The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released a new report highlighting the deteriorating religious freedom conditions in China in 2022. The report focuses on the government's continued implementation of its "sinicization of religion" policy, which requires religious groups to support the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) rule and ideology. Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, underground Catholics, and house church Protestants, among others, are especially vulnerable to persecution due to perceived foreign connections.
The report notes that the Chinese government and state-owned entities have hired former US officials and members of Congress to lobby on their behalf, undermining religious freedom and related human rights in China. Additionally, the government's repressive sinicization of Islam and forced assimilation policy in Xinjiang continue to erode Uyghurs' and other Turkic Muslims' distinct ethnoreligious identities. Reports of forced labor, political indoctrination, mass surveillance, and forced interfaith marriages have persisted, as have allegations of concentration camps.
The Chinese government's control and suppression of Tibetan Buddhism have intensified, with authorities restricting Tibetans access to religious sites, banning religious gatherings, and destroying sites and symbols of religious significance. Tibetan monks and nuns have been subjected to torture in prison, and Tibetans have been detained for religious activities honoring the Dalai Lama or possessing his portraits.
The Chinese government has also reportedly conducted mass DNA collection in Tibet, likely to strengthen surveillance and control in the region. In 2022, at least three Tibetans self-immolated, protesting the government's policies in Tibet. The Chinese government has repeatedly stated its intent to interfere in the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, claiming it has the ultimate authority to appoint his successor.
To address this issue, the USCIRF has made several recommendations to the U.S. government, including redesignating China as a "country of particular concern" for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The USCIRF also recommends adopting a whole-of-government approach by elevating and integrating religious freedom as a key strategic objective in U.S. foreign policy toward China and raising religious freedom concerns in all bilateral dialogues and engagement.
The USCIRF also recommends continuing to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and entities responsible for severe religious freedom violations, particularly within the CCP's United Front Work Department (UFWD), State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), and the public security and state security apparatus.
Finally, the USCIRF recommends working with like-minded countries in international fora, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to collectively hold the Chinese government accountable for severe religious freedom violations, including by creating a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate and identify perpetrators of ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and document other severe human rights abuses throughout China.
The USCIRF has called on the U.S. Congress to support legislation to counter the CCP's malign influence in the United States, particularly its lobbying efforts that undermine religious freedom and related human rights. With these recommendations, the USCIRF hopes to address the severe religious freedom violations that continue to take place in China and hold the Chinese government accountable for its actions.
In August, the UNHRC concluded that forced labor of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity.” The European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning China’s oppression of Uyghurs, including “mass deportation, political indoctrination, family separation, restrictions on religious freedom, cultural destruction, and the extensive use of surveillance.” The resolution further stated that the “birth prevention measures and the separation of Uyghur children from their families amount to crimes against humanity and represent a serious risk of genocide.”
The USCIRF report also highlights religious freedom issues in Hong Kong, where Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, and Jimmy Lai, a democracy activist and religious freedom advocate, have been arrested and accused of “colluding with foreign forces” under Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Religious groups in Hong Kong have expressed concern about the Chinese government’s potential “targeting of civil society organizations or individuals affiliated with religious groups that were active in the 2019 pro-democracy movement.”
The US has taken several steps to address these issues, including visa sanctions on Chinese officials deemed responsible for or complicit in human rights abuses in China and abroad, including transnational repression to silence Uyghur American activists. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) took effect in June, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection began implementing it by prohibiting imports from Xinjiang. In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Policy Act of 2021 to address human rights issues in Xinjiang.
Overall, the USCIRF report emphasizes the deteriorating religious freedom conditions in China, particularly for vulnerable groups like Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims. The report urges the US government and other international actors to take action to hold China accountable for its human rights abuses and to support those who seek to practice their religion freely and without fear of persecution.
Edited and collated by Team TRC