This week marks the 30th anniversary of the suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests when a million Chinese students had both captivated and given the entire world the impression that communism in China was about to fall. Many of us vividly remember on our tv screens the scene of an unarmed man standing in front of a column of tanks—the image of his defiance became a symbol of protest against the corrupt around the world—halting their passage from the Square a day after the bloody crackdown of June 4—hundreds, if not thousands, were killed by the Chinese military; an many thousands were imprisoned. Yet thirty years later not only has this event been practically erased from the memories of the Chinese people, China’s economy has catapulted up the world rankings, while political and religious repression in the country is harsher than many who watched those events would have anticipated.
The Chinese government, which already oversees one of the strictest online censorship regimes in the world, has further limited the provision of censorship circumvention tools and strengthened ideological control over education and mass media in 2017. Schools and state media incessantly tout the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party, and, increasingly, of President Xi Jinping as “core” leader. In March of this year US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that when it comes to human rights violations China is “in a league of its own.” Pompeo, while also highlighting abuses in Iran, South Sudan, and Nicaragua, singled out the lack of religious freedom in China for its mass detention of members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region, specifically the Uighurs who are not just exposed to arbitrary arrests but are are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in prisons and concentration camps.
The government continues to maintain a tight grip over the internet, mass media, and academia. Authorities stepped up their persecution of religious communities, forcing all churches and denominations to register with the government, crackdowns against unauthorized Christianity have gone from bad to worse. In early December of last year officers from a police station in Taining county in China’s southeastern Fujian Province stormed into a local underground Catholic Church meeting place in order to arrest the church’s priest and nuns. When the mission failed, the officers threatened an elderly believer, saying: “If we can’t find the priest, then we will take all of you away.” In Guangzhou, the nation’s fifth-largest city for example, the government began offering cash rewards for reporting “illegal religious activities,” including house church meetings, thereby constraining any form of religious freedom.
There was hope that China would relax its tyrannical repression when the Vatican and Beijing reached a Provisional Agreement on September 22, 2018. Pope Francis recognized the legitimacy of seven Chinese-government-appointed bishops, who, not having been selected by the Vatican, had been excommunicated. In turn, Beijing finally, and formally, recognized the pope’s authority, as well as “reconciliation” of the members of the underground Church to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association — the state-run Church for Catholics. While the pope must confirm the bishops nominated by the Communist Party, the fact that it proposes who will run Church affairs does not make matters any easier, especially since those Catholics who refuse to join the Patriotic Church continue being persecuted — this was confirmed to me by a priest of the underground Church after he had concelebrated mass with me in Florence a year ago. In fact, the Bishop-Emeritus of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Zi-Kiun said, after the Agreement has been signed by both parties, that “the Pope didn’t get anything from this agreement, it’s a ‘fake,’ an illusion, and Beijing made him lose his authority.”
At glance, it does not seem as if human rights violations in China will cease anytime soon, especially with its thriving economy and military might. Calls for even moderate reforms have been ignored, at best. An attempt to introduce grass-roots democracy at the village level years ago foundered after the Communist Party refused to concede even a modicum of control. Deliberative bodies at all levels are filled with party appointees who vote how they are told, and the national legislature is a mere rubber stamp body, re-electing president and party head Xi Jinping last year by a margin of 2,970 to 0.
According to Human Rights Watch World Report 2018, because of China’s growing global influence, many of its human rights violations now have international implications. In Hong Kong, courts disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers in July and jailed three prominent pro-democracy student leaders in August. In April 2017, security officials at the United Nations headquarters in New York City ejected from the premises Dolkun Isa, an ethnic Uyghur rights activist, who was accredited as a nongovernmental organization participant to a forum there; no explanation was provided. And in June of the same year, the European Union failed for the first time ever to deliver a statement under a standing agenda item at the UN Human Rights Council regarding country situations requiring the council’s attention. This stemmed from Greece blocking the necessary EU consensus for such an intervention due to its unwillingness to criticize human rights violations in China, with which it has substantial trade ties.
Grim as the situation may be, there may be hope. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, economic growth in the third quarter sank to 6.5 percent of last year, the slowest pace since the depths of the global financial crisis in 2009. Car purchases fell last year for the first time in more than two decades. Tariffs on Chinese exports to the US imposed by President Donald Trump are apparently starting to pinch the country’s factories. A steep and unexpected plunge in imports in December signaled just how sharply the economy is decelerating, which led Beijing to turn the volume down on its bravado and negotiate with Washington to defuse the conflict. And despite the political and religious suppression, more Chinese than ever before are actively, though secretly, practicing some sort of religious observance, and the numbers are growing by the millions.