We Need to Talk About China

a yellow mosque with a huge open space in front of it

After I studied abroad in Beijing, I started looking for excuses to return to China for a full year. During my year as a Jesuit Volunteer, a Jesuit suggested that I check out the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. As soon as I looked it up, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for: an opportunity to live in China, to work and develop professional experience, and to continue my spiritual and faith formation.

I spent this past academic year living in Jilin City, China, through the Maryknoll program. The program not only set me up with a job (and therefore a visa), but it also provided me with social and religious community. During the week I taught English to college freshmen at Jilin Medical College and on the weekends I volunteered at Jilin Catholic Seminary where I taught English to Chinese seminarians.

At one point early in the year, one of the other teachers at the college (a Chinese native and citizen) asked me about religion. Specifically, she brought up the infamous Karl Marx quote — “religion is the opiate of the masses” — and she wanted to know what I thought.

I gave my colleague a fairly politic answer, something to the effect of: “While I have seen religion reinforce social structures and make people overly sedate, I have also seen religion motivate people to agitate for change. I have seen people of faith who are fired up and organizing for social justice. Is religion the opiate of the masses? Sure, it can be, but often it’s just the opposite. At its best, I think religion makes people engaged with the world, discontent with injustice, and committed to building a different world, a more perfect world.”

Later, I couldn’t help but marvel at the irony of asking that particular question in contemporary China. Chinese state propaganda regurgitates Marx and teaches Chinese citizens that religion is a regressive social force that makes people overly sedate while at the same time the state cracks down on Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Falun Gong. If religion really is an opiate of the masses, you would expect China’s authoritarian state apparatus to promote it, not suppress it. However, in today’s China, it’s not uncommon for the state to shut down churches. Muslims, meanwhile, can’t even name their children Mohammad.

These realities speak to the truth that religion is energizing, dynamic, and powerful. When I think about contemporary China, religion seems more like a potential stimulant than an opiate. To an authoritarian, atheist regime like the Chinese Communist Party, religion even appears threatening and dangerous.

I like that. Jesus was radical. My faith asks radical things of me. Beijing’s treatment of organized religion is disturbingly dystopian, but it also underscores how radical and powerful a force religion can be.

At the end of my year teaching, one of my students asked me (in private, of course) what my thoughts were about Chinese President Xi Jinping. This student pointed out that Chinese media always only say good things about Xi, so this student wanted to know if Westerners were more critical of him. I wanted to give my student a genuine answer, but I feared that I might say something that could get my student hurt or in trouble. I hated that my student couldn’t access a free press. I hated that simple questions like this could feel so dangerous.

I told my student that I do think Xi works hard to make life better for Chinese people, but I also said that in the West people are often critical of him for amassing power (such as when he amended the constitution so that he could remain president for longer than two terms) and for harming minority groups in order to benefit majorities. Edging further into dangerous territory, I said, “For example, many people in the West right now are really concerned about the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.” I didn’t dare say anything more than that. In my mind, I couldn’t stop picturing this student probing more into the matter and being harassed or disappeared by the police.

“Really?!” my student said. “I haven’t heard anything about that.”

I know the news is censored (and this subject in particular), so I couldn’t have expected my student to know about it, but it still shook me to see my student’s utter surprise.

Right now in Xinjiang, China’s far western province, roughly one million people are being detained in extralegal internment camps (the state calls them “re-education centers”). Those detained are mostly Uyghers, a mostly-Muslim Turkic ethnic group. In addition to the internment camps, China has instituted a sprawling, dystopian surveillance system that tracks Uyghers online, in person, and even abroad. It’s arguably fair to say that Beijing is committing genocide against the Uygher people, if not by directly murdering them, then by creating the conditions in which their culture can no longer exist. Beijing’s ongoing repression of Uyghers in Xinjiang specifically, and across the nation and world more generally, is arguably the world’s most serious human rights concern today.

shops with signage in English, Chinese, and Uygher
A typical street in Kashgar, China (in Xinjiang).
Photo taken by Cam N. Coulter while studying abroad in 2013.

Since Chinese citizens are largely ignorant of the oppression of Uyghers and since they are deeply and immediately vulnerable should they attempt to protest or resist, we in the West carry a disproportionate weight of this moral burden. We ought to be raising hell over this issue. We ought to be welcoming Uygher refugees and supporting the Uygher diaspora. We ought to be calling our senators and demanding sanctions against Beijing as well as top officials like Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang. Christians in particular ought to be actively and publicly organizing against this atrocity. An affront to the religious freedom of our Muslim brothers and sisters should offend us. Human rights violations on this scale demand a response from us. We ought to be making a ruckus.

But when I look around, none of this seems to be happening. Whenever I broach this tragedy, most people haven’t even heard of Uyghers. Christians are no exception.

I am now back living in the States and I am often frustrated by how tame religious life feels and how most churchgoers are activists only around a narrow band of issues. (Immigration. Abortion. Climate. Poverty. Repeat.) If religion really is a “stimulant” rather than an opiate, something that energizes people to strive for justice and affect change in the world, you should easily expect to see Christians in the West enraged by and publicly challenging Beijing’s repression of Uyghers.

That’s not something I see.

I think we need to challenge ourselves to be more seriously challenged by our faith, to be more deeply agitated by our faith, and to agitate louder and more publicly for justice, specifically when it comes to Beijing. I’m no exception here. Beyond writing this essay, I can’t say I’ve done any real activism of this sort, but I recognize that the world needs us to be activists on this issue and on many others, and my own faith life demands it from me as well. If I ignore the human rights violations emanating from Beijing, I will be turning my back on people I have so recently eaten, laughed, and prayed with.

So, in the interests of living this out, here is my quick and dirty guide for us to be activists on this issue. Will you join me?

Read about it. Pray about it.

Gather friends. Reach out to our local church communities.

Contact our congressional representatives. Thank them for supporting the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act as well as the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. Tell them that we are worried about Beijing’s repression of Uyghers in Xinjiang. Ask them to make public statements about this issue and endorse Magnitsky Act sanctions against top Chinese officials like Chen Quanguo and Xi Jinping. (The Magnitsky Act allows the federal government to sanction individuals complicit or engaged in serious human rights abuses. The State Department recently announced visa restrictions against complicit officials, but sanctions under the Magnitsky Act would be far more serious and robust.) Finally, if you’ve reached out to a senator, tell them you want the senate to pass the revised Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act as quickly as possible. (The senate passed the bill first, but then the house passed it with changes, so now the senate needs to vote on it again.)

Consider donating to the Uyghur Human Rights Project or the World Uygher Congress. Consider inviting our local faith communities to join us in this.

Keep praying.

Featured image: the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, China. Taken by Cam N. Coulter while studying abroad in 2013.

“We Need to Talk About China” by Cam N. Coulter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About Cam Coulter

Cam Coulter is a writer and accessibility nerd, among other things. After their year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. They currently work as a digital accessibility consultant, and they think incessantly about ethical technology, speculative fiction, and intentional community. Cam also blogs on their personal website, where you can find more information about them: www.camcoulter.com.