Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China: A report by Dui Hua

(Clockwise from top left) Chinese government anti-cult propaganda; Tablighi Jamaat members with Hui Muslims at a mosque; practitioners of Yi Guan Dao; promotion for Milky Way Federation; a notice expanding the penalties under Article 300; the Jesus Family. Image credits: The Paper; Umal Al-Dawa Youtube Account; Jin De Fo Tang’s Facebook account; Sohu; Liaoning Pindao; Bridge Magazine  

Dui Hua’s new report “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” [PDF, 1.4 MB] details and analyzes the Chinese government’s treatment of unorthodox religious groups, listing known banned groups and the actions taken against them. The report, compiled over several months in 2021, offers a view into a substantial and largely unrecognized aspect of the Chinese population. 

“The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” is based on legal documents, media reports, case studies, official publications, Chinese government responses to requests for information on persecuted prisoners, court statistics, and Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB).  It provides a comprehensive view of how non-state sanctioned religious practitioners come into conflict with the law, how officials at different levels of government criminalize unorthodox worship, and how past trends can inform future advocacy for those undergoing coercive measures for the non-violent expression of their beliefs.  

As early as 1951, regulations on punishing counterrevolutionaries targeted leaders of reactionary religious organizations. Currently, the Chinese government allows its citizens to take part in the five state-sanctioned patriotic associations of Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism, but many seeking spiritual salvation look beyond government-approved faiths and embrace unorthodox religious groups. 

Graph 1. Defendants and 1st-instance cases accepted and concluded for violating Article 300(1)
Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation

Noting the extensive historical context informing the Chinese government’s approach to religious groups, especially those not sanctioned by the state, Dui Hua found that the 1997 revision to the criminal law placed “cult” trials into the purview of district courts, resulting in less transparency and attention for such cases. By 1999, trials of Article 300 cases—for those accused of organizing and using superstitious sects, secret societies, and religious organizations to undermine the law—soared, largely due to the ban on Falun Gong.  

The report includes an overview of 41 unorthodox religious groups; a summary of laws and regulations targeting unorthodox religious groups; analysis of court statistics from 1979-2016; discussion of deteriorating transparency in the disclosure of information on Article 300 cases; analysis of religious persecution using the PPDB; a summary of Dui Hua’s advocacy for such prisoners using prisoner lists and responses; and recommendations for future advocacy.  

Table 1. Breakdown of unorthodox religious practitioners in PPDB by affiliation
Source: PPDB

The objective of the report is to enable more effective interventions on behalf of practitioners of unorthodox religious groups who face coercive measures under Article 300 by providing insight and actionable information. Its main findings include the following:  

  • The number of adherents of orthodox religious groups makes up more than 10 percent of China’s population, perhaps as many as 15 percent. Unorthodox religious groups exist in all of China’s provinces and autonomous regions, and many have developed links to international groups. If the number of unorthodox religious adherents was incorporated into official figures, then the number of all religious practitioners in China would far exceed the current government figure of 200 million official practitioners (as of 2018).  
  • Adherents of unorthodox religious groups subjected to coercive measures for violating Article 300(1)—“organizing and using a cult to undermine implementation of the law”—and other charges make up 60 percent of all prisoners in the PPDB. Their numbers have swelled in recent years as sentence reductions and paroles have been restricted.  
  • The most common crime for which adherents of unorthodox religious groups are imprisoned is covered by Article 300(1) of China’s Criminal Law but other crimes are also used, including endangering state security and economic crimes like committing fraud (Article 266) and operating illegal businesses (Article 225).  
  • Falun Dafa (aka Falun Gong) and the Church of Almighty God have the largest number of adherents, but there are many other smaller groups. This report identified 41 unorthodox religious groups operating in China today or during the last two decades.  
  • From 1998-2016, women made up 41 percent of those sentenced to prison for violating Article 300, five times the percentage of all women prisoners in China.  

Graph 2. Gender Breakdown of prisoners and unorthodox religious prisoners in PPDB
Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation

  • Adherents of unorthodox religions are typically non-violent. Instances of violence are rare; when they occur, the Chinese government features them in “anti-cult” propaganda. Adherents have been convicted of rape and murder. Those so convicted are often executed.  
  • The persecution of unorthodox religious groups has existed since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949; adherents were classified as counterrevolutionaries prior to 1997. They have been viewed as threats to the government’s hold on power.  
  • Persecution of unorthodox religious practitioners rose sharply following the banning of Falun Gong in 1999. In recent years, practitioners have seen sentences increase and clemency restricted. Persecution shows no sign of abating. In 2018, there were 3,550 people tried for violating Article 300(1), one of the highest numbers of individuals tried for this charge in recent years.   
  • Adherents of unorthodox religions rarely make their way onto prisoner lists submitted to the Chinese government in bilateral and multilateral human rights dialogues. Their numbers dwarf those subject to coercive measures for exercising their political beliefs.  
Dui Hua encourages governments to raise the issue of this persecution in formal and informal discussions on human rights with the Chinese government and to include the names of imprisoned practitioners of unorthodox religions to the lists compiled for use in human rights dialogues with China. When, and to the extent possible, governments and NGOs should support appeals of unorthodox religion practitioners to Special Procedures of the United Nations. More so, governments and NGOs should incorporate concerns about the persecution of unorthodox religious groups into submissions to China’s Universal Periodic Review, tentatively scheduled for October 2023. 

Finally, governments should use this report when considering applications of political asylum by practitioners of unorthodox religions. Some governments, particularly in Europe, have become more open to accepting asylum requests for Church of Almighty God members. Dui Hua encourages courts to recognize the persecution of unorthodox religious group members as grounds for asylum and to recognize precedents for such asylum requests.