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Religious Persecution in China & Occupied Tibet


Religious Persecution in China & Occupied Tibet

With a population of 1.3 billion people and a rapidly developing economy, China plays an increasingly dominant role in the global economy.  But China's economic liberalization is in tension with its authoritarian political order.  The prolonged occupation of Tibet, the curtailment of civil liberties and the violent suppression of religious movements are examples of the lack of commitment to human rights.

Population & Geography

China’s 1.3 billion people represent one fifth of the world’s population.  The largest country in Asia, it stretches from the East China Sea to the Himalayas in the West, and from the South China Sea to the Gobi Desert in the North. China borders fourteen other nations, including territory contested with India, Taiwan and occupied Tibet.

China is also one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations; the earliest Imperial Dynasty dates to 2100 BCE.  Modern China is the product of the decline of the imperial order in the 19th century and the dramatic civil war in the 20th century that led to the rise of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949. [1] [2]

Today, the Chinese economy has undergone significant economic expansion from an insular centrally planned system to a market economy that is a dominant global force.  While economic liberalization has brought rapid urbanization and an improvement in health and living standards, the Chinese government retains its authoritarian character. Civil liberties are restricted; due process is often unavailable in the judicial system; and grave violations of human rights persist.  The violent suppression of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square alerted the world to China’s human rights record. China’s occupation of Tibet and its ongoing campaign against the Falun Gong religious movement and other religious minorities continue unabated. [3]

CJA has been involved in two accountability efforts for human rights abuses committed in China.  CJA brought a case on behalf of Falun Gong practitioners who were illegally detained and tortured in China (Doe v. Li Qui).  CJA is also providing litigation support for a criminal investigation in Spain concerning the March 2008 torture and killings of Tibetan priests in Lhasa.

The Occupation of Tibet

Shortly after the Communist victory over nationalist forces and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, 40,000 Chinese troops attacked Eastern Tibet's provincial capital of Chamdo on October 7, 1950.  A highly controversial series of negotiations resulted in the signing of the 17-point "Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" on May 23, 1951.  The Dalai Lama, the religious and political leader of Tibet, formally repudiated the 17-Point Agreement, declaring that it had been "thrust upon the Tibetan Government and people by the threat of arms."[4]  On September 9, 1951, Chinese troops marched into Lhasa, marking the beginning of China’s military occupation of Tibet.

In the decades that followed, China defied international law and ruthlessly repressed opposition in Tibet, confining thousands to forced labor camps and subjecting the civilian population to torture and killing of genocidal proportions.  In a 1959 report on the “question of Tibet and the rule of law,” the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) found that the evidence of mass violence indicated a prima facie case of genocide.  The ICJ report cited evidence of torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killing, as well as the forcible deportation of 20,000 Tibetan children. [5]

During the 1950s, internal government records show that over 10,000 Tibetans were killed by the military.[4]  In 1959, fears that China was plotting to abduct the Dalai Lama, brought thousands of Tibetans to assemble outside his palace.  Days later, barricades appeared throughout the streets of Lhasa, and a national uprising was underway.  Military records show that 87,000 Tibetans were killed by the military in the uprising.[6]  The Government of Tibet in exile estimates that between 1949 and 1979, 1.2 million Tibetans were killed by the Chinese invasion and occupation, including more than 173,000 killed in prisons or labor camps. [4]

In 1976, China initiated a controversial policy of settling ethnic Chinese on Tibetan territory.  The 14th Dalai Lama has referred to the settlers as “an alternate society: a Chinese apartheid which, denying Tibetans equal social and economic status in our own land, threatens to finally overwhelm and absorb us." [8]  While the Dalai Lama and the exile community have pursued a diplomatic, non-violent tack, spontaneous popular opposition to the occupation continues to erupt periodically.

More recently, in March 2008, protests to mark the anniversary of the 1959 uprising turned violent. As many as 200 Tibetans were killed in a crackdown by Chinese security forces, while another 1,300 were detained and are currently being prosecuted by kangaroo courts. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report criticized the Chinese judicial system for denying due process to these detainees. [9]  Amnesty International has also reported the deaths of Tibetan detainees while in Chinese custody: the bodies of several of the deceased showed signs of bruising and burns from torture.  As of Summer 2009, major monasteries and nunneries remain in "virtual lockdown." [10]  While the precise numbers of those imprisoned, tortured or killed are difficult to obtain, as the Chinese government has clamped down on media access and human rights reporting, still there is little debate that China continues to perpetrate mass violations of human rights in Tibet.

Persecution of Falun Gong

Religious persecution has been a noted feature of the human rights landscape in China. Religion is highly regulated by the Chinese government and those believers who wish to practice outside of state-controlled venues for the five officially recognized religions—Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism—face official harassment, possible imprisonment, and in some cases torture and execution.  Every year since 1999, the U.S. State Department has designated China a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act.[11]  Certain ethno-religious minorities, including the Muslim Uighur of Western China as well as Tibetan Buddhists, face state-sanctioned violence.  Since 1998, persecution of Falun Gong practitioners has been particularly severe.

Falun Gong is a religious practice that fuses traditional Qi Gong meditative techniques with a modern set of moral teachings introduced by Li Hongzhi in 1992.  Drawing on centuries-old traditions, Falun Gong’s popularity grew exponentially. By 1998, the Chinese government estimated that there were more than 70 million practitioners. [12] As government criticism of Falun Gong increased, practitioners organized demonstrations culminating in a silent protest in Beijing in 1999 attended by over ten thousand.

The government responded by banning Falun Gong, declaring it a “cult and false science.”  The practice was violently suppressed.  Reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented the use of torture, incommunicado detention, confinement in labor camps and forced psychiatric treatment.[13]  In 2006, an investigation led by MP David Kilgour—a Canadian former Secretary of State for the Asia Pacific Region—documented the harvesting of organs from live political detainees, in addition to the acknowledged practice of harvesting organs from the bodies of executed prisoners.[14]  The Chinese government has denied the allegations. Nonetheless, human rights organizations continue to document and collect evidence of ongoing torture and religious persecution against Falun Gong.


[1] China: A Country Study, Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, Ed. Worden et al., July 1987. Available at: http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/cntoc.html  Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[2] “China: Country Profile”, Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 2006. Available at: http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/profiles/China.pdf  Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[3] “China: Background Note,” Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State, January 2009. Available at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/18902.htm Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[4] “White Paper on Human Rights”, The Tibet Government in Exile, 1996. Available at: http://www.tibet.com/WhitePaper/white5.html Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[5] International Commission of Jurists Report on Tibet and the Chinese People's Republic, Report to the U.N. Secretary General. Geneva, 1960. Available at: http://www.tibetjustice.org/materials/govngo/govngo2.html Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[6] “White Paper: National Uprising,”, The Government of Tibet in Exile, 1996. Available at: http://www.tibet.com/whitepaper/white3.html Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[7] Dalai Lama condemns China's 'cultural genocide' of Tibet, Telegraph, By David Eimer and Gethin Chamberlain, March 16, 2008. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1581875/Dalai-Lama-condemns-Chinas-cultural-genocide-of-Tibet.html Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[8] “Profile: The Dalai Lama”, BBC News, May 20, 2008. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1347735.stm Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[9] “China: Hundreds of Tibetan Detainees and Prisoners Unaccounted For:
‘Quick Arrests and Quick Sentencings’ Followed Tibetan Protests”, Human Rights Watch, March 9, 2009. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/03/09/china-hundreds-tibetan-detainees-and-prisoners-unaccounted Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[10] Amnesty International Report 2009: State of the World's Human Rights, pp. 108-09. Available at: http://report2009.amnesty.org/ Accessed August 18, 2009.

[11] 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department. 2008. Available at: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/108351.htm Accessed: August 18, 2009.

[12] Number of Falun Gong practitioners in China in 1999: at least 70 million, Falun Dafa Information Center, June 8, 2008. Available at: http://www.faluninfo.net/article/517/?ci=5 Accessed August 18, 2009.

[13] The crackdown on Falun Gong and other so-called ''heretical organizations'', Amnesty International, AI INDEX: ASA 17/011/2000. March 23, 2000. Available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20030711022606/http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engASA170112000

[14] Report into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China [PDF], MP David Kilgour and David Matas, July 6, 2006.