May 11, 2020 | Newsweek

Beijing Hones and Exports Religious Oppression

May 11, 2020 | Newsweek

Beijing Hones and Exports Religious Oppression

Utilizing cutting-edge technology, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is perfecting the religious oppression of millions at home and exporting the same capabilities abroad. The CCP’s ongoing abuse of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists lays bare the stakes for human freedom in the United States’ great power competition with China.

In its annual report released last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) concluded that the CCP is “engaging in systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations.” Thanks to Western media investigations and courageous Chinese whistleblowers, many outside China are familiar with the CCP’s deplorable persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang. In the past year, Muslims have suffered “torture, rape, sterilization and other abuses,” and authorities have “destroyed or damaged thousands of mosques.”

Christians, who make up roughly five percent of China’s population, have fared little better. Chinese officials “raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches in 2019.” Local officials continue to offer cash bounties for information on underground churches. Chinese authorities have burned unauthorized Bibles, ripped down crucifixes and replaced likenesses of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary with images of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Tibetan Buddhists continue to suffer “forced assimilation and suppression.” Monks and nuns unwilling to subordinate their faith to the CCP’s dictates have been “expelled from their monasteries, imprisoned and tortured.” As an extraordinary sign of the hopelessness and desperation the CCP’s oppression has caused, USCIRF noted that at least 156 Tibetans have self-immolated since February 2009.

While authoritarianism and religious persecution are sadly not new, the CCP leads the world in the abuse of advanced technologies to carry out its religious cleansing. In an update last September, USCIRF noted that authorities have often forced religious minorities to provide “blood samples, voice recordings and fingerprints.” Government officials then employ “advanced computing platforms and artificial intelligence to collate and recognize patterns in the data on religious and faith communities.” Surveillance cameras, sometimes installed inside places of worship, utilize advanced facial recognition software to assist these efforts.

Some may want to dismiss these concerning facts as the unfortunate but isolated plight of Chinese civilians struggling half a world away. But that would miss the true extent of the CCP’s global program.

According to USCIRF, “China has exported surveillance technology and systems training to more than 100 countries,” allowing them to “target political opponents or oppress religious freedom.” With the technology in hand and international opprobrium still at a whisper, repressive regimes will see little downside to following suit.

Some have already made that calculation. The report notes that in August 2019, “Uzbek authorities forced approximately 100 Muslim men to shave their beards, claiming that the beards hindered Chinese facial recognition technology used by the government.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) summed up the stakes in February. “China is exporting authoritarianism. And they are giving everyone a package—I mean a literal tech package,” he said. “The surveillance cameras, the artificial intelligence, the databases, the ways to control a society, just like they do at home.”

The technology is hardly safer in democratic hands. Some U.S. allies and partners already use CCP technologies, clinging to dangerously outdated notions of a Chinese private sector. The reality is that no “private” Chinese company will refuse a dictate from Beijing. As free nations become increasingly reliant on Chinese hardware, they give the CCP potential points of access into security infrastructure and sensitive information.

Additionally, the more reliant nations, companies and individuals become on Chinese technology for critical services, investments and trade, the more reluctant each becomes to criticize Beijing’s foreign or domestic policies—expanding Beijing’s ability to act with impunity. Some of America’s closest European allies are already beginning to suffer from this affliction.

An effective response begins with documenting and disseminating Beijing’s violations of religious liberty. The U.S. has taken positive initial steps. In October, the administration imposed restrictions on Chinese companies and officials abusing minorities.

But meaningful relief for China’s religious minorities will come quickest if the U.S. recruits other nations with the economic and diplomatic firepower to stand together against Beijing.

This requires buy-in from America’s partners. It also means tireless engagement with international organizations and the difficult diplomatic work of coalition-building. If Washington neglects these partnerships or vacates these international fora, Beijing will simply fill the vacuum.

As the USCIRF report makes clear, the competition between the U.S. and the CCP is about more than fleeting economic or political primacy. Hanging in the global balance are the protections of minorities, of conscience, of worship and of a private life beyond the reach of government.

If Beijing displaces the United States as the leader in shaping international rules and norms, one need not wonder the direction they will take: China’s minorities already know.

Bradley Bowman is the senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mikhael Smits is a research analyst. Follow FDD and CMPP on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP, and follow Brad and Mikhael @Brad_L_Bowman and @mikhaelsmits.


China Military and Political Power