Dharamshala: When China opened itself to the international community in the 1970s, it ushered a hope that the Chinese Communist Party would join the rest to fulfil the common values by fostering economic interdependence. This view was also bolstered with China coming forward to follow the international norms of humanity by signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDR) in 1971.
In contrast to these expectations, today there is a looming fear that an Orwellian China is rearing its rivalled head and posing a threat to the existing international order of things. It has complicated the protection of human rights: on the one hand, it continues to discriminate its citizens through religious crackdown by evading transparency, but on the other hand, poses to show compliance with international norms such as by signing the UDHR.
One such area where the CCP-led Orwellian China has continued to act treacherously is the freedom of religion or belief.
CCP’s religious persecutions of Tibetans, Uighurs, Christians have been alike in erasing any loyalties that are not directed towards the CCP. Meanwhile, crosses on churches continue to be removed, monasteries fitted with surveillance agents and devices, and mosques facing demolitions. Other belief communities meanwhile suffer imprisonments and falling victims to organ harvesting operations.
It is important to thus deeply reflect on how all these persecutions are being committed even with the existing set of checks and balances in the international system to ensure human rights and freedoms.
The fifth and the final day of the Geneva Forum 2020 examined the ways to counter CCP’s persecution of believers.
“Practise of religion is an Individually held right and not one for the state to give or take away,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch.
She claimed CCP goes further to restrict religious freedom by curtailing any kinds of religious activities that take place outside their definition and the believers are being treated as criminals.
She defined the enormous authority placed by the Chinese government on where, when, and whom people can worship indicating the gross violation of human rights.
“The relentless persecution and harassment, destruction of buildings and disruption of communities, the hostile state of any faith-based community reflect the intolerance of CCP toward religious believers.”
She reported on the series of studies taken by the HRW documenting CCP’s efforts to hollow out Tibetan Buddhism including the 2019 ban on the Tibetan retired government officials from participating in religious activities including performing a simple kora (circumambulation). The gang crime campaign and demanding Tibetans to show gratitude toward the party and preventing them from any public way to act on their faith.
All these efforts of China, explained Sophie, are another way of politicized campaign to silence the Tibetans having beliefs that contrast with the government’s belief system.
Highlighting the reasons for China’s intensifying control over religion, Sophie said it was premised upon the assumption that religion means political disloyalty. They strongly believe that one cannot be a loyal devotee of faith and yet be devoted to the government at the same time
Secondly, China fears the organising capacity that religious affiliation brings with it and thus the hostile response to the communities at Larung gar and Yarchen gar where part of the agenda was to practically break up these communities from preserving their distinct identity.
Third, to block any kind of transnational affiliations and conversations such as the Geneva forum, she adds, “Chinese government clearly doesn’t want Buddhists in Tibet to be in community with likeminded people in other countries.”
Given China’s continued violations and disregard for freedom of religion and human rights, Sophie emphasised some counter-measures that would enable China to be held accountable: Documenting the events of violations and having a historical record of China’s activities is of significant importance.
Also important is to document the efforts of China to hollow out or reshape the religion for political purposes. She further adds that those impacted by China’s interference in religion must build a coalition with other faith-based groups and challenge China’s violations.
She also emphasised the Tibetans to step up the preservation work of its language since the Tibetan language being the epitome of Tibetan Buddhism could enable life long sustenance of Tibetan Buddhism
Jakup Klepal, Executive Director Forum 2000 spoke on the CCP’s control in Hong Kong and the struggle of Hong Kongers against the recent developments introduced by China.
Commenting on the recent developments in Hong Kong, Mr Jakup said it reflects CCP’s tightening grip and open disrespect of its commitment not just to its people but also to its international commitments.
“Protests of millions of Hongkongers asking Beijing to keep its promises were not ignored but violently suppressed. The opinions of Hongkongers were curtailed by the controversial national security law” he said.
He also highlighted the recent mass resignation of Hong Kong’s democratic legislature to explain China’s effort to empty the institution’s purpose. The growing pressure of which he said is also felt in Taiwan with the recent advancement of China’s influence operation, information warfare, and propaganda against Taiwan.
“The cause of democracy is global and not just a nation as a threat to democracy is a threat to all”, the Director of Forum 200 said and urged the international communities to work together to defend and preserve democracy and human rights everywhere including China.
He adds that China should be transformed into a trusted member of the internal community assuring that China respects the global rule and order including taking its international commitments seriously and not acting aggressively toward its neighbouring countries. Also, China should not be let free to interfere in the democratic process of other countries. He advised that democratic countries need to protect their values and ways of life while pushing off China’s pressure on all fronts including supporting Taiwan, standing up for Hong Kong, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Chinese dissidents, and all the freedom-loving people in mainland China.
Benedict Rogers, Director, Christian Solidarity Worldwide spoke on the recent development in Hong Kong with a special focus on the state of Christian believers and pointed out some counter-measures to call out China’s persecution of religious believers.
He remarked that in China the present crackdown on human rights is the worst since the event of Tiananmen 1989 and on the religion front the worst since the cultural revolution.
He noted that while it is important that the world gives more attention to the atrocities on Uyghur Muslims, it should not come at the cost of the loss of attention and interest in what’s happening in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Christians.
He illustrated the situation in Hong Kong with regard to freedom of religious belief and said, “until very recently the freedom of religious belief in Hong Kong was one of the few freedom human rights that have not yet been completely eroded. when freedom itself has eroded sooner of later the freedom of religious belief will be eroded. Since the imposition of national security law, a direct impact on the freedom of religion is seen in regard to what can be preached in sermons and those preaching sermons should avoid themes of justice and freedom of human rights among other things not to avoid consequences”.
Similarly, he underlined the threats in the catholic education sector as an impact of the law and condemned those not standing up for Christian values and instead going on with the authority’s education system to discourage Catholic schools from engaging in religious activities.
To counter China’s persecution of believers, he laid out three counter-measures. First, to understand China’s approach to religion.
Mr Rogers emphasised to identify how CCP’s approach to religion has evolved over the decades. In the Mao regime, the goal was the elimination evidenced by the cultural revolution. The failure of elimination led the CCP to change its course from elimination to control the religion vis-a-vis allowing some degree of relaxation.
He pointed out that the centralisation policy on religion in China has changed significantly with Xi Jinping becoming the President.
“In the last few years, much greater central control on religion was seen. Since the 2016 series of national conferences on religion and sinicization was held to tighten the control over religion and to promote the Party’s propaganda in places of worship” he added.
Second counter-measure he adds is to have those affected by China’s policy on religion to unite and face the common challenge.
Third, to inform and alert the world about the situation by engaging at various UN mechanisms that exist particularly the current mandate on the UN special rapporteur on Freedom of religion and belief. The creation of a new mandate and mechanism could be a smart step that focuses on China as a whole given the scale of the human rights crisis in China.
In addition to creating an accountability mechanism in regard to atrocities committed on Uyghurs and Tibetans, Mr. Rogers adds that engaging with the special envoys on freedom of religion must be encouraged more frequently and hopes that the new US administration under President-elect Joe Biden will appoint a strong and credible future candidate to the Ambassador at large once Ambassador Sam Brownback’s term is over.
Tenzin Palmo, Researcher at the International Campaign for Tibet-Germany said that the human rights system under challenge could be protected through enlightening China the logic and benefits of human rights and adds that protection of human rights norms is possible by practising human rights and consistently raising them in engagements with China.
She also emphasised finding creative avenues to promote human rights in order to protect the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in China and advised for the cultivation of rule of law culture through bilateral and multilateral agreements with a consistent focus on quality information collection.
She also advised coordinate efforts with like-minded partners in academia, government, NGO sector, etc in countering China’s interference in the reincarnation of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and adds that governments and parliamentarians must issue a proactive and clear statement on the issue of reincarnation.
Finally, she stressed on coordinating with like-minded and new partners.
Mr. Nicolas Walder, Member of the National Council as well as the Foreign Policy Commission and Co-President of Swiss Parliamentary Group for Tibet spoke about the recent developments in the Swiss Parliament, concerning the Swiss Commission on Foreign Affairs regarding Tibetans in Switzerland and abroad.
He emphasised that people are becoming concerned about China’s human rights actions, from political, environmental, and human rights, which are no longer restricted to ethnic minorities within its own borders, and affect global security and stability citing Hong Kong’s example.
China’s disregard for its international commitments endangers all the world, he said, adding that the Swiss Parliament is expected to review its policy on China to discuss on collaborate or compete policy.
He also shared that a recent revelation of an agreement between China and Switzerland that arranged the visit of Chinese officials to screen illegal Chinese immigrants based on an arbitrary test has been appealed for suspension by the Swiss commission and subsequently, the Parliament had set a review of the agreement to next year.
Hailing the passage of the petition that received a high number of signatories in which people have asked for different measures for the protection of Tibetans in Switzerland and the policy of Switzerland on China in order to spot human rights violations.
The petition was accepted by a majority of the commission to which two more proposals were further added – first, Complete and full report on activities of China who have employed intimidation tactics on Tibetans in Switzerland, and secondly, a detailed report on the result of the government’s policy on China.
He said, “We are asking the Swiss government for a report on the result of the so-called constructive dialogue on human rights for several decades. We want to see what did it bring concerning human rights and obviously, the result is quite bad because we all can see that the situation is worsening for the minorities in China including religious minorities. This is quite a new development because until now business was the priority when talking with China and everybody is a little worried about speaking on human rights. We are quite pleased that now we can openly discuss the policies towards China.” Mr. Walder is a strong supporter of human rights in Tibet and is the co-President of the Swiss Parliamentary Support Group for Tibet.
After the report is completed, the commission is expected to review 10-20 years of dialogue with China, which he described as “deteriorating”.
He ended on a note of hope for the situation to eventually change in China, if not immediately. The signs of fragility in China’s reactions and its excesses towards India and Hong Kong and Taiwan signal underlying issues, he hinted.
Mr Walder commended the efforts of Tibet Bureau Geneva in convening the panel on the virtual platform in the current circumstances.
President Dr Lobsang Sangay, Central Tibetan Administration, addressed the closing ceremony from New Delhi, ahead of his scheduled trip to the US where he is expected to meet with US officials and push for the Tibet Policy and Support Act.
Despite having to travel from the national Covid hotspot to a global hotspot at a time when the Wuhan originated-pandemic remains an ever-present threat, Sikyong says he is undeterred and optimistic about the prospects for the bill.
Calling out a change of approach in dealing with China and Chinese officials, Sikyong pointed out that closed-door bilateral meetings have not led to any real progress on addressing China’s human rights abuses but only delayed it.
China’s playbook of manipulative, divide and rule policy required a strong united response from all interest groups, such as the Inter-Parliamentary alliance, civil society organisations, ethnic minorities victimised by China-Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols, Hong Kongers, etc, he asserts firmly.
In dealing with China, he said “competition in business and confrontation on human rights” should be the approach rather than “cooperation and co-optation”.
The session ended with a vote of thanks by Representative of Office of Tibet-Geneva, Chhimey Rigzen followed by the joint issue of Geneva Forum 2020 declaration.