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We are witnessing a global crisis in religious freedom, wherein roughly three-quarters of the world’s people live in nations where religion is highly or very highly restricted. China presents a particularly troubling case. The assault on religion currently taking place under President Xi Jinping is the most comprehensive attempt to manipulate and control religious communities in that country since the Cultural Revolution. Under Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, America’s religious freedom diplomacy is more effective than ever. But it can do even more to address the problem of religious persecution in China, if our foreign policy establishment has the will.

Chinese policy on religion is multifaceted and has many means at its disposal besides overt repression. Since the Cultural Revolution, China’s leaders have often supported religious groups perceived as helpful in consolidating Beijing’s power. Xi himself has praised Chinese (non-Tibetan) Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism as the “traditional cultures” of China, and has exhorted adherents of those religions to help reverse China’s moral decline.

Those three groups pose a lesser threat to Communist rule than do the Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christians—the three religious communities that are targets of ongoing repression. The Muslims of Xinjiang province are being subjected to an anti-Uighur campaign that is staggering in its scope and totalitarian sophistication. It is a twenty-first-century version of the Cultural Revolution—its goal being to destroy a minority religion associated with a particular ethnic group by means of Stalinist-style informers, periodic crackdowns to intimidate the populace, and “reeducation.” In recent years, hundreds of reeducation camps have been established, run by Chinese officials trained in the “transformation” of inmates from adherents of Islam to devotees of Chinese communism. Hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims are incarcerated in these camps.

Efforts to dissemble China’s cruelty have been preposterous. At a U.N. conference in March, a Chinese official told an assembly of NGO leaders that the reeducation camps were merely for “vocational training”—a lie countered by Ambassador ­Brownback and me. Brownback said he would provide lists of Chinese citizens who were desperate to know the fates of their relatives who had disappeared into the camps. I told the official that China’s policy was creating terrorists, not preventing them from emerging.

The lesson of China’s anti-Uighur campaign is this: When it discerns a threat to its absolute control over its citizens, as it does with Uighur and Tibetan separatism, Beijing remains capable of the systematic, brutal repression of religious and ethnic minorities that characterized the twentieth-century totalitarians (and still operates in North Korea). We should not deceive ourselves concerning Beijing’s capacity for reverting to Mao’s scorched-earth policies on religion.

At present, however, Xi’s Uighur policy is merely the most visible and inhumane aspect of China’s long-term strategy to control and manipulate religion. That strategy has many elements, but three stand out.

Making SARA More Accountable to the Politburo

The bureaucracy that has carried out China’s religion policy since the 1950s is the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), successor to the Religious Affairs Bureau. This huge state agency, staffed in its early years by former members of the Red Army, has long been charged with controlling religion at the local and provincial level. While serving as the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, I met in China with former SARA director Ye Xiaowen and was present during some of his trips to the United States. His job was to assure Americans that religious freedom was not imperiled in China.

Xi has decided to absorb SARA into the Communist party by incorporating it into the United Front Work Department, a bureaucracy historically charged with controlling China’s ethnic minorities. This move is part of an overall tightening of government authority over civil society, especially its growing religious elements. In its latest Report on International Religious Freedom (for 2017), the State Department estimates that there are 70 million Christians in China, about 12 million of them Catholics. The expansion of Chinese Christianity, especially through conversions to Protestant denominations, is of great concern to Beijing. Purdue sociologist and China specialist Fenggang Yang predicts that within a generation, China will be the largest Christian nation in the world. Other religions are gaining adherents as well. Moving SARA closer to the Politburo ensures increased monitoring and control over the threat posed by Christianity’s growth in China.

Fear of Religious Education

Like other elements of Xi’s policy, religious education has long been under the Chinese bureaucracy’s microscope. One of SARA’s responsibilities has been to minimize the danger, intensely felt by the Communist party, that religious education might lead to resistance among China’s religious citizens. American religious freedom diplomacy has attempted to address the resulting violations of parental rights. In 2002, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford reported to Congress an assurance by SARA Director Ye Xiaowen that parents were, in fact, free to teach religion to their children. There was a half-truth in Xiaowen’s assurance: Parents could teach their children surreptitiously, but the consequences of being caught conveying, for example, Catholic teaching on issues such as religious freedom for all, the equal dignity of all persons created in the image and likeness of God, or the evil of abortion, were severe.

The perceived threat posed by such teachings is one reason for Xi’s crackdown on religious education and his policy of “Sinicization.” Under the latter policy, no child under eighteen may attend religious services or any other religious event. No child under eighteen may receive religious education of any kind from anyone. Furthermore, each Chinese religious community is responsible for ensuring that its teachings are compatible with “the socialist society” and supportive of the leadership of the Communist party.

For Chinese Catholics, the government-controlled body charged with carrying out Sinicization is the so-called Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Following Xi’s instructions, it has drafted a detailed implementation document, which contains the following passage:

The [Catholic] Church will regard promotion and education on core values of socialism as a basic requirement for adhering to the Sinicization of Catholicism. It will guide clerics and Catholics to foster and maintain correct views on history and the nation and strengthen community awareness.

Of course, the “core values of socialism” as practiced in China are exceedingly difficult to square with the core values of Catholicism. Gerard O’Connell has noted correctly that Xi’s religious education policy

strikes at the very heart and future of the Catholic and other Christian churches, as well as that of other religions. It is an issue of utmost concern for Catholics in China who see it as an attempt by the communist authorities . . . to prevent young people from being educated or growing up in the faith.

Systematic Government Oppression

Xi’s policy of intensified persecution has affected religious groups other than the Uighur Muslims. ­Houses of worship are being destroyed: With increasing frequency, churches are bulldozed, as are mosques and Tibetan Buddhist schools and temples. Chinese officials are stepping up their monitoring of the Internet, especially of religious content. Contributions to religious groups are closely monitored and controlled, public proselytism has been outlawed, and priests, pastors, monks, nuns, and lay religious people are being imprisoned unjustly. Perhaps most insidious is the Chinese government’s huge investment in facial recognition technology and coercive DNA collection, which will be used to track anyone, religious or not, who is seen as a challenge to Communist control. The fear of religion in particular—a fear native to all totalitarian systems—is producing under Xi a broad and carefully planned national anti-religion strategy with many moving parts.

At the level of geopolitics and grand strategy, Xi’s crackdown on religion and other liberties has undermined, perhaps fatally, the hope that China will join the “liberal international order” under American leadership. The traditional argument that trade and investment, accompanied by people-to-people exchanges, would make China more liberal was always difficult to make. Now, it seems utterly naive.

American religious freedom policy has played only a small part in the grand strategy of liberalizing ­China. Chinese Communist religion policy has always constituted an assault on fundamental human rights. It has caused vast human suffering. It has consistently violated the rights of conscience; the right to be free of torture, unjust imprisonment, and other assaults on human dignity; and the right of religious freedom as laid out in international law, including Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which China has signed but not ratified).

Many congressmen have spoken out consistently about China’s violations of religious freedom, as have some senior American diplomats. The China section of the 2018 Annual Report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is pointed in its criticisms, as is the China chapter of the State Department’s latest Report on International Religious Freedom. After his appearance at the U.N., Ambassador Brownback traveled to Hong Kong and delivered a warning to China. Beijing is “at war with faith,” he said, “a war they will not win.”

The unprecedented Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom, convened in July 2018 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and run by Ambassador Brownback, produced a very strong statement on China. America’s leading diplomats will have an opportunity to issue another critical declaration on religious freedom in China at a second Ministerial to be held in July 2019.

Such statements and reports will always be important. They give hope to the victims of persecution and keep a spotlight on what the Chinese government is doing to its religious minorities. But it is difficult to argue that American policies over the past two decades have had a positive impact on China’s religion policy, or on the fate of its religious minorities. American religious freedom policies have failed in part, no doubt, for the same reason virtually all efforts to liberalize China have failed: China’s single-minded determination to recover its status as a world power has left little room for the freedom of its citizens or the development of civil society.

The United States must never abandon the call for China to accept its legal and moral obligations to human freedom and dignity. American reports, denunciations, and dialogues have, on occasion, had the laudable result of freeing a religious prisoner or removing a family from harm’s way. These efforts must continue. Most modern American presidents and secretaries of state have raised the issue of persecution with their Chinese counterparts. These efforts, too, must continue. Indeed, they must be undertaken with greater frequency. But we must not forget that raising the issue, even at the highest levels, is not the same as addressing the problem in substantive ways.

Unfortunately, the failure of the United States to address religious persecution in China is not limited to foreign policy. The Justice Department has taken positions that threaten to undermine the strong protections Congress has provided for those suffering religious persecution abroad. In a recent case, Ting Xue v. Sessions, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held, at the Department’s urging, that a Chinese Christian lacked a “well-founded fear of persecution” within the meaning of the asylum laws—even though his decision to attend an unregistered house church had led to his being arrested, beaten, jailed for three days, forced to pay a major fine, required to take reeducation classes, and warned not to attend illegal church meetings.

The immigration judge denied Ting Xue’s asylum petition, saying his fears of future persecution “[did] not amount to more than a restriction on [his] liberty and thus [did] not rise to the level of persecution” (emphasis added). The Board of Immigration Appeals held, as did the Tenth Circuit, that the “level of harassment” Xue experienced did not qualify as “persecution” under asylum laws. Xue petitioned for certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, and fortunately the Justice Department, perhaps recognizing the absurdity of this result, settled his case. Ting Xue and his family are now living peacefully and productively in the United States.

In the Tenth Circuit, however, it remains the law that asylum applicants do not have a well-founded fear of religious persecution if they are “free” to practice their faith in secret. This view reduces freedom of religion to the private, interior freedom of belief and worship, as distinct from the freedom of religious exercise guaranteed in the Constitution’s First Amendment. It also conflicts with the view of at least three other federal circuits. As the Seventh Circuit powerfully put it in Muhur v. Ashcroft (2004):

Christians living in the Roman Empire before Constantine made Christianity the empire’s official religion faced little risk of being thrown to the lions if they practiced their religion in secret; it doesn’t follow that Rome did not persecute Christians, or that a Christian who failed to conceal his faith would be acting “unreasonably.”

A group of interested lawyers and scholars has encouraged the attorney general to use his statutory authority under the immigration law to address this problem, and to make clear that one may suffer persecution even if one is “free” to practice one’s faith alone and in private. This view is far more consistent with the protection that our nation has historically accorded our “first freedom.”

I would submit that the impoverished view of religious freedom as mere “freedom to believe and worship” has taken hold among some in our foreign policy establishment, and that it has played a role in the highly rhetorical and largely ineffective international religious freedom diplomacy adopted by the State Department over the past two decades. It is difficult to mount an effective strategy to advance religious freedom in China, or anywhere else, if you believe that religious freedom entails primarily a private right of belief and worship, with no legitimate role for religion in public affairs.

What, then, can be done, not just said? A more effective religious freedom strategy would not abandon the quest for freedom in China. Nor would it jettison the need for reports or the possibility of sanctions. But it would base American policy on a different logic—one designed to counter the natural communist suspicion of all religion, while at the same time presenting evidence-based self-interest arguments that might appeal to the practical strain in Chinese Communism.

A self-interest argument would contain the following proposition: The growth of religion and of religious communities is natural and inevitable in every society. This is why Mao’s policy failed and why religious affiliation is now expanding in China. Efforts to stamp out religion or restrain its growth are self-defeating. Religious persecution retards economic development, increases social instability, and feeds violent religious extremism. Conversely, the accommodation of religious groups would benefit China’s economy and conduce to its social harmony and stability.

Elements of this argument have been used on occasion by some American officials. But the full argument should now be employed consistently by all American officials, promoted by U.S.-funded programs, supported by empirical research, and institutionalized in a permanent U.S.-China bilateral working group on religion, which would study the positive economic and social effects of religious communities.

I believe the diplomatic stars are aligned for a new strategy based on self-interest arguments of this sort. Ambassador Brownback has spoken publicly about the empirical evidence that religious freedom encourages economic development and undermines violent religious extremism. His predecessor, Ambassador David Saperstein, laid the groundwork for this approach.

A new strategy of pragmatic argument would stand a chance of actually reducing religious persecution in China. Economic growth is a major ­priority for Chinese policymaking, both domestic and international. If Chinese authorities come to view the country’s religious communities as an economic asset and a driver of modernization, rather than as a source of social and political instability, they will become more receptive to arguments against persecution. For instance, if they come to regard unregulated Protestant house churches as factories for the social habits that yield economic productivity, they may reassess the role of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (the state-sanctioned Protestant church) in controlling and repressing Protestant groups. The connection between religion and economic growth can work to the advantage of non-Protestant and non-Christian religious groups as well.

The increasing need in China for social services and moral renewal provides another opportunity for making the case that religion is good for China. The problems are enormous: the spread of infectious diseases, from leprosy to AIDS; a burgeoning population of elderly people who lack resources; tens of millions of people who continue in abject poverty; environmental degradation; massive migration into cities; homelessness; family breakdown; moral degeneracy; and more. China’s “one-child” policy, brutally implemented for decades, has produced a demographic catastrophe, which includes, but is not limited to, a shortage of women. (Female babies were aborted far more often than males.) Religious communities are uniquely positioned to deal with such problems and to deliver the services that government cannot.

With Congress’s urging and help, the administration should develop an all-government strategy to persuade Beijing of an empirically verifiable proposition: China’s minority religions will make substantial contributions to Chinese interests if the government will grant them their freedom. A religious China will enjoy more sustained economic growth. Religion can address China’s moral decline and its pervasive corruption. It can provide support for China’s poor, its orphans, its victims of natural disaster, the aged, and the dying. Religion, in short, will contribute to social harmony.

There are other avenues of influence that need to be utilized. China’s self-­understanding is grounded in the rule of law—not in the democratic sense, in which law restricts the power of government and protects individual rights, but in the sense of defining and protecting the interests of the nation from the top down. Implicit in the Chinese view of law is an understanding of the state as collectivist and paternalistic. As economic development continues to create a middle class and a civil society of voluntary associations, it is possible that this view of law may shift. But for the foreseeable future, particularly given Xi’s new policies, religion will be managed in China through laws that are intended to regulate, control, and, if necessary, suppress.

Working within that framework, American diplomacy should coordinate what are at present ad hoc and inconsistent efforts on the part of various organizations inside China to encourage legal reform. The U.S. should encourage these disparate programs—some of which are U.S.-funded, many of which are not—to employ the law for the benefit of religious groups. For example, legal programs should target local and provincial officials who violate laws and regulations in the course of crackdowns on religious groups. To this end, American grants should encourage NGOs to train and support Chinese defense attorneys who are experts in existing legal codes, and who can defend in Chinese courts religious groups suffering discrimination or abuse.

Certain positive developments should be encouraged. The Chinese have traditionally venerated learning. When controlled religious activities became permissible after the Cultural Revolution, one result was a powerful drive to understand better that which must be controlled. Accordingly, Chinese institutions of higher learning developed a natural interest in the “scientific” study of religion. Ironically, the universities of officially atheist China take a greater interest in religion than do the universities of most other countries. Chinese scholars travel the world to gather materials for detailed analyses of various religious traditions.

The United States should allocate resources to stimulate greater academic interchange with Chinese academics on the topic of religion. This interchange can take many forms: university exchange programs of faculty and students; cooperative empirical research on the relationship between religious freedom and political, social, economic, and intellectual development; curricula development initiatives; and discussion of the value of religious education for the common good. Many of these initiatives, in fact, already exist. But as is often the case with American policies on international religious freedom, they are not pursued with sufficient consistency.

American religious freedom policy must move beyond its ad hoc past. The U.S. and China should establish a permanent bilateral institution—one that can withstand the ups and downs of U.S.-China relations—committed to the discussion and study of religion and its social effects. In the summer of 2002, Ambassador Hanford proposed forming a standing bilateral working group on religion, chaired by ­high-level American and Chinese officials. The proposal was met with interest by the Chinese but nixed in the State Department, strangled by a diplomatic bureaucracy that takes a dim view of the value of religious freedom to American interests. That view needs to change.

The standing working group should be multilayered and interagency, and it should draw on the government and private sectors. It should showcase scholarship that has emerged in recent years demonstrating the negative effects of religious persecution on social harmony and economic development. In doing so, it would systematically introduce into Chinese thinking the empirical fact, ever more fully attested, that religious freedom yields more economic growth, more social harmony, better governance, less corruption, and less religious extremism. The working group could make recommendations to both governments, and should sponsor private and public programs to address religion as a matter of law and science.

China has emerged as a major player on the world stage, the only country capable of rivaling the United States in power and influence. Its fate will be of enormous significance for international affairs, in cultural as well as economic matters. Signal among the cultural matters will be religious freedom—or the lack of it. How China handles its internal religious matters is of greater importance than our foreign policy establishment at present recognizes. The United States should make religious liberty central to its relationship with this rising power. 

Thomas F. Farr is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. He was the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (1999–2003).