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'Transnational repression': Is China trying to erode freedom of speech in Western culture?

This photo, taken on April 21, 2020, shows staff members keeping watch at a checkpoint in the border city of Suifenhe, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province.
This photo, taken on April 21, 2020, shows staff members keeping watch at a checkpoint in the border city of Suifenhe, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province. | STR/AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese Communist Party is using a variety of tactics to erode the freedom of speech and religion throughout Western culture as it seeks to silence critics in the United States and elsewhere outside its borders, experts warn. 

On Thursday, the Washington, D.C.-based conservative policy think tank Hudson Institute hosted a discussion on how China engages in "transnational repression" through intimidation and propaganda on American soil, targeting religious minorities like Christians, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and other critics of CCP policies. 

The conversation was moderated by Nina Shea, a human rights attorney and director of the institute's Center for Religious Freedom. The participants for the discussion consisted of Levi Browde, executive director of the Falun Dafa Information Center; Olivia Enos, Washington director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation; Ian Oxnevad, senior fellow for foreign affairs and security studies at the National Association of Scholars; and Ying Chen, conductor with Shen Yun Performing Arts.

Chen said that the purpose of the U.S.-based Chinese music and dance company operated by the Falun Gong religious movement is to share China's "traditional culture that's untainted by communism," values the CCP has worked to erase over the past several decades. 

As a result of its message, Chen says that the Chinese government has worked hard to thwart Shen Yu performances globally.

According to its website, Shen Yu comprises 20 pieces that showcase different legends and Chinese dynasties through music and choreography.

Since Shen Yu shows Chinese culture to the public without CCP's influence, Chen says nearly every theatre that has shown Shen Yu has faced pressure from nearby Chinese consultants or embassies through phone calls, mail or visits, demanding them to cancel the performance.

"We also try to get our audiences a chance to experience the spirit and traditional values of China," Chen said. "However, some of those values and beliefs are exactly what the Chinese Communist Party has tried to eradicate for decades so that they can fortify their rule." 

She cited the example of spirituality, stressing that Chinese civilization has always been spiritual, citing the country's three principle religions — Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism.

All of these religions are considered the "three pillars of Chinese society," according to Chen, adding that these ideas have been "deeply rooted" in the Chinese belief system for thousands of years. 

"And we certainly expose some of the human rights crimes that the CCP is still perpetrating today as we speak," Chen added. 

The pressure campaign also includes slander against the performance company, she added.

Many members of the company have also had visits from the national security group, and the 69-year-old mother of one of Shen Yu's dancers was sentenced to four years in prison. The mother had been arrested multiple times before that and spent time in detention facilities due to her faith. 

At one point, Browde commented that the Shen Yu Performing Arts has been under surveillance, with drones flying overhead and cameras outside the entrances and exits. The purpose is to take photos of the people walking in and out so the CCP can tell which families to target. 

Chen listed multiple incidents that appear to have been targeted efforts to thwart production over the years. 

In Ottawa in 2010, the front tire of a Shen Yu tour bus had a number of slits in it. 

The conductor noted that the tire appeared to have been slashed a certain way so it wouldn't pop until the bus was driving, which could've caused the bus to lose control and severely injured the 47 passengers on board.

A few days later, someone slashed the tires on other tour buses, forcing the company to have its buses watched around the clock from now on when it goes on tour.

Browde believes the U.S. government should be speaking with people like Chen, who are on the "front lines" of the oppression inflicted on CCP critics in the U.S. 

"Because the tactics and multi-faceted nature of what the CCP is doing right here on U.S. soil is way beyond, honestly, what the U.S. government is understanding or capable of right now," he said. "And in order to get up to speed, in order to get ahead of that curve, they need to be speaking to the people who are being targeted and are much more adept at rising to that challenge." 

Oxnevad suggested ways for colleges and universities to eliminate the CCP's presence on campus by enforcing Sec. 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which contains reporting requirements for foreign gifts. He also proposed a ratio funding policy that would make universities less eligible for American taxpayer money for every foreign dollar source. 

Enos of the  Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation warned that it has become difficult to distinguish between the CCP and Hong Kong authority. She urged the U.S. to enact sanctions. She also called for countries like the U.S. to offer safe havens to those facing persecution. 

China is recognized by the U.S. State Department as a country of particular concern for engaging in egregious religious freedom violations. China only recognizes five state-sanctioned religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism) and regularly arrests those participating in underground churches and congregations that don't submit to the CCP's control. 

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: samantha.kamman@christianpost.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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