Persecution of Chinese Church Goes From Bad to Worse

They call it epidemic prevention. In the Chinese province of Hebei, special teams go door to door, and inspect apartments and houses, ostensibly to make sure that anti-COVID measures are implemented. But in fact, they are instructed to check books and documents, and look for dissident or religious literature. In the apartment rented by Chen Feng (not his real name), they found material of The Church of Almighty God, a movement prohibited in China that is currently the most persecuted religious group there.

Related: China’s Church of Almighty God Members Tortured to Reveal Information

Chen was promptly arrested and taken to the police station, where he received hard slaps across the face, and was shocked with electric batons. The police officers poked his ribs with an iron rod, struck his lower legs, and covered his head with a plastic bag.

This is one of the testimonies The Church of Almighty God (CAG) offered to the team preparing the report on human rights violations in China of the British Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which was published on January 13. The report submitted to the Conservative Party Human Right Commission by the CAG is now available on the Commission’s Web site.

The Commission’s report itself summarizes the information it obtained on the CAG’s “brutal suppression and persecution.” The CAG told the Commission that at least 400,000 of its members were arrested since 2011, and 159 were persecuted to death. The report mentions documents by the Chinese Communist Party at the national and provincial level, calling for increased repression of the CAG through all legal and illegal means.

Readers of Bitter Winter frequently encounter articles about the arrest, torture, and extra-judicial killing of CAG members in China. Sometimes, we are afraid that repeated news of the persecution may be perceived as routine. As noted by psychologists who have studied reactions to protracted war and terrorism, humans have a defense mechanism that softens responses to even the most horrific information, when it repeats itself. News about the torture of CAG members, or Uyghurs or others, in China shock when we first read them. When similar news hit us every week, our minds tend to file them away as routine.

This is something the UK Conservative Party report is well aware of. It reminds us that what is happening daily in China is not simply a routine of evil. The persecution does not only repeat itself. It worsens. The CAG submission evidences three important aspects of how things are getting worse.

First, artificial intelligence is not just a slogan used by the CCP to show how advanced Chinese technology is. Each advance in technology has immediate police applications. Now each Chinese police officer is equipped with a Huawei Mate10 mobile phone that has a facial recognition function. which allows the police to scan the faces of passers-by and be immediately connected with information about them. Even in many private homes, citizens are compelled to install eavesdropping devices and cameras connected with the police, whose data are immediately analyzed. The same satellites we all use for being helped by GPS when driving a car continuously watch in China the movements of millions of citizens. These technologies improve every day, and are increasingly used to identify and arrest CAG members and other dissidents.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic also made the situation considerably worse. On the one hand, it offered a handy pretext for increased surveillance and for door-to-door visits to all Chinese households. There are documents specifically asking “epidemic prevention teams” to look for CAG materials, and teaching team members how to recognize them. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic had effects on Chinese and international economy, and increased the demands for slave labor.  CAG members, as it happened to Uyghurs, Tibetans, and others, were increasingly sent, with or without a court trial, to unpaid, back-breaking slave labor, for 15 to 20 hours a day.

A female CAG member called Xiao Yun testified to the UK commission that she was forced to work at least 13 hours every day in a workshop, sewing sweaters. “The air was full of dust and dark smoke as well as a noxious odor of fabric dye. She was abused and beaten by prison guards over a long period of time,” until she developed tuberculosis. Yet, she had to keep working. In 2019 when Xiao Yun was finally released, “she had already sustained damage to her left lung, which had essentially lost its capacity to breathe; she was no longer able to perform any physical work.”

Third, COVID-19 determined a renewed CCP effort at international propaganda, as it had both to deny any responsibility for the pandemic and claim that the anti-COVID effort in China was the most effective in the world. As part of this so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy,” Chinese embassies throughout the world aggressively confronted CAG and other refugees abroad, distributing propaganda material that denied the persecution, and trying to persuade the authorities in democratic countries that asylum should not be granted and refugees should be deported back to China—where they will be arrested, or worse.

Part of this propaganda, which will surely be reiterated after the UK Conservative Party report, argues that, after all, we know that the CAG is persecuted in China only through CAG’s own statements, studies by scholars somewhat sympathetic to the CAG, and documents by governments and NGOs in countries such as the US and the UK, which are accused of having an anti-China political bias. Academic presses publishing the scholars’ findings and governments issuing reports on human rights normally have serious procedures to double-check what they publish, but this is not even the main answer to such objections.

What those who claim that the persecution of the CAG is “not proved” overlook is that a rich information about how many CAG members are arrested, sentenced, and detained, not for having committed any crime but simply for attending religious gatherings, evangelizing their relatives or co-workers, or keeping at home CAG literature, is offered every week by CCP sources. Not only decisions sentencing CAG members to long years in jail are regularly published in CCP media. China, as I and some colleagues reported in a study of hundreds of such cases, maintains the largest data base of court decisions in the world. This data base, while admittedly not complete, publishes every year decisions sending to jail hundred of CAG members, sentenced just for the normal practice of their religion. Who tells the world that CAG members are persecuted? Primarily, it is not Bitter Winter, the UK Conservative Party, or the US Department of State. It is the CCP itself, and why should we doubt the CCP’s own documents?