- Controls over religion in China have increased since 2012, seeping into new areas of daily life and triggering growing resistance from believers.
- At least 100 million people—nearly one-third of estimated believers in China—belong to religious groups facing “high” or “very high” levels of persecution (Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, and Falun Gong).
- Despite tightening controls, millions of religious believers defy official restrictions in daily life or engage in some form of direct protest, at times scoring significant victories.
- The impact of these dynamics reaches beyond the realm of religious policy, deeply affecting China’s overall legal, social, political, and economic environment.
Religious groups, beliefs, and practices that the CCP has devoted tremendous resources to extinguishing have survived or spread, representing a remarkable failure of the party’s repressive capacity. Meanwhile, official actions are generating resentment, assertiveness, and activism among populations that might previously have been apolitical and largely content with CCP rule.
The impact of these dynamics reaches far beyond the realm of religious policy alone, deeply affecting China’s overall legal, social, political, and economic environment. Looking toward the future, Xi and his colleagues face a critical choice: Do they recognize their errors and loosen religious controls, or do they press ahead with a spiraling pattern of repression and resistance that might threaten the regime’s long-term legitimacy and stability? Their decision will be critical in determining the ultimate cost of the ongoing battle for China’s spirit.
Religion and spirituality have been deeply embedded in Chinese culture and identity for millennia. This fact posed a challenge for the avowedly atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when it came to power in 1949, and its strategies for dealing with religiosity in Chinese society have fluctuated in the decades since.
Under Mao Zedong—and particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76)—the party took extreme measures to stamp out religion. Thousands of monasteries, churches, and mosques were destroyed, monks were disrobed, and untold numbers of religious leaders and believers were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
As CCP leaders have come to terms with the enduring existence and apparent expansion of religion in Chinese society, they have pursued a complex policy designed to maximize the benefits to party rule while minimizing the risks. Four key pillars of the strategy are evident in its implementation:
- Opportunistic exploitation: Harnessing the benefits of religion to advance broader CCP economic, political, cultural, and foreign policy goals
- Rule by law Developing legal and bureaucratic instruments to control religious practice and institutions
- Selective eradication: Fiercely suppressing religious groups, beliefs, and individuals deemed to threaten party rule or policy priorities, often via extralegal means
- Long-term asphyxiation: Adopting measures to curb religion’s expansion and accelerate its extinction among future generations
The report also includes a 22-page chapter on Falun Gong. The section “The money trail: Expenditures, exploitation, and organ harvesting” corroborates the large scale of killing of Falun Gong practitioners for their organs since the early 2000s.
The report details the popularity of Falun Gong and its government support in 1990s, the origin of the persecution, crack in the crackdown (split in party officials’ attitude towards Falun Gong), the scale and scope of the persecution (hundreds of thousands were sent to labor camps and prisons), Falun Gong practitioners’ activism and its effect, and current trends.
“It is in the context of dehumanizing propaganda, severe abuse in custody, and economic inducements that the ultimate form of financial exploitation has been reported: the killing of Falun Gong detainees and the extraction of their organs to be sold at high prices to Chinese patients and foreign “transplant tourists” as part of a multibillion-dollar industry. The allegations first surfaced in 2006, and several investigations by foreign journalists and legal specialists have found them to be credible; some members of the medical community have voiced their own concerns.
There are indubitably serious problems surrounding the sources of organs for transplants in China. A thorough investigation into these sources is beyond the scope of this study. Nevertheless, Freedom House reviewed available evidence compiled by other investigators (including phone calls made to Chinese doctors), interviewed former Falun Gong prisoners of conscience who provided detailed accounts of blood tests in custody, spoke to a Taiwanese doctor whose patients have traveled to China for transplants, and met with the friend of a military hospital employee who had firsthand knowledge of organ extraction from a Falun Gong detainee as recently as 2011. The above review found credible evidence suggesting that beginning in the early 2000s, Falun Gong detainees were killed for their organs on a large scale.
There are reasons to believe that such abuses continue. The organ transplant industry in China remains enormous and growing, even as the number of judicially executed prisoners has declined over the past decade. After admitting that extracting organs from executed prisoners was problematic, the Chinese government has initiated a voluntary organ-donor system, but its capacity remains small. Moreover, in 2014, a top health official announced that organs from prisoners would be embedded within the same database, even though prisoners are not in a position to provide free consent for “voluntary” donations.
A detailed June 2016 study of publicly available data on the number of transplants being conducted at medical institutions in China found that the scale is many times greater than the 10,000 transplants per year often cited by officials. This would indicate that the discrepancy between known supply and actual transplant volume may be even larger than previously appreciated, increasing the risk to Falun Gong practitioners, other prisoners of conscience, and criminal detainees.”