Real Clear Politics | Susan Crabtree | April 27, 2020
It’s a portrait of contrasts in the age of pandemic. In the United States, small but passionate protests have broken out in recent weeks as some workers and worshipers chafe at being quarantined — even as most federal and state governments caution against full and abrupt re-openings.
Meanwhile, in the People’s Republic of China, where the coronavirus originated, citizens live in abject fear over voicing the mildest of criticism about their government’s response to the outbreak and aftermath, including government actions designed to place ethnic and religious minorities in harm’s way.
Among the abuses: Chinese authorities are continuing to operate some factories by forcing Uyghurs, Muslims from a Central Asian ethnic group, to fill in for workers sidelined by COVID-19. To groups monitoring religious freedom, this was merely the latest example of official persecution of the Uyghurs, predominantly Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims who number more than 10 million and live in the northwest area of the country known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region. Uyghurs consider Beijing as a colonizing power and have pushed for a separate homeland or, at least, greater autonomy for their region. In recent years, China has tightened its grip on the region, forcing at least 1 million Uyghurs into 85 identified detention camps.
The pandemic has also increased levels of mistreatment against other groups. African residents of Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub, have been force-tested for the virus, evicted from their homes and hotels, and corralled into quarantined areas with few resources. Images on social media have showed groups of black residents sleeping on a sidewalk, visibly shaking from the cold and wearing surgical masks to protect themselves. Several African ambassadors wrote a letter to China’s foreign minister earlier this month complaining that these people were being mistreated and falsely blamed for the spread of the virus to China.
“The Group of African Ambassadors in Beijing immediately demands the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans,” they wrote.
Beijing has also used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on churches that aren’t officially sanctioned by the government. In some regions, officials have removed crosses from Christian church rooftops on the pretext that religious symbols cannot be “higher” than the national flag. In December, as China’s began dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, church leaders reported that government officials told them the crosses were “too eye-catching” and would attract groups of people to gather, undermining the strict lockdowns in place.
Pastor Jian Zhu, who was raised in China and now serves as the director of the China Institute at Lincoln Christian University in Illinois, said persecution against unsanctioned Christian churches in China is “now the worst” he has seen since the late 1970s. The systematic harassment, according to Zhu, has included asking neighbors to spy on one another as well as pressuring schoolteachers, professors and students to sign a statement denouncing their faith.
“They are trying to eliminate Christianity from public life,” he told The Christian Post in mid-April. “Cameras are all over to watch church and Christians go to Sunday services. Families are threatened not to go to church or they will be punished or their relatives could be in trouble.”
Since the reports about forcing Uyghurs into factories began leaking two months ago, China’s systematic efforts to cover up the origins of the coronavirus and sow disinformation about it have sparked international outrage. But neither that indignation, nor the stepped-up persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, stopped the United Nations’ Asia-Pacific group from selecting China to represent the region on the United Nations Human Rights Council Consultative Group. The consultative body consists of five member states tasked with screening applicants to become independent U.N. human rights experts.
China’s selection on April 1 drew immediate condemnation from U.S. human rights advocates.
“The Chinese government is one of the worst abusers of religious freedom and other human rights,” said Gary Bauer of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal government entity that monitors international threats to religious freedom. In its 2019 annual report, USCIRF called on the Trump administration to impose targeted sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for severe religious freedom violations, especially Chen Quanguo, the current Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang region.
Other Washington officials see the pandemic as a warning against the natural tendency by those with autocratic impulses to impose top-down, heavy-handed controls.
Police in places as disparate as Kenya and India have beaten citizens avoiding curfew; nations such as Iran and North Korea are believed by health experts to have followed China’s example in vastly underreporting COVID-19 cases; and Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte has used the crisis to threaten declaring martial law.