Over the past few months, high-ranking Trump administration officials have signaled the United States is shifting to a tougher approach toward the People’s Republic of China. For instance, a May strategy report states explicitly that the White House has “adopted a competitive approach to the PRC, based on a clear-eyed assessment of the CCP’s intentions and actions.” As the United States gears up for a new era of great power competition, continued support for religious freedom is a vital part of its toolkit for countering autocratic powers, especially China.
Since Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping implemented market-oriented economic reforms in the late 1970s, China’s rise as an economic power has been swift and dramatic. Until recently, it consisted of decades of double-digit growth, and it has turned that newfound economic heft into military strength. US leaders had hoped that a more liberalized economy would spur China toward becoming a responsible stakeholder in the international system. But that did not happen.
Instead, China has taken advantage of an open, interconnected international economic system while rejecting fundamental norms of the system. It has preyed on the system by stealing intellectual property, propping up state-owned enterprises, and placing restrictions on foreign firms trying to access the Chinese market. Moreover, China has retained its authoritarian political system, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reigning supreme.
Though growth has slowed, China could surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy within the next decade or two. It is no exaggeration to state that China, with its economic strength, increasing diplomatic influence, and growing military power, is the foremost geopolitical threat to the United States and its allies since the Soviet Union.
Leading officials in the current administration have acknowledged the challenge posed by China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, and FBI Director Christopher Wray have laid out China’s challenge to the United States and the free world in a series of speeches this summer.
As the United States looks to harness its economic, diplomatic, and military power to counter the CCP, it should impose costs on China for violating norms of the international system, including respect for religious freedom and human rights. Over one million Uighurs are imprisoned in internment camps, while Xinjiang province, where most of China’s Uighur population resides, has been turned into a high-tech surveillance state. Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists, and others also suffer under the repressive apparatus of the CCP.
China’s crackdown on human rights, especially religious freedom, is evidence of the CCP’s insecurity and its fragile internal politics. Lacking a clear source of legitimacy such as consent of the governed, the CCP is forced to rely on nationalism, coercion, and a crude exchange of economic growth in return for political obedience. The CCP invests more on internal rather than external security and devotes massive resources toward advanced surveillance and monitoring of information flows.
And China’s religion challenge is growing. The CCP, which is officially atheist, has not been able to contain the rise of religion in China. President Xi Jinping has attempted to implement a “Sinicization” campaign to conform religious groups to Chinese culture and CCP ideology by closing unapproved churches and removing minarets from mosques. But religious growth continues, and while limited information makes precise growth estimates difficult, it is plausible to project that Chinese Christians, for example, will continue to increase significantly as a proportion of the country’s population in coming decades.
As faith grows, an increasing proportion of China’s population is likely to disagree with the official state atheism and resent CCP repression. Moreover, this growth comes as the CCP is struggling with its identity: the CCP maintains Maoist roots and authoritarian governance, while allowing capitalism to embed itself. As Chinese socialism has transformed and become a less coherent ideological substitute for faith, Xi has called for reviving China’s “traditional faiths.” But Christianity and other religions continue to grow, representing a challenge for a Party already concerned about its identity and its hold on the minds and hearts of the Chinese people.
This is a vulnerability the United States should exploit. Indeed, support for religious freedom as a foreign policy tool in great power competition is pragmatic, moral, and popular. It is pragmatic in the sense that continued US support for religious freedom will limit China’s efforts to accrue soft power and impose costs on its violations of international norms. It is moral in that it is clearly consistent with norms of freedom, dignity, and respect for human rights. And it benefits further from possessing public support, as surveys indicate Americans continue to favor promoting democracy and human rights in US foreign policy.
In practice, there are several ways the United States should go about supporting religious freedom in this new era of great power competition with China. High-ranking officials should continue to express support for oppressed religious minorities, making it clear that the United States is monitoring the situation and stands with them. Furthermore, the United States should boost efforts to pressure China on religious persecution in front of other countries in international forums, as it did last fall at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. A robust public diplomacy campaign, harnessing digital technology and other platforms for amplifying messages, should highlight to allies, partners, and the American people the extent of China’s abuses of religious minorities, especially its brutal crackdown on Uighurs. The United States should also explore additional sanctions against Chinese officials and companies connected to violence against religious minorities.
Ultimately, US support for religious freedom should be part of a broader strategy to impose clear consequences for violating fundamental norms of the international system and encourage future generations of Chinese leadership to realize there is more to gain by acquiescing to those norms rather than continuing to engage in repression.