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The real virus to the Chinese Communist Party: religious freedom

Originally published in The Hill on May 27, 2020

The lockdowns and death in China began long before the first case of COVID-19 was ever reported. Though Xinjiang province is nearly 2,000 miles northwest of Wuhan where COVID-19 was first found, it’s also home to another virus in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party: religious freedom. Officially an atheist country, China technically recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. But while China seemingly “promotes” freedom of religion, nothing could be further from the truth.

These faiths’ teachings look very different in China, which routinely takes draconian measures to ensure each faith bows not to their God but to China’s government officials and their communist ideals. The most prominent example of persecution is in Xinjiang, where millions of ethnic and religious minorities live, including Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic minority group. The CCP began a crackdown on the Uighurs after clashes between the Uighur ethnic minority and Chinese police in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in 2009. Afterwards, police put the city on lockdown, enforcing an internet blackout and cutting off all cell phone service. The Uighurs’ plight has only worsened in recent years.

In 2014, President Xi Jinping gave a number of private speeches to CCP officials on the dangers of the Uighurs, calling on the CCP to unleash the tools of “dictatorship” to eliminate “radical Islam” in Xinjiang. Xi and the CCP believed the Uighurs and Muslims were extremists who threatened the country, though many reports said CCP police were largely responsible for the clashes in Urumqi.

Xi likened Islamic extremism to a virus-like contagion. Addressing it, Xi said, would require “a period of painful, interventionary treatment.” Though the Uighurs had lived in this region since ancient times, their presence in China was now considered nothing more than a dangerous disease threatening the CCP – and one which needed to be eradicated at all costs. Alarmingly, reports have surfaced of a genocide against the Uighurs. This should have human rights activists and the world very concerned.

Right now, nearly a million Uighurs sit in “indoctrination camps,” essentially concentration camps designed for brainwashing, forced labor and ridding the Uighurs of their religious differences. These concentration camps have the largest network since the Holocaust. Most days in these camps are spent listening to lectures against the Islamic religion, studying CCP propaganda and singing songs praising President Xi, wishing him a long life. Children are separated from their parents, who are sent to work in factories with no permission to quit unless approved by several government officials.

It doesn’t take much for Uighurs to be sent to these camps, either. Reasons for detainment can be faith-based, like reciting Arabic prayers or simply based on physical appearance, like having long beards (a common characteristic for Islamic minorities) or refusing to smoke or drink alcohol. Residents in Xinjiang can see their Uighur neighbors one day, only to have them disappear the next, with no information of their whereabouts. Most are sent to the indoctrination camps or to forced labor factories, where they make materials for well-known companies like Apple and Nike. Other religions in China are also being persecuted by the CCP.

As Christianity grows in China, they’ve also become targets. Reports detail crosses being burned in Christian churches, often replaced with the Chinese flag or photos of Xi. Christians are forced to renounce their faith. Churches are required to install facial-recognition cameras. If they refuse, the CCP quickly shuts them down. When bibles were pulled from online bookstores in China, Beijing released new guidelines encouraging churches to “localize religion, practice the core values of socialism” and “actively explore religious thought” according to “China's national circumstances.”

Other religions are also being victimized. In Tibet, over 1.2 million Buddhists have been killed since 1949. Nearly 6,000 monasteries and shrines have been destroyed. The State Department's 2018 report on international religious freedom describes the repression of Buddhists in Tibet as “severe,” with reports of forced disappearance, prolonged detention without trial and arrests based on individuals’ faith.

The list of violent persecution seems endless. One thing is clear: In China, differences in thought are not celebrated – they’re eliminated -- and religions wanting to exist must celebrate communism at their core. When we discuss repression and authoritarianism in the world, we must look at religious minorities in China. They are victims of the ruthless communist ideology which leaves no room for freedom in any way, shape or form. China’s government must answer for this systemic oppression and end it immediately.

This is why Congress intends to pass legislation imposing sanctions on any government – including China’s – found persecuting Uighurs and other minorities. If we believe we must defend the truly defenseless, we must stand up for the Uighurs and religious minorities in China.

They deserve freedom – and the world demands it.