In China, 2018 has been a year that rights defenders worldwide say was extremely repressive, particularly when it comes to religious persecution.
China’s communist party leadership has strongly defended its actions amid growing calls that its actions may constitute crimes against humanity.
Those actions include the internment of hundreds of thousands – perhaps more than a million – Muslims in Xinjiang, the demolition and shuttering of Christian churches nationwide and the systemic crackdown on dissidents.
«2018 has been a year of human rights disasters in China, where all walks of people have paid a dear price over rights abuses. In the past year, China has systemically enforced the most audacious ever persecution policies,» said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile Germany-headquartered World Uighur Congress.
Beijing has yet to confirm how many have been detained and calls the «vocational centers» a necessary part of their fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The reality, rights advocates argue, is that Muslim minorities are being detained and made to work overtime and without pay in factories for so-called job training.
China is also reportedly planning Xinjiang-style «re-education» camps in Ningxia home to the Hui minority Muslims. Such moves highlight the communist party’s drastic efforts to wipe out ethnic Muslims and extend control over religious groups, Raxit said.
Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid, agrees. His group, based in the U.S. state of Texas, is committed to promoting religious freedom in China.
«This is a 21st century concentration camp, like Nazi Germany in 1930s and 1940s, so, the international community should unequivocally condemn and urge the Chinese regime to immediately stop this crime,» he said.
Call for sanctions
Rights advocates have called on governments worldwide to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses.
U.S. senators including Marco Rubio have denounced Xinjiang’s internment camps and other alleged abuses as possible crimes against humanity. In November, Rubio and a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced legislation to address the situation and urged American policymakers to be clear-eyed about the global implications of China’s domestic repression.
The bipartisan bills urge President Donald Trump’s administration to use measures including economic sanctions to defend Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. If that happens, China has said it will retaliate in proportion.
It is not just Muslims who have found themselves caught in the communist party’s crosshairs. China Aid’s Fu said China has also escalated its crackdown on Christian communities.
Authorities have torn down houses of worship and in some places, there is a push to ensure that anyone under the age of 18 cannot attend church or be under the influence of religion. China is officially atheist, but says it allows religious freedom.
In early December, Chinese police arrested Pastor Wang Yi, along with more than 100 members of his Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan.
The arrests may have been triggered by his manifesto, titled «Meditation on the Religious War,» in which he condemns the communist party and urges Christians to perform acts of civil disobedience.
«It’s just really the tip of the iceberg of overall religious persecution in China since the president, Xi Jinping, took power,» Fu told CNN recently about the case.
If convicted, Wang could face a jail term of up to 15 years and he has vowed not to plead guilty or confess unless physically tortured, said Jonathan Liu, a priest with the San Francisco-based Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness.
Liu said the pastor’s detention serves the dual purpose of suppressing Christians and silencing political dissidents in China as Wang is a follower of Calvinism a branch of Protestantism that emphasizes social justice.
«Deeply affected by Calvinism, he cares for those who are socially disadvantaged or rights defenders. So, his church has formed many fellowships to provide care for those people,» Liu said, «In the eyes of the Chinese government, his church has become a hub for [political] dissidents.»
No prospects for improvement
During the United Nations’ periodic review of its rights record, China defended itself, arguing that criticism was «politically motivated» with UN members deliberately disregarding China’s «remarkable achievements.»
For critics, the outlook for 2019 isn’t promising.
«I can see no prospect that there would be any improvement in the coming year. And in fact, the last year, the most horrible thing is to see that the government is openly and fragrantly acting against the law, in total contempt of the [judicial] system they’ve set up,» Albert Ho, chairman of China Human Rights Concern Group in Hong Kong.
The fact that rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang is still being held incommunicado proves that China has little respect for its own laws, Ho said.
Among more than 300 rights lawyers and activists ensnared in China’s 2015 crackdown, lawyer Wang is the last awaiting trial.
After almost three and a half years of arbitrary detention, Wang was finally put on trial in a closed-door hearing in Tianjin on December 26. He reportedly fired his state-appointed lawyer “in the first minute” of his trial,signs of his refusal to cooperate with the authorities.
His wife, Li Wenze, and supporters, as well as western diplomats and journalists, were all barred from attending the hearing, which the court said involved “state secrets,” but rights activists denounced as a blatant violation of China’s own judicial principles.
The court said on its website that a verdict will be announced on a later date. Rights activists argued that Wang would be a blatant case of political persecution shall he be convicted with a maximum 15-year sentence.
Li and three other wives of lawyer victims who have been carrying out a long and loud campaign to secure Wang’s release as well as others, recently shaved their hair to protest his detention for more than three years.
“They (the authorities) keep on shamelessly breaking the law. So today we are using this act of shaving our heads in protest, to show they are persistently and shamelessly breaking the law,” Li said.