Beijing, China - A Tibetan monk set himself on fire Monday to protest the lack of religious freedom in China, the second such protest in five months. Yesterday the government announced a "strike hard" campaign aimed at the Muslim Uighur minority in the northeastern territory of Xinjiang. Meanwhile, the authorities are tightening control over mainstream Christian churches, stepping up arrests of Catholic priests.
There are few voices exposing the mistreatment of Tibetans and Uighurs, but Catholics have leaders who are beginning to fight back. Last month the Vatican excommunicated two bishops ordained by the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, citing church law that clergymen can only be ordained with the pope's blessing. Benedict XVI also deplored the Communist Party's belligerent handling of the ordinations—which went so far as to kidnap priests who are in communion with Rome and force them to take part in the ordinations. Now Beijing is detaining priests who refuse to comply with the Party's demands.
Until last year, Beijing was making progress toward reconciling its "patriotic" church with the Vatican, extracting concessions from Rome with the promise of consultations on future appointments. The Holy See was willing to accept new ordinations of bishops and priests, while most of the previously ordained clergy had quietly pledged their allegiance to Rome. This seemed to be part of a broad recognition by Beijing that mainstream religion is a stabilizing force in society, rather than a subversive force to be feared.
Things started to go wrong last November, when the state-run church ordained a bishop without the pope's approval. The breakdown in relations worsened as Beijing continued a wider crackdown against all forms of freedom of expression. Chinese leaders' fear of democratic movements like the Arab Spring spreading to China was clearly one factor behind this trend.
Crackdowns may have succeeded in deterring resistance in the past, but as the response of groups as different as Tibetans, Uighurs and Catholics show, they are now creating more resistance. By depriving religious and ethnic minorities the space to preserve their culture and practice their faith, Beijing is alienating the next generation who have rising expectations for personal freedom. A clash between the Party's culture of control and the Chinese people's growing consciousness about their rights looms.