What’s the biggest religion news story currently percolating in China?
Your answer probably depends upon your religious worldview.
If you're evangelical Protestant -- or any other sort of Christian, for that matter -- it's probably the rapid spread of Christianity across China, and Beijing’s effort to control the phenomena.
This piece from The Atlantic makes clear that Chinese authorities have their hands full maintaining the smothering control they prefer to have over all nongovernmental groups, religious or otherwise.
If you’re Christian and Roman Catholic, the Vatican’s effort to reach some sort of recognition compromise with Beijing may be your preferred story. Here’s a recent piece from Crux on the issue.
If you're a Buddhist, you're likely focused on China’s effort to suppress Tibetan-style Buddhism so as to limit international support for Tibetan independence, or even limited self-rule. A major part of China’s effort is to try to undercut support for the Dalai Lama, the global Buddhist religious celebrity who leads Buddhism’s Vajrayana wing, the form dominant in Tibet and other areas of Central Asia.
This recent New York Times story details how China’s campaign to maintain its imperial hold on Tibet bleeds into its political and economic dealings with India, though India is far from alone in this.
If you're Muslim, however, the following story about the forced and brutal reeducation of Chinese Muslims is likely to be the religion story in China that most concerns you. (In case you don’t know, both pork and alcohol are banned in traditional Islam.)
Muslims were detained for re-education by China‘s government and made to eat pork and drink alcohol, according to a former internment camp inmate.
Omir Bekali, one among perhaps a million people reportedly arrested and held in mass re-education camps, said he was detained without trial or access to a lawyer and forced to disavow his beliefs while praising the Communist Party.
Mr Bekali, a Kazakh citizen, said he contemplated suicide after 20 days in the facility – which itself followed seven months in a prison.
Since spring last year authorities in Xinjiang region have confined tens or even hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the camps, including some foreign nationals. One estimate put the figure at a million or more.
A US commission called it the “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today” while a leading historian called it “cultural cleansing”.
The Independent has contacted the Chinese foreign ministry for comment.
Asked to comment on the camps by the Associated Press, the ministry said it “had not heard” of the situation. When asked why non-Chinese had been detained, it said the Chinese government protected the rights of foreigners in China and that they should also be law abiding. Chinese officials in Xinjiang did not respond to requests for comment.
Muslims have been in a massive swath of land in what we now call China since Islam’s early days. They’ve also long been a thorn, and more, in the side of China’s ruling ethnic group, the historically Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian Han people.
These days, the conflict between the state and Islam reflects the global crisis between Islam’s legitimate religious rights and the element within Islam that’s turned to terrorism to aggressively push for those rights.
Chinese Muslims have been implicated in terrorist attacks both within China and elsewhere, including the Middle East as members of the Islamic State. The reeducation campaign is an effort to weaken Islam’s hold on China’s Muslim community, thereby reducing the potential for radicalism and terror.
Now for a look at some of the journalism issues in need of addressing here. GetReligion, is after all, a website about journalism.
The story opening I used above came from the U.K.’s The Independent. It was a tepid piece of work. One problem: It was amiss in not providing high up a contextual reference about Chinese Muslims’ at times militant response to its poor treatment by Beijing.
Read together, The Independent and the Post pieces are a good example of how thinly reported and sourced journalism pales when compared to well-reported and -sourced -- and way more expensive to produce -- quality journalism. But alas, the former seems to be the way our craft is headed, thanks to journalism’s sinking, digital advertising-driven economic architecture.
Here's another journalism point.
As evidenced by the stories noted here, the reeducation saga has received some important international media exposure. But it's nothing compared to what the spread of Christianity in China, the Vatican’s effort or the Dali Lama have received.
Why is that?
Sorry for the “duh” question. We all know why this is. Or should.
Christianity is the world’s most successful religion in terms of numbers of adherents. In the West, at least, more than a few media consumers have an interest in Christian news of any sort. Hence, Chinese Christians get considerable, sympathetic coverage. And since Roman Catholicism is Christianity’s largest denomination, and the Vatican’s a global force, it, too, garners much coverage in Western media. Pope Francis’ popularity among liberal media types surely doesn't hurt.
The Dalai Lama’s been popular for decades; he’s everybody’s favorite Buddhist and a symbol of China’s repressiveness among small “d” democrats worldwide. So Tibetan Buddhism, which has corralled quite a following in the West, also gets much attention, most of it favorable.
Muslims in general -- and, in particular, Muslim populations that include individuals with terrorist inclinations — do not garner much sympathetic coverage in the West, one current exception being Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims.
However, no matter how you feel about Islam and it's adherents these days, it’s hard to deny that China’s reeducation efforts are punishingly excessive, in violation of all democratic norms, and worthy of a widespread media spotlight.
The bottom line: Media reflects its audience. Size matters and so does likability. Call it common sense business practice or bias. Regardless, its real.