In a recent article, a columnist from The New York Times wrote: “China is engaging in internment, monitoring or persecution of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists on a scale almost unparalleled by a major nation in three-quarters of a century.”
The intensified persecution comes at a time when the United States is fighting a high-stakes trade war with the Chinese government. And the crackdown on religion comes not that long after the Vatican signed an agreement with Chinese authorities that was supposed to ease the repression against Catholics in China.
President Richard Nixon “opened up China” with his historic visit in 1972, and since the market reforms Deng Xiaoping started in 1978, the West expected China to change its society even more. And change it did – in a radical fashion. China transformed itself. In the 1950s and 1960s China millions died on starvation, but the country now has the second-largest economy in the world.
The West expected China to become a freer society in the process. A market economy, many pundits thought, would produce a democratic society with an open market of ideas. The brutal repression of the protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989 proved them wrong. China was not replacing Communism with democracy, but with fascism. That would probably be the most accurate definition of the Chinese government of the past several decades – a totalitarian state with a market economy, closer to any fascist regime than to Stalin’s Russia – or to Mao’s China for that matter.
Even after Tiananmen Square, many in the West thought that you could do business with China just by turning a blind eye to the repressive nature of the regime. That was the logic behind the decision of inviting China to become a member in the World Trade Organization in 2001. Almost two decades later, the “experts” have been proven wrong again. Currency manipulation, intellectual property theft and abhorrent labor conditions have been a few of the many ways the Chinese government has shown the West it isn’t willing to play by the rules.
When it comes to Christian persecution, the perception of many commentators in the West has been equally wrong. They have uncritically accepted the notion that the repression was a sub-product of China’s colonial past. While it is true that the Chinese suffered monstrous humiliations at the hand of Western powers, and that Christian missionaries often arrived with the perpetrators, the past can’t explain the current religious persecution.
The repression of the Uighur Muslims or the Tibetan Buddhists – to cite just two examples – has been as horrendous and implacable as that against Christians. For all practical purposes, the Chinese government remains Communist only in name – except when it comes to religion. There is today in China a veritable extermination war against religion – the same war Mao started even before taking power in 1949.
As different as they are, the Vatican agreement and the trade war of the current U.S. administration are attempts to make the Chinese government play by the rules.
China is a great country, and it deserves the respect that the old colonial powers denied it for centuries. But the Chinese authorities have to realize that a great power can’t behave like an outlaw, totalitarian enterprise indefinitely, because the rest of the world won’t accept it – and neither will its own people.