Growing Oppression of Christians: Beijing’s Operation in Mainland China and Hong Kong

Each year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a congressional body, compiles a report on religious freedom around the world. Once again, USCIRF has recommended that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) be designated a country of particular concern due to its lack of religious freedom. 

Freedom House, a non-profit organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights worldwide, assigned China’s Political Rights a score of -2 out of 40 and Civil Liberties 11 out of 60, resulting in an overall Global Freedom Score of 9 out of 100, categorizing it as “not free.” This score does not reflect the situation in Hong Kong, which is assessed separately and is also experiencing steadily deteriorating freedoms. Open Doors World Watch List, an annual report that ranks countries based on the severity of persecution faced by Christians, assigned China a score of 19, indicating significant levels of persecution against Christians. 

While the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ostensibly guarantees freedoms of religion, press, and speech, the limitations imposed on these rights render them effectively unusable. 

Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution states: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration.” However, it’s essential to note that this freedom is constrained by subsequent clauses that permit censorship and punishment for speech perceived to undermine the state or its policies. These restrictions and censorship also extend to religious texts and liturgy, “requiring ideological conformity within religious doctrine”, requiring infusion with Marxist ideology, and approval by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Freedom of religion, as stated in Article 36, is undermined by the government’s control over religious activities in China. Religious groups must register with the state and operate within government-defined boundaries. Practices perceived as threatening state authority or social stability, such as underground Christian churches or certain Islamic practices in Xinjiang, are heavily repressed. A 2023 law now mandates the registration of religious venues, restricting religious activities to approved locations notified and approved by authorities. These venues must also “unite and educate religious citizens to love the motherland, support the leadership of the CCP, practice socialist core values, adhere to the direction of the Sinicization of China’s religions.” 

The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) is the state-sanctioned Catholic Church in mainland China, which does not recognize the Vatican. Religious leaders, including Catholic priests and bishops who would typically be appointed by the Pope, are appointed by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) for all state-sanctioned religions. Alongside the CPCA, millions of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, worship in underground “home churches.” While these home churches remain loyal to the Pope, if discovered by authorities, their members and clergy face severe penalties

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) has historically enjoyed greater freedoms than the mainland PRC. The Catholic Church in Hong Kong has been able to recognize the Pope, who appoints its bishops. However, with the passage of new security laws in the past four years, general rights and freedoms are deteriorating. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has expressed concern about the diminishing religious freedom in Hong Kong. 

In May of last year, 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, was arrested under Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL) for allegedly “colluding with foreign forces.” Enacted on June 30, 2020, the NSL aimed to suppress dissent and tighten control over the semi-autonomous region by criminalizing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Its implementation eroded freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press in Hong Kong, aligning the region’s governance more closely with mainland China’s authoritarian model. This law was a significant factor that led the United States to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading status and treat it as part of the PRC for trade tariffs. 

In 2024, the new security law, Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, went into effect, further restricting freedoms. The law covers sedition, leaking state secrets, and interactions with foreign entities. However, its wording has led to concerns, prompting some foreign companies to leave Hong Kong due to fears that even sending emails back to their headquarters in their home country could be viewed as disseminating sensitive information to foreign parties. 

Both the National Security Law (NSL) and Article 23 raise grave concerns for Catholics, as Beijing might see communion with the Pope as “collusion with foreign forces.” Historically distrusting Catholicism for its external ties, the CCP had largely left Hong Kong’s religious freedom intact. Unlike the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA)  in the PRC, Hong Kong’s Catholic Church communes with the Pope. As the two systems merge, Hong Kong’s Catholic Church increasingly mirrors the PRC’s. 

The concern is exacerbated by the Vatican’s recognition of the Republic of China (ROC), or Taiwan, rather than the People’s Republic of China (PRC). With Catholics in the PRC already facing restrictions on communion with the Pope, there’s a strong likelihood of similar prohibitions being imposed on Catholics in Hong Kong. 

The Hong Kong Diocese is collaborating with PRC authorities to achieve the Sinicization of religion, incorporating socialist values into the church’s teachings and diminishing the role of the Pope. Additionally, the PRC is moving to take over the administration of church institutions and now expects sermons to promote adherence to socialist values and acceptance of Beijing’s laws. Social actions, such as support for human rights and social justice causes, will no longer be permitted. Furthermore, the curriculum of religious schools is now integrated with national identity-based curricula

Christians in China have long endured persecution, and their plight is worsening as Xi Jinping tightens his grip over civil and religious society. Now, Hong Kong is gradually falling under Beijing’s influence, with the likely outcome being the eventual subjugation of the Hong Kong Catholic Church to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and the rejection of His Holiness the Pope.






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