Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy and general counsel at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC), spoke in November 2019 about human rights and religious liberty in China during Providence’s Christianity and National Security Conference in Washington, DC. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

When I told Mark I wanted to… it’s not because I as a Southern Baptist in the world, which is uh, well who knows what that means, but I told him I wanted to talk about China and countering China worldly and he said… well be sure to include, you know, some Southern Baptist flair, which I took as an invitation to have an altar call, so I assume all of you will be ready for that at the end of my presentation here.  

I think probably, you know, for those of us who are free traders in the room, I think you know, many of us in the beginning of the Trump Administration’s trade war with China were very skeptical about… about the enterprise. About the wisdom of it, about what the outcomes would be, what kinds of impacts this would have on our relationship, how this might upset long-standing U.S. policy in Asia. And I think, you know, obviously the outcome of the trade war remains to be seen as it’s still ongoing, but I think to give the Trump Administration credit, they’ve certainly gotten China’s attention. And I think, um, for those of us… I’m a trade guy. I’m a human rights guy, um, and within that a religious liberty guy. But I think that presents us with an opportunity as advocates, having gotten China’s attention, having injected, um, some instability into our relationship with China, and that’s… that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. 

I, you know, I don’t know that I would strike myself as a China hawk but certainly China is a rogue actor in the international system on at least four fronts. China has been abusing the international trade system. Of course this is… this is the, um, presenting of a reason for the trade war in terms of forced intellectual property transfers, intellectual property theft, currency manipulation, we could go on down the line… but China has also been, you know China has become the loan shark in terms of the loan shark of international aid in the 21st Century.  

Belt and Road is perhaps one example of this but, you know, if you are interested in aid and you’re a developing country, you don’t want to jump through all the hoops of the Americans would have you jump through or you don’t want to jump through all the hoops of the IMF or World Bank would have you go through. You know, China’s… China’s there, you know? Ready to give… to give, you know, to give you some aid. Of course, you know, your ability to repay, what kind of impacts this might have on your economy is a secondary consideration.  

And the third point, I think, is connected to this which is that China has been accumulating over the last decade what has been called sharp power. Um, you know, something maybe set beyond the soft power strategy that the United States has employed really since World War II. Something with a little bit more… more of an edge to it. 

And then fourth, China of course is an aggressive regional actor on security, whether this is through extraterritorial claims, building and militarizing islands and… and, um, underwater reefs, those sorts of things. 

And on all of these fronts the United States has recognized and developed a strategy to confront China on those grounds. I think we can argue about whether these are effective, whether… whether we’re doing enough, whether we’re doing too much… you know trade is obviously one of those areas where there’s a sharp disagreement among conservatives about, um, about our approach here. Uh, you know others we might be ten years behind in terms of international aid. Trying to sway um, in terms of really buying up the developing world and purchasing their… their allegiance through debt.  

 Um, but there’s another area I think where… where China has been, uh… another area where China has been an aggressive actor as well and that has been through its narrative on human rights and international norms. And I think this is an area where we’re… we’re just beginning to grapple with China in this… in this space? So, China… China’s abuses in terms of human rights are well known, but I want to run through some of these and… and… and drill down to a few of them.  

Right now, between half a million and a million, some estimates are even more than a million, Uyghur Muslims in Western China, in Xinjiang province are held in what are essentially concentration camps. Those same tools of mass surveillance and population control are now being deployed in and around Christian Churches even in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Um, you know there are a number of Churches where facial recognition cameras have been installed inside the facilities of those Churches rent, raising very ominous questions about what that information is being used for. There are reports of organ harvesting from failing detainees, you know going back… going back for some time. Extraterritorial surveillance and interrogation of Han Chinese who are living outside of China. And of course, you know, China’s famous for their censorship and state control of… of, uh, the media.  

These things have been going on for… for, uh… for some time and in the face of this, China has received criticisms, has faced international pressure. In the face of that, every nation puts forward its own narrative. They put forward their own explanation for why they’re doing what they’re doing, they try to save face, and they try to come up with some kind of explanation for it. What I… I think China’s unique in this… in this regard and I think it will yield a long-term damage to their national norms for at least three reasons. 

First, I think, is that they’re… they’re advancing a really aggressive narrative that has some connection points intellectually and logically, between the same kinds of arguments made by Eastern, uh, Middle Eastern regimes, by the North Korean regime. Second is their… their campaign advancing this is much more aggressive, much more sophisticated than anything other countries have done in, certainly anything since the fall of the Soviet Union. And then the third is their effectiveness, and I think this is something that we really have to grapple with. 

But going back to the first, their aggressive moral rationale. There was a time, I think, in the early 2000s when… when groups like mine, you know, would complain about China’s human rights record. You know our missionaries in China would, you know, sort of encourage us to take it easy, things are actually getting better here. You know the unregulated non… free, self-moving Churches. Yes, you know they’re still… they’re still underground but they’re growing, you know? We’re… they’re… they are, you know, they are… in some cases they are able to, you know in some cases, even have signs and you know the government seemed to be aware of what’s going on, they’re tolerating… you know they’re tolerating this. 

Within the last few years, you know, this began to shift . Around, you know, 2012, 2013, 2014, this began to shift. President Xi gave a speech in April 2016 there… I think this is an explanation for what is going on within, you know, his vision for religion. This is a famous speech in which he said that religious practice in China must be, as he put it “scientized,” by which he meant that the practice of religion in China would be tolerated, but it must be brought into the conformity. Everybody must be subordinated underneath the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.  

In addition to this, and this was, you know, this sort of move in 2016 was coupled with a real explosion from China of English language human rights publications. They’re distributed widely across international fora. They’re talking about the Chinese dream for religious freedom and are trying to, or attempting to rewrite the narrative of what human rights looks like in China. You know an example of this in Xinjiang is the argument that China has been making is that, is that yes, you know, these, as they call them retraining camps or education… or labor training camps getting… you know, basically getting job skills, you know these are regrettable acts, but they’re necessary. And in fact, you know, before the regime came to power, Western China was a disaster. It was lawless, it was very unstable, um, so… so… and again these are all English-language publications that are being widely distributed. 

They have rotating… the regime has rotating exhibitions at the UN and other international fora basically constantly. I was at… I was in Geneva early this year and the Chinese government had set up this probably 20 or 30 panel array of… it was just focused on Xinjiang. You know, happy, smiling leaders, everything is fine. Nothing to see here. Uh, you know, there’s very little problems here. 

You know of course, in a way, this isn’t fooling anybody, but I mean the Western democracies, you know, they see what China is doing. They see, uh, you know, they… they… you can see straight through this. I mean I don’t think there are many, you know, on-site liberal democracies that are, you know, are actually taking this stuff very seriously. But there is a difference between this and the way that, say, Saudi Arabia responds in the face of international pressure which is… Saudi Arabia hunkers down and weathers the storm. They’re not trying to, uh, they’re not trying to advance a different narrative. They’re not trying to you know, distribute talking points to, uh, you know, to basically the rest of the world in the same way that China has.  

So the second things is whether that is… the second thing that makes what China is doing unique is this aggressive campaign. In the end of 2017, China completed its… its… its process in the Universal Periodic Review. The Universal Periodic Review is… is the main human rights mechanism that’s managed at the UN office in Geneva by the Human Rights Council there. What it… what it basically is, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, is it’s basically like a 360 review of each country. Every country goes through it every four years. We’re go… The United States is going through it right now. It involves a big, you know, sort of ramp up in propaganda, you invite other nations to your country, you know, and do all this sort of stuff. You know it’s a way of showing off the best that your country has to offer. It involves self-reports, there’s a number of countries that are assigned to do a more specific study of you. Civil society has the opportunity to feed in, you know, there’s a number of things that go into it.  

And in the face of that, China ramped up it’s… its staff in Geneva and you know, basically had sort of squads of diplomats roaming around Geneva, uh, cashing in their chips. And at the end of that process, this is connected to that third point in terms of effectiveness, China could very credibly say that they made it out of that process without any criticism from a… from a non-Western democracy. And even the criticism, I think, that came from Western democracies was really quite muted.  

I think what we have to remember is that they… they are telling a story and in terms of this last round, we as Americans, if we can sort of look at the PR and I guess roll our eyes. You know it isn’t that important to us and it certainly isn’t in our newspapers. But for the rest of the world, this is very significant. It’s a… it’s a… this is a significant event, and rogue actors are watching what China did and watching what they got away with.  

The other thing is to consider the timing. November 2018 in the middle of the hearing, this… the hearings on Wednesday, you know the day before the hearing was when reports broke in the United States that China had been luring Uyghur students who had studied abroad back to China in order to place them into these reeducation camps. So it isn’t even like they stopped what they were doing in terms of human rights abuses. It was… showed a certain brazenness and a confidence that they were going to be able to get away with it without facing any kind of widespread criticism. Of course we said things, you know, EU countries said things, but the kind of international product and combination that that sort of thing would have gotten you ten years ago was… was completely absent.  

And so that’s my point, okay? This is effective, and it’s working. What China… What China has been able to do in terms of the international conversation through the official international fora on international human rights norms has been very effective. I think you are looking at… there… there’s no way that China can look at what happened in their UPR and not consider it to be a success. This isn’t exactly the same sort of context, but I think we also have to, you know, I just want to mention you know, how, you know, how do you think China’s looking at what’s happened with the NBA, right? And of course they’re, you know they’re, you know they’re sad of course that, you know, that Moria wasn’t fired. But I’m sure that, you know, many of you saw the video of our good friend Derek Tietsel holding up… you know, simply at a pregame holding up a sign that said, you know, who the Uyghurs are, and it was taken from him, you know, by some unknown executive. That’s insane, right? That’s crazy. And China is able to do that even in our own country. 

So I think we have to… we have to recognize that what they’re doing morally in terms of the argument they’re advancing about why they’re… why they’re taking actions in Xinjiang, why the… why the actions they’ve been taking towards Christians is legitimate. The argument that they’re making, uh, they’re making it outward, they’re making it very aggressively and, um, in some ways I think it’s working. I think that, you know for… we’re sort of a realist tending, uh, trending sort of bunch here. I think we may all share a sort of skepticism about the role of norms generally in shaping and guiding State behavior, but I think we already acknowledge that even though there are limits of that, those norms… those norms do matter in some way, and I think that those norms really are at risk. 

Um, last thing I just want to sort of acknowledge here or sort of mention on this front, you know, I think there’s, er, there’s probably disagreement among scholars in this room, which I’m not a scholar, I’m just a lawyer. But disagreement about what exactly are China’s aspirations? Do they want to be a global superpower? Are they just trying to defend themselves and sort of maintain, you know, a buffer?  

I think when it comes to this issue, it doesn’t really matter because their… their actions results in the same thing. Whether… whether they’re trying to take over the world and usurp the international order with one in which China is the sole hegemon or whether they’re just trying to defend themselves, the actions that they’re still eroding the system that has brought peace and brought prosperity and… uh, and… and a platform for American interests abroad.  

So we… what do we do about this? I want to conclude with… with two points. The first is that human rights, and of course human rights in China must be part of our… our agenda, our actual agenda in China in and among all these other things that we’ve talked about in terms of trade, military, internationally. And the second is that the international community needs U.S. leadership. So first, human rights needs to be part of our agenda.  

I think it’s worth acknowledging at this point that there are a number of significant speeches and statements which were deeply aimed at the Chinese from Vice President Pence, Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State Pompeo’s statement on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre was very strong and, um… And of course Ambassador Sam Brownback has given a number of speeches criticizing China and the Chinese. And these speeches… I don’t think… I mean they’re… one way would be to just sort of dismiss that as it’s just talk. I mean, I think we have to remember this is all happening in the same context as we’re negotiating a trade… you know, some kind of trade deal with China. So I think it is significant. The Chinese certainly do pay attention to them.  

So that’s one point for me. The other is, um, a few weeks ago it was announced that the U.S. government is sanctioning several tech companies that are providing technology in Xinjiang. You know this is another significant development. The U.S. government also placed travel restrictions on a number of officials who are carrying out these atrocities in Xinjiang province which, again, is very significant. It doesn’t go quite as far as global Magnitsky sanctions, which I think a number of us in this room were asking for, but… but nonetheless it’s significant. 

At the same time, I think we do have to recognize that many of the tools at the disposal of the U.S. government are being underutilized. URFA, you know, provides a wide range of tools for… for the U.S. government to use to sanction, uh, and to punish, uh, rogue actors like China. Right now, you know, the only sanctions… you know, China is considered a country of particular concern of the International Religious Freedom Act. That alone is significant in terms of rhetorical force, but… but the only sanction that’s imposed upon China through… through… as a result of this being placed upon the list of countries of particular concern, are exports related to crime control and detection, instruments, and equipment, which were already placed on China for another reason. Right? So it’s a double hatted sanction. There’s nothing new that’s specific to the URFA.  

And the other is, you know, I think our… our government should and could be demanding that Ambassador Brownback be given unfettered access to Xinjiang to do his own reports. I think that would… I think that to do his own, uh, you know, unimpeded investigation of the region, unimpeded interview with people who were detained and people who were affected in that region… I think that would, you know, I think that would go a long way to providing a credible counter-narrative to what China was saying that they’re doing. In reality, none of us really know what’s going on in these camps.  

The second is that the international community needs U.S. leadership. And I think we can, you know, we can sort of take that for granted that the international order, that these systems that are less than a century old, and as stable as they seem, um, you know… China, like, you know, like a lot of rogue actors that are… are misbehaving around the world today whether it’s Iran, increasingly… I don’t want to call Turkey a rogue actor, but… but they share this, this long civilizational industry of what… of what their countries, what their empires used to be. And they see this time that we’re living in, um, in the context at least for them. And we need to recognize that.  

And you know, as imperfect as the… the international human rights fora are, and I think… you know, we’ve talked just a little bit about the UN Human Rights Council here, I don’t have an opinion… I don’t necessarily have a strong opinion, you know we certainly don’t have an organizational opinion on whether the U.S. should withdraw, but we do need to recognize that now that we have withdrawn from the Human Rights Council, you know, for some good reasons, the way it ganged up on Israel, and a number of other… a number of other issues… There is a vacuum, and no single EU country can… can really stand up to China in the same way that the United States could. Um, you know, there are a number of long-standing annual statements that have fallen by the wayside in terms of criticizing China because… because who’s gonna… you know, is Iceland really gonna be able to stand up to China? What if China brought all of the force of its sharp power to, I guess a small country like Iceland. Do any of us really think they could stand up to that? 

Um, and of course we have done some things on this. Um, the announcement on the international religious freedom ministerial this last year. Um, the formation of the New Earth Alliance I think is, I think is welcomed from my standpoint, in terms of a forum where the United States can provide leadership and cover for other countries who want to speak up and want to, uh, and want to do the right thing. But I think the other piece of this too is that if, that you know if… if we are going to withdraw from the Human Rights Council as we have, we need to be thinking about what are the other international fora where we can say something, where we can lead. Whether that’s the General Assembly or the… or the Security Council. I think the United States needs to be thinking again, not just in terms of our security interests or economic interests which are important… but how do we lead a strategy to counteract what China’s doing morally on that front as well?  

So I want to leave a couple… I want to leave time for questions, but let me just sort of conclude by saying, you know I think, you know, I really do think I’ve got to start where I finish. Or I’ll finish where I started, which is to say that I think this Administration deserves a lot of credit for what they’ve done to get Chinese attention, to push back. Um, I think the question is are we going to take the opportunity to counter China in all the ways that it needs to be countered? Economically, yes; militarily, yes; in terms of international aid, yes. But I think we also have to recognize the damage that they’re doing to the norms that provide the intellectual ecosystem for… uh, for stability to take place. Are we going to stand up to them to challenge them on that plane as well? So, thanks. 

Sorry, I forgot the altar call. But I’m not sure we have enough time for that today. 


Question: Um, my name is Nick Carlson, I’m with, um, Liberty University. And I’m just wondering, how important is the development of a light 5G network to China? What are they doing in that area and how will that help them? And should we maybe look at that as something that we need to be putting more energy into as a country? 

Answer: Well I think it’s really important to China and I think it is important to the United States and you know, I know that it has been a focus of Chairman Pi’s policy at the FCC and I, you know, I… I… you… you mentioned I think another important point which is, you know, when, you know, I guess it was about a year ago, there was a lot of controversy around Huawei, which is, you know, China’s 5G producer. And we had… we told basically all of our allies in Europe, you know, you cannot do business with Huawei there… you know, there is all of this risk around using their materials. You know, they’re using it for espionage, you know etc. Etc. Etc. 

And then we said it’s okay, you know, it’s okay for us to do work with Huawei. So I think, you know, I think that’s a failure on our part to one, to push our allies into a position that was very uncomfortable for them economically and then, um, pull it right out from under them. You know, and we basically used them as leverage in our own trade and I think that… I think that that was a mistake. 

But to your larger point, 5G is incredibly significant. You know, there is no doubt that will… will use that as a… you know, it’s another form of the Belt and Road to get their information ecosystem to the rest of the developing world.  

Question: Um, Asia Nolty, Regent University. I guess I could be a bit token half-constructivist in your comment about realism and norms and so forth. But um, my question is, um, actually on the issue of American corporations, you mentioned the NBA, and the others that are essentially censoring their own employees in the United States on China’s behalf. Is there any pressure that can be brought, um, from public… from citizens and consumers and so forth to sort of get them to stop behaving badly? 

Answer: Um, yeah that’s a good question. I mean I think, you know, maybe two examples. And I don’t necessarily want to get too far down the road of praising Facebook but you’ll… you’ll indulge me for just a moment. Um, Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech in Georgetown a couple of weeks ago where he talked about… and then sort of rolled out their vision for… um, for free expression and one of the, you know, of course, the top line of that was that they’re not gonna censor political ads and you know that’s basically what the speech had become about. But there was a kind of side discussion about China. 

And he was asked, you know why… why don’t you operate there, and his answer was look, we didn’t feel like we could in a way that was true to who we are, you know, who we are as a company. And you know he pointed out, you know, of course the censorship issue is very well known. But the bigger issue was the data localization. In other words, what China’s demanding is if you’re gonna have servers that contain Chinese citizens’ information, those servers need to live in China. And Zuckerberg basically made a point look we’re not gonna do that. Because as soon as those servers live in China and they know how to control them, you know, God only knows what he would do with that.  

So I think in some ways what Facebook decided to do in China is one example of what this looks like. But in other words, to say look. We’re just not going to deal with it because we’re not going to deal with the constant pressure. Once they have us, then they have us and then they can exercise that pressure to control us. So you know, I’m not… I’m not saying that the NBA shouldn’t have… you know, shouldn’t have a league in China. I’m not sure how, you know, I mean I think every company is going to address this in a different way. But I do think we as fans ought to be outraged by, you know, and I think, you know, the backlash against, you know the initial actions… I think, you know, in terms of NBA as a league, I think they’re sort of hiding this a little bit, but I think…  

But, um, this is a problem that is going to, you know, going to continue to pop up. I saw a video just the other day that, of you know, it was like a… you know the dance cam thing. You know, this kid was dancing and then you know, the camera went over to him and held up a sign that said, you know “I support Hong Kong” and the camera was like “Woah! Not supposed to show that!” You know? That… that’s a problem and I think we, you know, we… the NBA’s American league, you know, they need to hear our outrage and frustration. We can’t express ourselves at our own base… or at our own basketball games? That’s crazy. Guys that’s really crazy. 

Alright we’ve got time for one more. Yeah. 

Question: Chongwon Li, PhD Candidate at American University, putting up the constructivist view, I was wondering what do you think about the effectiveness of more of a public diplomacy since it’s not a Chinese-American movement, people that must talk, the policy could focus on the record of Chinese people themselves and have a more bottom-up effect in changing trends versus Chinese government policies? 

Answer: Yeah that’s a… good question. And I think, you know, I… One way of looking at what’s happening in Hong Kong is the effectiveness of long-standing policy in that regard in terms of cultural exchange and allowing the Chinese, you know, to see what… to see what, um, life in the United States, I mean life in the West, looks like. Yeah and I mean I think those programs are important. They’re an important part of soft power. They’re an important part of us, you know, projecting our values. And you know, I think, just, you know, even more broadly, uh, we’re living through a time where, you know, uh, a deconstructivist sort of time where, you know, in some ways I think we’ve lost, sort of, our own… it’s not even a matter of a sense of pride.  

We’ve lost maybe a sense of belief in our own system. You know, for our cit… you know, America’s not perfect. Never has been. But, um, but you know I’m… I’m proud to be an Am… I’m proud to be an American. I believe that. I believe in our system and I think our system is good for the rest of the world to study. I think so long as we’re, you know, kind of ugh, you know about what America is and what, you know, what our founding documents have to offer people, have to offer… you know, I believe, you know, God-given dignity. You know? We’re image-bearers of God. You know we’re… we will be… those programs will not be as effective as they should be. 

So. Thank you guys.