it necessary to put QR codes outside people’s homes across Xinjiang other than to be able to immediately access massive amounts of data that police in the region have collected, much of which has to do with people’s religious habits and practices.
I think it’s also very important to understand that despite forty years of shockingly repressive policies, there’s actually been a relative lack of violence across the region. I mean, there certainly have, in the last ten years, been either small-scale violent attacks committed by Uighurs, sometimes against the state, on at least one occasion in the name of Islam. But this is not a security environment.
You know, a Chinese official a few months ago tried to liken Xinjiang to Syria. And it’s not even remotely an appropriate comparison. It’s a region that’s actually had relatively little violence. You know, and experts have been hard pressed to make the case that there’s any significant connection between people inside Xinjiang and any of the radical or violent militant groups outside the country. So maybe that gives a sense both of where, from a human rights and law enforcement perspective, it’s appropriate to surveil communities, but really the gross, mass, systemic violations that we’re talking about in Xinjiang now.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Chung Lee with Won Buddhism International.
LEE: Hi. This is Chung Lee. Thank you so much for the informative presentation.
It is a real concern now that what is happening in China regarding religious freedom violation as well as any democratic expressions. They put them in mental hospital. These are normal people just expressing opposition over what Xi Jinping’s doing in the government.
Is there any way you, working with UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, especially religious-freedom rapporteur, have investigated, report to UN community?
RICHARDSON: That’s a great question.
The Chinese government has an enormous amount of influence within the UN system. And indeed, Human Rights Watch issued a report just about a year ago detailing the ways in which the Chinese government is trying to limit different human rights mechanisms within the UN system; you know, essentially trying to contain scrutiny of China, but also to weaken certain kinds of accountability mechanisms that could potentially be used against it further down the track. Obviously we find that quite problematic since, especially for many people inside China who have little or no access to justice there, UN mechanisms become some of the other means of recourse for them.
In that sense, I have to say we were extremely pleased that in her first remarks to the current sessions of the Human Rights Council, we were very pleased that the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, didn’t just express concerns about Xinjiang, but indeed called for an investigation into those. It remains to be seen what precisely that will translate into in terms of diplomatic initiative or any kind of factfinding mission from UN offices. But certainly that’s a very strong statement to make on your first day to a government that’s very powerful within the UN system.
A number of the special rapporteurs and special procedures and working groups have expressed concerns not just about Xinjiang but about other religious communities inside China, including Buddhists. You know, they have limited ability to insist on certain kinds of mechanisms being launched. They can serve as sort of a consultative body. They can obviously inform treaty body reviews. And I suspect that we will see a lot of their recommendations reflected when China undergoes its next periodic review at the Human Rights Council in November.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Anwar Khan with Islamic Relief USA.
KHAN: Thank you.
Why are we hearing less on this issue historically than we are against other faiths that are persecuted in China? A lot of the religious freedom events I go, I’m hearing about churches. I’m hearing about Buddhists. We’re not normally talking about mosques. We’re not talking about one million people being in internment camps. That’s something recent. But there’s been other allegations and other issues for decades. Why are we not hearing so much on this issue in the same forums that we are on other issues of religious freedom?
RICHARDSON: Sorry, sir. Just to make sure that I’m understanding your question clearly, you’re asking why have we heard so much less about Uighurs and about Xinjiang than, for example, about Buddhists in Tibet, correct?
KHAN: Yeah. I mean, Buddhist Tibet, Christian. These are well-documented.
KHAN: Why are we—why are we—I know that organizations like yours have been documenting this and many others for years. Why—it’s not why you’re not doing it. Why is it that we in the community aren’t talking about it? We seem to pick certain issues and not others. What’s the reason why we’re not talking, in your opinion, about this issue as much as we do? Because all of the issues are important; everybody’s religious freedom.
RICHARDSON: Yeah. I’m very, very glad that you asked this question, partly because, you know, from the perspective of a human rights organization, one never wants to prioritize one community over the other. I mean, people across the spectrum of faiths in China are suffering in many different ways.
I think Xinjiang is difficult and under-discussed for a couple of different reasons. I mean, one is that the Chinese government has made it extremely difficult for journalists to report from the region. Ironically, you don’t actually need permission to go there in the same way that you do to go to Tibet, but the levels of surveillance that journalists have had to deal with for years are so overwhelming that it’s very difficult for them to go and report without feeling like they’re getting their sources in trouble. And so, you know, that takes a certain amount of attention away when you don’t see this on the front page of world newspapers.
I think, as an ethnic community and a diaspora community, Uighurs aren’t nearly as well known or acknowledged as some other communities. I think we can certainly point to global Islamophobia, and particularly the ways that the Chinese government very successfully exploited the U.S.’s so-called war on terror to suggest that the Uighurs were the functional equivalent inside China and did not deserve sympathy, and, in fact, if anything, deserved skepticism and hostility.
I think people also have a lot of trouble, frankly, wrapping their heads around the idea that the Chinese government, which very carefully and systematically presents itself as both being sophisticated and cosmopolitan and developmental, and implicitly the rational, cooler-headed global power in the age of Trump.
You know, people can’t get their heads around the idea—can’t reconcile that image of China with the idea of arbitrarily detaining a million people. And one of the hard things for us as an organization now is getting people to accept that and understand that this very powerful government is also highly abusive and that it’s not limiting its abuses of those communities to people who are inside China.
Indeed, our report documents further harassment of people who are now living outside of China but who are still getting phone calls from officials in the towns they come from in Xinjiang, either telling them that they have to come back or they have to provide information about their family members. This is not just a set of abuses that’s taking place inside China. It’s taking place in northern Virginia and England and Germany and Turkey and Australia. And we really need to see governments and communities and concerned people all over the world react to it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Charles Robertson with the Episcopal Church.
ROBERTSON: Hi. Yes, thank you. And thanks to you, Irina, for this session.
For our speaker, I’m curious. We’ve talked a lot about this particular situation. I have spent the past dozen years with the Episcopal Church working with different groups there at times. And I’m curious about not the underground churches but the registered churches, and especially now what the impact is of the death of Elder Fu, who has long been—as long as I can remember now—the chair of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
And what I have seen in the past year is much more difficulty in the past year with even getting to visit China with visa issues. I’m just curious as to what we’re seeing, not just with the unregistered but with the registered churches. And what kind of influence, if any, do any of those folks have, and do we have working with them? Thank you.
RICHARDSON: Thanks. It’s a great and a vast question.
I would encourage you to look at the series of laws and regulations that have been adopted under the Xi Jinping government, not just about the management of religious communities’ interactions with their international counterparts, but indeed with Chinese NGOs’ interactions with their international counterparts or what foreign NGOs can do in China.
I think we’ve very clearly seen the state move to separate different kinds of organizations inside the mainland from their international counterparts. And to the extent that those relationships are able to survive, that they become—they’re now legally obliged to make them much more legible to the state.
There’s no comfort in this, but I would say across the board, whether you’re talking about, you know, exchanges between churches, between different universities, between scientists, these kinds of difficulties getting visas, organizing group activities, you know, that ten years ago had really actually become—well, I wouldn’t say fairly straightforward, but had become much more predictable or easier to arrange—that trend has really reversed across the board. And I think it’s part of more sort of philosophical thinking on the Chinese leadership’s part to separate people inside the country from counterparts outside the country and to make those relationships more subject to state control.
Sometimes we do see that particular individuals who have a certain status or who are considered trustworthy for one reason or another by the state are still able to proceed with these kinds of relationships. And I’m thinking here of certain kinds of philanthropic organizations or some academic exchanges where, you know, there are one or two people who’ve been involved for thirty years, and sort of their familiarity to the Chinese state helps ensure that these relationships continue. But it’s not enough anymore. And I think the direction of travel on this issue of inside-outside relationships is not encouraging, which is worrying, now that we’re forty years into the purported reform and opening-up period.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Soraya Deen with Muslim Women Speakers.
DEEN: OK. Hi. Thank you. So I have myself just returned from Sri Lanka, having spent two months there. And I’m deeply concerned about the situation with the Sri Lankan Muslims. There is something that’s stirring. From the Muslims’ angle, they are trying to revive an Arabized version of Islam, and some might even say kind of a purity version of Islam. And I see, of ten people I interview, eight who are not Muslims say they’re really disturbed by the niqab and the hijab and withdrawal of the Muslim community within to themselves, and the integration is not very good; and, of course, to say there is no one homogeneous Muslim population in Sri Lanka and the community itself is fractured.
So my question is, in China were there any telltale signs? How did this just blow up? What was the run-up like? What happened for it to escalate at this level of unconscionable punishment of a group of people?
RICHARDSON: That’s a great question. I have to say I’m deeply relieved I’m not going to have to confess that I know very little about the community in Sri Lanka, although I’d be happy to put you in touch with colleagues who work on that.
DEEN: I’d love that.
RICHARDSON: There’s a way in which what’s happening now, I think—it doesn’t necessarily strike us as—what’s the right way of saying this? Certainly the establishment of political education campaigns of the scope and scale that we’re seeing is an abuse unlike, I think, anything that we’ve seen during the reform era.
That said, the writing has been on the wall. You know, Xinjiang—as of about five or six years ago, the specific regulations that pertained to the “management” of Islam in Xinjiang were probably the single most comprehensive architecture of religious restrictions in any country in the world.
And if you added on top of that, you know, a longstanding state suspicion of ethnic minorities in general, and this community in particular, and fused in the Chinese government’s interest in the Belt and Road initiative, which requires that there be political stability and security, particularly in that part of the country, and heading into Central Asia, and then you add into that mix the Chinese government’s use of technology to monitor and surveil and reward and punish behavior—you know, one of the ways that we came to generate our own information about increased arbitrary sentence—which, of course, has long been a problem, but not on the scale that we’ve seen—was that we were looking at the ways police in the region were building predictive policing databases and the kinds of information that they were gathering that then, you know, got processed through algorithms that produced lists of people who were deemed politically disloyal and who were subsequently detained.
You know, so a lot of the impulses have been there, look, since 1949. I mean, for those of you on the call who are China watchers, you know, think back to the days of the street committees that would gather information about who people spoke to and what their political inclinations were and the way that information was processed. Well, fuse that with twenty-first century technology and a profound hostility towards Islam and Muslims, and this is what you get.
I think, again, one of the ideas people have trouble getting their heads around is that a government this powerful believes that it can incarcerate and indoctrinate people into being loyal to it; you know, that that’s a strategy that might actually work, as opposed to producing enormous resentment, and that it’s an appropriate thing to do in 2018.
And to the extent that the government has replied or tried to justify the existence of these policies in these camps, it’s to say that either there are really only a few of these facilities and that they are for extremists and that other countries in the world have the radicalization programs just like these, or they have tried to claim that these are vocational training centers in which people are given new skills to participate in the new economy. You know, and those are obviously not credible explanations.
But I think, you know, the trajectory has been very problematic for a long time. But I think the Chinese government did a good job of convincing some people, especially influential people in governments, that it was facing a real terrorist threat domestically and that its responses were justified.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Thomas Uthup with Friends of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.
UTHUP: Thank you, Sophie, for that great exposition.
I had a question about this religious freedom and the connection to the economy. As many of us know, Brian Grim has done a lot of work on the connections between religious freedom and positive growth of the economy.
I’m wondering if these large-scale detentions of one million-plus people, as reports suggest, are these detentions having an impact on the regional economy? Because, on the one hand, you know, seeing a lot of these people out of the workforce on the face of it might be bad. But then I also hear that the Xinjiang Province is an area which has a lot of oil and gas exploration. So the exploitation that is being done is largely colonial-style, where you know, people are being brought in from outside to do the work.
And a second part of this question is I wonder if Christians are also being arrested or being watched, maybe not at the same level as Muslims, but also what is the position of Christians and Buddhist believers? Thank you.
RICHARDSON: Again, large and great questions.
On the question about whether the detentions in Xinjiang are having an effect on the economy, I would love to be in a better position to answer that question, to have evidence that, you know, productivity had dropped or that certain industries were suffering because people were not available; obviously weren’t turning up at work because they’d been detained. I think we just don’t have enough information to answer that one way or the other. I think there are certain logical assumptions you could make.
But it’s also worth pointing out that certainly there’s been growth in the construction of certain kinds of facilities. So I suppose some people might suggest that the detention of people is contributing to the economy. Obviously that’s not a line of thought we would associate ourselves with or endorse.
But I do think that the structure of Xinjiang’s economy is perhaps another one of, you know, the warning signs that the previous questioner asked about; that, you know, it’s a central-government-driven development strategy for the region; infrastructure, extractive industries that require large amounts of water. There are a lot of disputes in the region about who has access to water and that small-scale farmers, for example, or herders no longer—are no longer able to live the way they have for a long time because they don’t have the same kind of access to water that they have had.
But also what we’ve seen in Xinjiang is similar to what we’ve seen in Tibet, that those are development strategies that it’s much easier for Chinese-speaking Han to engage in than the local communities—Uighurs or Tibetans or others—to engage in successfully. And so what you’ll see commonly in Xinjiang is that a lot of lower-skilled jobs are filled by Uighurs. Fewer, more skilled positions—you know, university professors, for example, or, you know, government officials, those kinds of jobs—are less likely to be filled by Uighurs than Han who have migrated, typically with certain kinds of benefits, from other parts of the country.
Ridiculously quickly on the question about Christians, certainly this community too has suffered in, you know, some pretty appalling ways; again, especially—well, particularly people who are worshiping outside the official church. You know, I mean, I could tick on down a list of people for you, but, you know, people who organized prayer services being given sentences of twelve to fourteen years for having picked quarrels and stirred up troubles, which actually remains a criminal charge in China.
You know, similarly for Buddhists, you know, the boy was chosen to be the Panchen Lama, which is the second—this is a simplification, but the second-highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism, who hasn’t been seen since he was six. You know, and he’s now in his mid-thirties; so just to say that, yes, other communities are horrifically persecuted too.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Michael Saahir with Nur-Allah Islamic Center.
SAAHIR: Yeah, good afternoon, and thank you for your wonderful presentation.
I have a couple of questions. You had mentioned about an agreement with the Vatican. But also I want to ask, are there travel restrictions for the Muslims making hajj? And my last question would be is the repression mainly religious, or is it their culture, or is it a combination, the religious and the culture? Thank you very much.
RICHARDSON: Thank you. Again, I’m frantically writing that down so I don’t forget any parts of it.
SAAHIR: OK, yes. The Vatican, the hajj, and is it religious or is it just the culture?
RICHARDSON: Right. I will try to do each of those justice.
SAAHIR: OK, thank you. OK.
RICHARDSON: The provisional agreement or announcement that was made this past weekend essentially aspires to end a longstanding dispute between Beijing and the Vatican about who has the authority to appoint bishops in China. There are other issues, not least what this will mean for Catholics in Taiwan, since Beijing will presumably insist that the Vatican suspend the relationship that it has with the government in Taiwan. So that’s another problematic concern.
But, you know, what’s not clear is what’s going to happen to the people who have practiced in underground Catholic communities, meaning ones not affiliated or subsumed by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, where bishops are state-appointed. So there are a lot of concerns there.
I think, from the perspective of also an advocacy organization, it’s distressing to us to see one major world religion advance an agreement with a highly authoritarian government that’s obviously pretty hostile to religious freedom and not simultaneously make the case for an end to religious repression, both for members of its own faith but also, you know, for example, the million Uighurs who are being detained.
Yes, there are very strict restrictions on participation in the hajj. You can—people can only go through state-organized tours. And there’s a very disturbing piece, I think in the Wall Street Journal, that people who went this year from China were—or at least some of the PRC passport-holding contingent that went to the hajj were obliged to carry certain kinds of tracking devices so that their whereabouts could be known.
Now, the, you know, government officials immediately said, no, no, those are for people to make sure that they don’t lose the group of people they’re traveling with so they can find their way around. But the technology also clearly enabled them to be tracked. So obviously that’s a real concern.
Is the repression in Xinjiang about religion or is it about culture? I think the only way to answer that is to say that I’ve never met a Uighur who could have easily or neatly bifurcated those things. You know, it’s much of the culture revolves around the religion. Many of the cultural practices flow from the religion.
You know, I think Beijing’s hostility is both to alternative belief systems and principles or identities around which people could organize. And so we were not surprised that some of our interviewees spoke about the guards saying to them that they had to reject any sort of pan-Islamic or pan-Turkic identity and express their loyalty only to the Chinese government. I think that’s probably the best way I can attempt to answer that question.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Ronald Sider with Evangelicals for Social Action.
SIDER: Can you provide some more detail on the crackdown on the Protestant house churches? How would you compare it to one or three or five years ago? And do you have any hunch as to what will be likely in the next few years?
RICHARDSON: Well, I would say that it’s certainly become a much more aggressive campaign in the last few years, both in that, you know, we’re seeing authorities target progressively smaller communities. You know, ten years ago the authorities would get upset if a couple of thousand people gathered together. Now they’re upset if a few hundred people get together.
We’ve also seen some really, I think, disturbingly aggressive maneuvers or steps taken against either religious property—you will probably have seen some of the images or footage of crosses being removed from buildings with blowtorches by local authorities and just tossed to the ground; I mean, treated with really quite gratuitous disdain and disrespect.
We haven’t tracked the sentences that have been given to underground churches or practitioners or leaders of those communities systematically. But my best guess is that they would be consistent with sentences that we’ve seen given to other kinds of human rights defenders, which is to say that, you know, it takes a lot less now to get detained at all, and the charges tend to be harsher than they have been in the past. And the sentences are much stiffer. I mean, now we’re seeing people get ten-, twelve-, fourteen-year sentences where comparable behavior ten years ago was getting three or four or five years.
You know, if you project this forward, presumably the treatment, even if you assume the status quo, it’s very harsh treatment. And I think if you line the hostility toward religious practitioners in independent civil society up with sort of broader trends domestically about surveillance of people, not just in Xinjiang but in other parts of the country too, I think it’s very clear that the Xi Jinping government is saying to people you may not participate in certain kinds of activities or object, and that if you do, not only are we going to know about it through different kinds of surveillance mechanisms, but the penalties are going to be quite harsh. Clearly the government is trying to deter people from engaging in these kinds of activities.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Dr. Mohammed Sahloul with CIOGC.
SAHLOUL: Yes. Thank you for this presentation.
So I have a couple of questions. The first one: What is the role of the Chinese Muslim community other than Uighur community? I mean, Chinese Muslims have been there for fifteen centuries. And I wonder what is their relationship to what’s happening right now. Are they also persecuted? What is their attitude in terms of advocacy towards their brethren in the Uighur province? That’s one.
The other thing is that, you know, as American Muslims, we, you know, also feel the brunt of the global Islamophobia and local Islamophobia. President Trump does not make it easier for Muslims with the Muslim ban. He cut down the number of Muslim refugees coming to the U.S.—and that was, you know, confirmed by Pew study—and also total refugees. And so it’s very difficult for our government to advocate on behalf of Muslim Chinese when it is not doing well for, you know, Muslims in general, globally and locally.
And what do you suggest in terms of the advocacy that Muslim and Christian and Buddhist organizations can do to the administration and the Congress towards this issue?
RICHARDSON: Let me take the second point first, which is to say that Human Rights Watch has written extensively about precisely those concerns—the travel ban, about Islamophobia—and I think called them out quite clearly for what they are. And it certainly makes the U.S. a complicated player on this particular issue in China.
And that’s been made very clear to me in conversations with other governments who are loath to try to cooperate with the U.S. on this issue because they feel it’s such an incredibly compromised partner that’s saying a lot of problematic things about Islam globally and treatment of Muslims in the U.S.
Just backing up to the question about the Muslim community across China, the other significant community is an ethnic group called the Hui. And often that community is held up as having been compromised or having sort of cut a deal, so to speak, with the government that it would, you know, practice more within the confines of what the government wants Islamic worship to look like, and that, in exchange, it would be treated more leniently.
I mean, there are all sorts of complex geographical, historic, economic distinctions between the different communities, and the Hui live in parts of the country that are close to Beijing, and there’s a large community in Ningxia as well.
But I think it’s fair to say that very few voices inside China are either knowledgeable or able to have access to information about what’s happening in Xinjiang since it’s, of course, heavily censored, or feel that they can speak up on behalf of that community.
And certainly maybe one way of making this point is to say that when we issued our report, that we try very hard to make sure that it can actually be read inside China. And most of the comments that came from people inside the country were quite Islamophobic and wanted to know why we were defending terrorists and why we were, you know, concerned about people who hurt Chinese people. And there was a very unnerving breakdown across ethnic lines.
And at the same time, I don’t think that there’s any logic in, you know, blaming communities of people who can’t even have full information about what’s happening inside their own countries for not expressing sympathy. So that’s probably not a full picture or gratifying answer. But for anyone on this call, I’m happy to continue this conversation if you would like.
With respect to advocacy, it would be, I think, extremely important, especially for members of Congress, many of whom have expressed concern about what’s happening in Xinjiang and really taken the lead both in pressing the administration to actually take steps like imposing visa bans or sanctions, but also increasingly are turning to counterparts in other countries to express concern jointly to the Chinese government.
I think having your members of Congress hear from you, either individually or on behalf of your communities, would be extremely powerful. And certainly to have some sort of joint statement or an open letter from a variety of faith-based communities and organizations in the U.S. to Xi Jinping calling for an end to the camps, I think, would be equally powerful.
Much of what Beijing is hearing governments say right now is exactly what they expect. You know, they’re not expecting to hear from religious communities. They’re not expecting to hear from academics. They’re not expecting to hear from, you know, the global diaspora community. And in that sense, I think the more unusual suspects they hear from, the better.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Fred Stella with Hindu American Foundation.
STELLA: Hello. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of these two tiers of having an official state church and the underground churches. And I’m curious. The people who are in the state-sponsored churches, both clergy and laity, is there the same sense of spirituality? And do you know—I realize this is speculation, perhaps—but do you know what the relationship is between those people, who might be neighbors, might be members of the same community, one going to state-sponsored, one going to one that might be underground? And what is the motivation for a person to enter the seminary to run a state-sponsored church?
RICHARDSON: That’s a very hard question to answer. (Laughs.) And, you know, I regret—
STELLA: Sorry. (Laughs.)
RICHARDSON: No, no. I—no, it’s fine. You know, I regret to say that I’ve, over the years, only had conversations, I would say, with a dozen or so people who had, you know, reached the position, for example, of being the head of a congregation in a state-sponsored church. And it remains very difficult for an organization like mine to speak openly to people inside China, which sort of skews your sample size from the get-go.
You know, I’m certainly in no position to judge the depth or the sincerity of those people’s faiths. I go into those conversations assuming, you know, it is exactly what they say it is, which is deeply felt and sincere and something to which they’re devoting their lives.
I think, you know, the calculation that’s made about whether to work within the state system as opposed to being in an underground community is, you know, often—I mean, certainly they’re deeply personal decisions, but I think they’re often influenced by an individual’s—you know, a willingness to buck the system, but also a desire to do as much as one can within the confines.
I mean, look, some people decide they want to spend their lives fighting against rules. Others want to spend their lives doing what they can within the parameters of those. But I mean, we certainly would never, you know, venture a judgment about whether one community was sincere and one wasn’t.
You know, and maybe someday we’ll be able to systematically interview people who worshiped in state-run churches, you know, and ask them precisely these questions about whether they felt they were making a tradeoff or whether they didn’t, you know, and if it ever occurred to them to sort of switch teams, so to speak, for lack of a better metaphor just now.
You know, I think people who worship in underground churches have often had other problematic experiences with authorities or they see a very clear theological distinction between how worship is carried out in state-run churches as opposed to more independent ones.
Again, these are enormous generalizations. And, you know, maybe someday we’ll have access to all that kind of information.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Jim Higginbotham with Earlham College.
HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. In relation to the last speaker, if you want to communicate with me, I’ve actually taught at the National Protestant Seminary in China and have known a number of clergy and persons in the registered church.
My question relates to the registered church and the crackdown the government is doing. Is it primarily because of the growth of the church? And, if so, how does it make sense to be removing crosses to eliminate the growth of the registered church? Do you have any sense of that?
RICHARDSON: (Laughs.) Professor Higginbotham, if I could understand or really grasp the logic of the Chinese leaders on matters like this, I could probably have retired years ago.
Look, I think Xi Jinping in particular is deeply allergic to any sort of alternative organizing vehicle that might not be controlled. And in that sense, I think, you know, where many people in China, I think, tried to reassure authorities that the growth, particularly in the number of Christians over the last ten years, was a good thing for the state—(laughs)—I think the state and the party saw it as growing devotion to something other than the state and the party, and therefore have decided to restrict it.
I do think that some of these much more aggressive gestures have largely been undertaken by local officials who thought they were doing what their bosses wanted them to do and have probably created more or provoked, you know, that much more resistance or alienation in the long run. But it’s not a logic I find it easy to follow. But again, the hostility towards religion is that, you know, it’s something else to believe in that’s not the state or the party.
FASKIANOS: Oh, my goodness. We have so many questions still pending.
RICHARDSON: It does feel a little bit like my dissertation defense.
FASKIANOS: I know. I know. And this has been such a terrific call. I think we have time for one more question. And I apologize to those of you that we couldn’t get to.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Bill Barbieri with Catholic University.
BARBIERI: Hey, Sophie. I’m really sorry if you covered this, because I missed your presentation, but I wondered if fertility policy was any part of the strategy for dealing with the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and also if you have any dos and don’ts for concerned scholars who will be traveling in China in the near future.
RICHARDSON: Bill, lovely to hear your voice.
On fertility policy in Xinjiang, you know, we have received in the last couple of months some very disturbing information that could perhaps point to a state campaign to lower birthrates in the region. One of the common points of resentment among Han Chinese against ethnic minorities is that for a long time they have been allowed to have more than one child, where Han weren’t.
RICHARDSON: We don’t have enough information yet to really know what to make of this. And we would—I think we would—we’re obviously not either fertility experts or demographers. And I think we would really need to workshop this information before reaching any kinds of conclusions.
We’ve also had some fragmentary information in the past about Uighur women being raped in detention for the purpose of their having children who would be both Han and Uighur. Again, it’s a handful of cases and it’s very hard to really make a decision about either intent or whether these were just isolated cases. But there have been inducements towards—the state has provided incentives for interethnic marriages, which we find very worrying, you know, between one Han and one Uighur, presumably with the goal of making people over time less Uighur.
As for dos and don’ts, you know, it’s a long list. One I will mention right now is that there’s a wonderful historian-anthropologist who’s now at Macquarie in Australia, Kevin Carrico, who, along with Jerome Cohen, who is probably very well known to many people on this call, who’s a law professor at NYU, have launched what they’re calling the Xinjiang Initiative, which is asking scholars worldwide who work on China or who travel there to sign a pledge stating that, at the outset of any public talks, they’ll say a few words about what’s happening in Xinjiang now, to generally raise awareness.
There’s also a big discussion—and Bill, I assume some of this is going to come to fruition in Washington through a number of different opportunities in the coming months—with respect to concerns about restrictions on academic freedom outside of China but as a result of Chinese government pressure, about self-censorship, about the role of Confucius Institutes.
And I think, you know, advancing those kinds of discussions at your institutions, especially if you feel, for example, that your university is about to enter into some kind of partnership with a Chinese entity you think might be problematic, certainly this is a challenge for, you know, Catholic or other faith-based universities going into partnerships with Chinese universities. Will they be allowed to teach theology the way they would normally? These kinds of questions.
I think making sure that the relevant faculty is consulted in those discussions is a very important thing to do.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Sophie, thank you very much for your valuable insights in today’s call. We really appreciate it. And we will have to have you back.
And thanks to all of you for your excellent questions and comments. We appreciate it.
RICHARDSON: Thank you for having me. I’m really happy to answer questions, or people can call, email. I’m easy to find. Thank you very much for the opportunity.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. And we encourage you all to follow Sophie Richardson at Human Rights Watch, and follow her on Twitter at @SophieHRW. You can also follow us at CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter—it’s @CFR_Religion—for announcements about events and latest CFR resources.
And I failed to mention that Jerry Cohen, who Sophie referenced, is also an adjunct fellow here at the Council. So he is doing really terrific work. And please, as always, we encourage you to email us at [email protected] with suggestions of future topics that we should cover. So thank you all.
And thank you again to Sophie Richardson.
RICHARDSON: Thank you.