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China, The Worst Offender: The 2022 U.S. Department of State Report on Religious Freedom

The analysis of the year 2021 confirms that things in China went from bad to worse (with Bitter Winter as the most quoted media source).

By Massimo Introvigne


Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain introducing the report. Source: U.S. Department of State.

“Deaths in custody, enforced disappearances (often through ‘residential surveillance at a designated location,’ a form of black-site detention utilized by authorities against individuals accused of endangering state security), and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation… [The] authorities used violence during arrests and tortured detainees, including by forcing them to maintain stress positions, beating them, and depriving them of food, water, and sleep.”

This is not a horror movie. It is how the U.S. Department of State summarized the situation of believers whose religion is regarded as illegal by Chinese authorities, in the section of China of its 2022 yearly report on religious freedom, covering the year 2021. As usual, the report analyzes the whole world, and there are for example interesting sections about Russia and Pakistan, but I will focus in this review on the part on China, which the Department of State denounces as the worst offender.

The document reviews the distinction between the registered groups part of the five authorized religions and all other “unregistered” religious communities, which are illegal in China, but notes that “the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, disappeared, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced labor and forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, and harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.”

While “registered” groups that become too active or visible are also harassed, the report debunks Chinese propaganda that groups outside the five authorized religions do not get a registration simply because they do not seek it. In fact, they “are not permitted to register as legal entities. The law does not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.”

The report reviews different regulations of 2021 that make the situation of religious liberty worse, including the “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy,” and the “Measures for the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services.”

Secretary Blinken’s speech. Source: U.S. Department of State.

Parenthetically, the document quotes repeatedly Bitter Winter comment on the measures for the clergy, and also notes that “on February 11, Bitter Winter published an English-language translation” of the regulations, the first Western media outlet to do so. Other new regulations and law affecting religious liberty are also quoted from our magazine.

Bitter Winter remains the most quoted source in the 2022 report, with 48 quotes, with ChinaAid (25 quotes) and Radio Free Asia (13 quotes) also being acknowledged as significant sources. The most faithful readers of Bitter Winter would notice that an even higher number of our articles were quoted in the 2021 report covering 2020.

In fact, there were less quotes of media reports describing specific incidents in general, as these accounts were more difficult for everybody to smuggle out of China in 2021 due to the COVID-19 lockdowns and an increased surveillance by the authorities (although, in the case of Bitter Winter, it should also be considered that we decided in 2021 to publish only one more detailed article on China every day rather than three or four as we did until 2020).

At Bitter Winter, we are also pleased that our emphasis on the fact that “xie jiao” should be translated as “heterodox teachings” rather than “evil cults” is acknowledged and adopted. The report notes the revamped repression of Falun Gong after its success during the COVID-19 crisis (when it proposed a special meditation to boost the immune system), and quotes from Bitter Winter the story of Colonel Gong Piqi, a distinguished military man and Falun Gong practitioner who died in jail in suspicious circumstances. Other qigong movements such as Zhonggong and Xiang Gong also met with increasing repression, the report notes.

More generally, the document reports, “in the context of the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, the government ordered increased arrests for members of all dissident groups, particularly CAG [Church of Almighty God] members.” Together with Falun Gong and the Association of Disciples, the report notes, the CAG remains the most targeted group.

Quoting repeatedly Bitter Winter, the text reports that “one document issued by the Office of State Security in Shanxi Province ordered officials to ‘put real efforts to strengthen surveillance over key personnel and carry out a severe crackdown on The Church of Almighty God’… During the year, Bitter Winter reported on several cases of authorities imprisoning CAG members, pressuring them to sign statements renouncing their faith, and subjecting them to psychological and physical abuse, including beatings and stress positions, when they refused.”

Another image of Secretary Blinken’s speech. Source: U.S. Department of State.

Specific examples of torture are also mentioned. “One CAG member from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region said during his imprisonment, a guard tightly wrapped a copper wire as thick as a little finger around his body five times, cutting off his circulation. After authorities forced him to stand for four hours, the man’s legs became swollen, his hands were numb and trembling, and his abdomen became numb to the touch.

One CAG member from Anhui Province said authorities forced her into a stress position eight hours a day for five consecutive days during which she had to squat while keeping her torso upright, her hands raised above her head, and her body unmoving. Another CAG member reported being deprived of sleep for five nights. Two CAG members said when they refused to sign a statement renouncing their faith, guards encouraged fellow inmates to beat them, resulting in bruises and broken teeth. Another CAG member described fellow prisoners, at the guards’ instigation, smearing feces on his body.”

Other reports, the document says, “described several CAG members being forced to perform labor during their imprisonment. One CAG member said she had to produce 250 artificial flowers per day, and if she failed to reach her quota, authorities forced her to stand four to six hours per night… the plastic used in the artificial flowers contained chemicals and heavy metal elements harmful to the human body, such as vinyl chloride, formaldehyde, and lead, leading to endocrine disorders, decreased immunity, aplastic anemia, leukemia, and other blood diseases… the chemicals disrupted women’s menstrual cycles.

Another female CAG member who was sentenced to three years in a women’s prison described working on 550 dresses per day in a dressmaking shop while standing for 13 hours. After her release, she was diagnosed with a herniated disc, which caused her pain if she sat for more than 10 minutes.”

Ambassador Hussain speaks at the report’s presentation. Source: U.S. Department of State.

The report has substantial parts on the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang, Tibetan Buddhists in historical Tibet (which extends beyond the present boundaries of Tibet Autonomous Region), those in Hong Kong who protest for both religious liberty and democracy, Catholics who reject the Vatican-China deal of 2018, and house church Protestants who are increasingly targeted by repression. Although the CAG is one of the most persecuted groups, repression, violence, and torture victimize devotees of all religions.

The document needs to be read in its entirety. It confirms that religious persecution in Xi Jinping’s China affects all faiths, and is getting worse rather than better.


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