China (Includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau)
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Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet are appended at the end of this report.
The constitution states citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” and does not define “normal.” The government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when the government perceived these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and international media reports. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices, including members of unregistered Christian churches (also known as “house churches”). Falun Gong reported dozens of its members died in detention. Although Chinese authorities continued to block information about the number of self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhists, including Buddhist monks, media reported on six self-immolations and one instance in which a man in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) committed suicide by slitting his throat. Reportedly, a Buddhist monk self-immolated in Haikou City due to a land requisition dispute involving a Buddhist temple. Multiple media outlets reported an increase in control over religious activities in advance of the 19th Party Congress in October. The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and Tajiks. In addition to the national Counterterrorism Law that addressed “religious extremism,” Xinjiang enacted a separate counterextremism law, effective April 1, which spelled out many of the behaviors deemed “extremist.” Authorities in Xinjiang punished university students for praying and barred them from participating in religious activities, including fasting during Ramadan. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims have been forcibly sent to re-education centers, and extensive and invasive security and surveillance practices have been instituted. The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned, leading many to seek asylum overseas on the grounds of religious persecution. In several cases, there are reports that returnees died while in detention or disappeared. During the year, the government passed new regulations scheduled to come into effect in February 2018 to govern the activities of religious groups. Religious leaders and groups stated that the 2018 regulations would increase restrictions on their ability to practice their religions, including a new requirement for religious group members to seek approval to travel abroad and a prohibition on “accepting domination by external forces.” Christian churches stated the government increased monitoring even before the new regulations came into effect, causing many churches to cease their normal activities. Authorities continued to arrest and harass Christians in Zhejiang Province, including by requiring Christian churches to install surveillance cameras to enable daily police monitoring of their activities. An ongoing campaign of cross removals and church demolitions continued during the year, reportedly on a more limited basis than in previous years.
Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued.
The Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concern about abuses of religious freedom. On August 15, the Secretary of State said, “In China, the government tortures, detains, and imprisons thousands for practicing their religious beliefs.” He said dozens of Falun Gong members died in detention in 2016, and policies that restrict Uighur Muslims’ and Tibetan Buddhists’ religious expression increased in number. U.S. officials consistently urged the government to adhere to internationally recognized rights of religious freedom and urged the release of those imprisoned for their religious beliefs. Embassy officials met with members from diverse religious communities and protested the imprisonment of individuals on charges related to religious freedom.
Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
China (Includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau) – Hong Kong
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The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Religious groups are exempt from the legal requirement that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) register, but they may apply for subsidies and concessional terms to run schools and lease land if they register. Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly, but they reported harassment from groups they said were connected to the Communist Party of China.
Religious leaders reported hosting and participating in interfaith activities, such as a local mosque hosting a visitor exchange with a local Jewish synagogue.
The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government, including the Home Affairs Bureau. The Consul General and consulate general officials met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives to promote religious equality.
China (Includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau) – Macau
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The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law also protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. Falun Gong continued to hold rallies, including protesting the visit of a high-ranking Communist Party official from the Mainland, but reported difficulty renting venues for events.
Many religious groups, including Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and Bahais, continued to provide diverse social services to anyone, regardless of religious affiliation.
The staff of the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups, and they discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the Mainland and in Hong Kong, in meetings with Macau SAR government officials and civil society representatives.
China (Includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau) – Tibet
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The United States recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties in other provinces to be part of the People’s Republic of China. The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” In the TAR and other Tibetan areas, authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in religious practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. There were reports of forced disappearance, physical abuse, prolonged detention without trial, and arrests of individuals due to their religious practices. Travel restrictions hindered traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday, according to numerous sources. Self-immolations, which led to life-threatening injuries or even death, in protest of government policies continued, and at least six individuals set themselves on fire during the year, including two monks. Another report stated a man in Lhasa died after he slit his own throat in protest near the Jokhang Temple. As part of an ongoing multi-year project, according to local sources, during the year authorities continued to evict at least 11,500 monks and nuns from Buddhist institutes at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, destroying as many as 6,000 homes where they resided and subjecting many of them to “patriotic re-education.” The government routinely denigrated the Dalai Lama, whom most Tibetan Buddhists revere as their most important spiritual leader, and forbade Tibetans from venerating him and other religious leaders associated with him. Authorities often justified their interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by claiming the religious institutions engaged in separatist or pro-independence activities, and undermined the leadership of the Communist Party of China.
Some Tibetans encountered societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, or when traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources. Because expressions of identity and religion are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religion.
The U.S. government repeatedly pressed Chinese authorities to respect religious freedom for all faiths and to allow Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government. U.S. officials expressed concerns to the Chinese government at the highest levels about the severe restrictions imposed on Tibetans’ ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom and cultural rights. Embassy and other U.S. officials urged the Chinese government to re-examine the policies that threaten Tibet’s distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity, including the continuing demolition campaign at the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders. While diplomatic access to the TAR remained tightly controlled, three U.S. visits occurred: one consular visit in July and visits by the U.S. Consul General in Chengdu in April and November. U.S. officials emphasized to TAR officials during the April and November visits the importance of respecting religious freedom in Tibet. In July the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with the Gyalwang Karmapa to highlight continued U.S. support for religious freedom.