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Written submission ahead of the visit to China of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

23 May 2022

Ahead of the visit to China of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in May 2022, CSW has produced the following briefing, including both benchmarks for the visit itself, and some current violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in China.

Pressing FoRB Issues

The level of FoRB in China is rapidly and significantly decreasing against a backdrop of broader human rights violations which in some cases amount to crimes against humanity, requiring the urgent attention of the international community.

1. Regulations and administrative rules that are not compliant with international standards and do not safeguard FoRB and effective access to justice

Article 36 of China’s Constitution guarantees citizens the “right to freedom of religious belief” and stipulates the protection of “normal religious activities”. The five officially-recognised religious traditions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism – are overseen by seven state-sanctioned associations. “Normal” religious activities refer to those carried out by religious communities registered with these associations. However, registered religious communities are also subject to increasingly severe restrictions, and are forced to demonstrate loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In the past, although regulations placed religion under the supervision of the state, in practice some religious communities, including a large number of unregistered churches, have existed in a grey area where they have been tolerated by the local authorities. Under Xi Jinping, this grey area is disappearing, and unregistered “house” churches are under increasing pressure to disband.

In recent years, various regulations and administrative measures for religious affairs have come into force, which widely restrict FoRB and form bases for penalties against religious groups – the impact in each case is to increase Party-state control over registered religious groups and make independent (unregistered) groups illegal:

  • Regulations for Religious Affairs, effective from February 2018

Rather than “protect freedom of religion belief” the revisions focus on the “management and supervision” of religious affairs for all religion or belief communities in China, maintaining and strengthening state control over religious activities. This includes special provisions on national security and foreign connections. The focus on national security in the revisions is consistent with official comments on religion and other recently introduced regulations which treat religion as a potential tool of “foreign infiltration” harmful to national security. In recent years “state security” charges have been used to imprison religious leaders (examples include Pastor Wang Yi, sentenced to nine years for “inciting subversion of state power” and other crimes in December 2019; elder Zhang Chunlei, accused of “inciting subversion of state power” and other crimes, detained March 2021).

  • Administrative Measures for Religious Groups, effective from February 2020

The Measures set out requirements for the structure and function of religious organisations, as well as supervision and administration by the authorities. Article 5 states that “religious organisations must support the leadership of the Communist Party of China” and “adhere to the direction of Sinicization of religions.” Religious organisations must be approved by the authorities in order to carry out religious activities and are required to report for review and approval by the authorities on a wide range of activities and affairs (including personnel changes within the organisation, important meetings, activities, trainings and international communications, overseas donations over 100,000 yuan, large financial expenditures, and major construction projects). Organisations are also required to ensure their staff learn about “the major decisions of the Communist Party of China, national policies and regulations, the glorious traditional Chinese culture, and knowledge about religion” (Article 32).

  • Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy, effective from May 2021

The Measures require clergy to “support the leadership of the Communist Party” (Article 3), and mandate that senior leaders must submit their personal information to the authorities every three to five years in order to remain in their position (Article 27).

The new regulations include specific reference to Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism: Tibetan Buddhism’s succession of living Buddhas should be regulated in accordance with the Regulations on Religious Affairs and the Tibetan Buddhism Reincarnation Management Measures, which require government approval (Article 15). Article 16 states that Catholic bishops must be approved and ordained by the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

One human rights lawyer described the measures as “one more weapon in [the Chinese authorities’] arsenal to limit or further persecute the religious communities.”

  • Administrative Measures for Religious Institutions, effective from Sept 2021            

These regulations focus on religious educational institutions and contain detailed requirements on their establishment and operation. Approval from the State Administration for Religious Affairs is required (Article 6). Persons in charge of religious schools should “support the leadership of the Communist Party of China” (Article 17); religious colleges and universities should include education on Xi Jinping's new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics (Article 22, 39).

  • Administrative Measures for Internet Religious Information, effective from March 2022

The Measures prohibit the sharing of religious content online without a permit, including through text messages, images, audio and video. The measures also prohibit religious content that “induce minors to believe in religion”. Some religious community members in China have already begun to shut down online discussion groups or withdraw from social media chats; others report being warned by employers not to post religious content online at all.

2. Violations against religious or belief communities

From 2018 onwards in particular, registered and unregistered Protestant and Catholic churches and pastors have faced increased violations by the authorities including harassment, fines, cross removals, confiscation of property and forced closure across the country.

Pastors who have spoken out against the violations have been detained and some have received lengthy prison sentences. The authorities have also forcibly closed Christian schools and implemented a widespread crackdown on Christian publishing, with sentences up to seven years for publishers. In addition, several Bible apps and other Christian materials have been taken offline. Catholic clergy, including bishops, have also been detained and forced to undergo “patriotic education”; some Catholic leaders not recognised by the government remain missing after being repeatedly arrested and detained for decades, including Bishop James Su Zhimin

Hui Muslims have experienced some similar violations including the demolition or modification of mosques, censorship or removal of online religious materials including blogs and websites, and the sentencing of imams and publishers of Muslim texts. Schools teaching Muslim religion or the Arabic language have been forced to close.

The Chinese authorities also sharply restrict and monitor the religious activities of Tibetan Buddhists. Violations include disruptions to religious services, intrusive monitoring and surveillance, arbitrary detention, the demolition of religious buildings and statues, forced “patriotic re-education”, and the closure of religious sites. Tibetan Buddhist monks who have peacefully called for greater freedoms for Tibetans, including language rights, have been detained and tortured, sometimes leading to death in custody or soon after release. 

Individuals affiliated with groups labelled as ‘xie jiao’, usually translated into English as ‘heterodox teachings’ or ‘evil cults’, have been charged under Article 300 of the Criminal Law, which prohibits “organising/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” Penalties include harassment, fines and lengthy imprisonment. The largest group classified as a ‘xie jiao’ in China, Falun Gong, has been banned since 1999. Practitioners and supporters outside China continue to report the arrest, imprisonment, torture and death in custody of Falun Gong practitioners across the country. A series of expert reports suggest that Falun Gong practitioners and other ethnic and religious minorities have been victims of forced organ harvesting. However, Falun Gong are not the only banned group to be persecuted: members of the Church of Almighty God, as well as others, report ongoing cases of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and brutal torture.

Religious communities and observers have also expressed fears about the direction of freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong. In February 2022, a pro-Beijing media outlet in Hong Kong published a series of articles criticising “Western” religions and Falun Gong, and attacking religious leaders and teachers for inciting people to participate in demonstrations in the city. On 11 May 2022, authorities arrested former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken advocate for democracy and freedom of religion or belief in China, for "collusion with foreign forces", together with four other people who had helped to run the now-disbanded "612 Humanitarian Relief Fund".

3. FoRB concerns in the Uyghur Region

In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), over one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other ethnic groups have been detained without charge in “re-education camps”. Numerous reports of brutal torture and ill-treatment, systematic rape and forced sterilisation have emerged from the camps, where conditions are dangerously unsanitary and overcrowded. Individuals have been detained for acts as basic as having the WhatsApp application on their mobile phones, having relatives abroad, accessing religious materials online, and engaging in peaceful religious activities, including praying or wearing ‘Islamic’ clothing.

Many others have been sentenced to harsh prison terms. Among them is Dr Gulshan Abbas, who has been sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of terrorist activities. In an oral statement to the 46th session of the Human Rights Council in March, her daughter Ziba Murat said her mother had underlying chronic health conditions, exposing her to a higher risk of grave illness, and appealed for medical parole.

Outside the camps, mosques and sacred sites have been destroyed and religious leaders have been handed long prison sentences, as have intellectuals, writers and editors; witnesses say Uyghur religion and culture are being deliberately erased by the authorities. There are also reports of widespread forced labour in the region and beyond. 

4. Targeting of FoRB and human rights defenders

Lawyers who take on FoRB-related cases face harassment and intimidation from the authorities; those who continuously take on such cases become targets, and can be detained and tortured, jailed or disappeared. Dozens of lawyers have also lost their licenses after taking on human rights cases. Increasingly, human rights defenders’ family members are also severely harassed by the police and can be fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes for no reason other than pressure from the authorities. Many human rights defenders remain missing or in detention, including human rights lawyers Gao Zhisheng and Chang Weiping.

Those who have reported on the coronavirus pandemic have also been targeted. On 28 December 2020, authorities in Shanghai sentenced Christian citizen journalist and former lawyer Zhang Zhan to four years in prison on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Zhang was detained in May 2020 after she had travelled to Wuhan to report on the pandemic, and there are grave fears for her health which has deteriorated rapidly since she was detained. 

5. Emblematic FoRB defenders harshly sentenced, subjected to enforced disappearance

  • Gao Zhisheng

The human rights lawyer, who acted as a legal representative in cases of religious minorities, has not been seen or heard of since August 2017. Mr Gao was previously subjected to repeated torture in detention as a result of his work, raising fears that he is again at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment or even death.

  • Ilham Tohti

The Uyghur intellectual, who peacefully advocated for inter-ethnic dialogue and drew attention to the discrimination facing Uyghurs, was jailed for life on separatism charges in 2014. His family has not heard from him since 2017 and is unsure of his current condition.

  • Wang Yi

The leader of an independent church and vocal critic of China’s religious policy was jailed for “inciting to subvert state power” and “illegal business operations” for 9 years in 2019. In November 2021, news emerged that Pastor Wang' wife was able to visit him in prison for the first time in nearly three years. 

Benchmarks and Recommendations

letter by 60 organisations issued in April sets out benchmarks and recommendations for the visit, including measures to ensure transparency, safety and freedom of inquiry. CSW, a signatory to the letter, encourages the High Commissioner to ensure that the visit meets these recommendations.

In addition, we urge the High Commissioner to:

  • Call on China to amend in line with international standards its regulations and administrative measures for religious affairs;
  • Demand that China grant Gao Zhisheng, Wang Yi and Ilham Tohti, and all other prisoners of conscience, immediate access to their family members and lawyers, and ultimately release them without condition;
  • Endeavour to meet with independent religious leaders, with proper due regard for their safety.

Post-visit, we call on the High Commissioner to:

  • Hold follow-up meetings with civil society;
  • Release a comprehensive visit report in a timely manner;
  • Hold an intersessional briefing of the HRC to discuss the visit and her published reports;
  • At a minimum, establish a technical resolution of the HRC to enable follow-up monitoring and reporting post-visit.



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We believe no one should suffer discrimination, harassment or persecution because of their beliefs