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Obama’s Chinese Box: Where Does Religious Freedom Fit?

ICC Note: Commentary on the effect Obama’s current trip to Asia could have on religious freedom for the area

11/13/09 China (PoliticsDaily)–Barack Obama arrived in Japan today on the first leg of his first trip to Asia as president, a delicate week-long diplomatic swing which will confront him with an array of pressing issues, from North Korea and nukes to climate change and the global economy.

But few topics have as much potential to complicate his mission abroad — or polish his image with Americans back home, from conservative Christians to supporters of Tibetan Buddhism — as religious freedom in China.

The stakes are enormous as religious belief is exploding in China. A government-sponsored survey in 2007 showed the number of believers at 300 million out of a population of 1.3 billion — three times the previous official estimate of 100 million believers.

Outside of Buddhism and Taoism, Christianity is the largest religious bloc, having grown exponentially from a few believers in the 1970s to perhaps 100 million today — almost certainly higher than the estimate of 40 million found in the 2007 survey. Many of them are evangelicals and other Protestants, and there is a large Chinese Catholic population. Muslims are also a growing minority, and smaller faiths like Mormonism are attracting followers.

But despite some advances — many of them trumpeted ahead of last summer’s Beijing Olympics — Chinese authorities remain deeply suspicious of the potential of religious believers to challenge state control. Even as capitalism is gradually encouraged, religious practice remains under strict state supervision, and worship often takes place in unregistered house churches or underground churches. Political or civic leaders associated with such churches can face arrest, along with regular worshipers, and religious leaders themselves often face lengthy prison terms under harsh conditions.

The test for the United States has always been how to balance the nation’s longstanding commitment to religious freedom abroad with the realities of China’s growing economic and political might. “I think it’s a common perception in the region that U.S. influence has been on the decline in the last decade while Chinese influence has been increasing,” Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council, told Foreign Affairs.

So far, religious freedom activists have been underwhelmed by the actions of the Obama administration on international religious freedom in general and China in particular.

The first sign of trouble came during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s February visit to China, when she appeared to diminish the importance of human rights in China when asked about the administration’s approach. “We know what they are going to say, because I’ve had those kinds of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders,” Clinton told reporters. “We have to continue to press them. But our pressing them can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.”

Then in October, Obama declined to meet with the Dalai Lama when the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism visited Washington. Obama said he was postponing meeting until after the China trip to avoid angering Beijing, but others saw it as an ill-timed snub of a popular man of peace and a symbol of the struggle for religious freedom.

The president has also not named an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a post that carries great weight with religious freedom advocates and could bring shape and clarity to the administration’s vague goals on this topic.

An editorial in the latest edition of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, sums up the concern, pointing to “worrisome signs suggest that religious freedom is not a high priority” for the administration. “The administration’s signals have been at best mixed on the issue of religious freedom,” Thomas Farr, director of the Office of International Religious Freedom under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, told the magazine. Farr is now a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, where this month he gathered scholars and activists for a daylong seminar on the Obama record on religious freedom.

Moreover, promoting religious freedom internationally has the potential to restore America’s reputation as the world’s champion of religious liberty and indeed all human rights — a reputation which has suffered greatly in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in Muslim nations where the United States is keen to promote religious freedom for persecuted Christians. Many believe promoting religious freedom should also be considered a weapon in defeating terrorism.

There has always been, and likely will always be, a sharp debate about what role religious freedom plays on the ground in other countries, and how to best promote it.

Some argue that religious freedom is a necessary precursor to the development of democracy and free markets, while others say capitalism leads to an expansion of human rights, including religious freedom. In the same vein, some argue that it is vital to engage countries, especially powerhouses like China that can do as they please, and to promote religious freedom through diplomacy and by opening markets and expanding cross-cultural ties that will inevitably lead to greater religious liberty. Others say denouncing religious persecution is the most effective and the most just way to go — the “name-and-shame” approach that calls abusive governments on the carpet in order to pressure them into establishing religious freedoms.

That dichotomy is built into the infrastructure of American diplomacy. IRFA set up two basic components on this issue: One is the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, led by the as yet unnamed ambassador-at-large. The second is the autonomous U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is made up of nine commissioners appointed by the president and congressional leaders.

The two bodies often have competing agendas and styles. The State Department office tends to promote diplomatic engagement while USCIRF, being independent and comprised of activists and political appointees, tends to be much more outspoken and critical of other countries. The USCIRF commissioners — the commission still has a majority of Bush appointees — critiques the State Department and issues advisories to the president on what he should do, as the commission did ahead of Obama’s China trip.

“The trip is an opportunity to dispel any notion that human rights and religious freedoms are not priorities, and to set the record straight on any of the Administration’s prior statements on the place of human rights in our bilateral relationship with China,” the commission wrote Obama in a memo signed by its chairman, Leonard Leo, a longtime Republican activist and official of the Federalist Society.

Obama will not be able to clarify all these issues during his stay in China, which will take up three days of the visit and includes stops in Beijing and Shanghai. But he can lay down a marker that would then be followed by concrete actions when he returns to the United States.

Such actions would include appointing an ambassador for religious freedom as well as making appointments of his own to USCIRF (the terms of the current Bush-era commissioners have expired, but there are legal uncertainties as to how many appointees the White House and Congress are allowed to name). That would begin to establish the framework of an Obama Doctrine on religious freedom, and provide momentum for a critical issue and a critical time

Administration officials say that Obama will raise issues of human rights to Chinese President Hu Jintao when they meet on Tuesday, the second day of the president’s visit. Tibet is expected to be one of the issues he raises, though no explicit mention has been made as to how or whether Obama’s pitch will include religious freedom. Officials say Obama could visit a church or religious site to make that point.

Of course Chinese leaders have listened to remonstrations before and then gone about their business.

During the time of the Olympics, newspapers featured stories of burgeoning house churches that indicated a relaxation of strictures by the Chinese.

But just this month one of the largest house churches in China, the Beijing Shouwang Church, which was showcased during last year’s Olympics and hosted GOP congressman Frank Wolf at a service, was evicted from its longtime worship space and forced to hold services for some 500 worshipers in the snow in a nearby park — though that too was closed down by authorities, according to human rights activists.

Other house churches are being shuttered, Catholic bishops and priests remain in prison, and on Nov. 3, Fan Yafeng, a well-respected professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and outspoken advocate for religious freedom, was fired ostensibly for “political reasons.”

“It means the [Communist Party] cannot endure the mainstream views of Chinese society and the international community,” Fan told The Age of Australia. “The Government has given up all political reforms. They only aim to protect their own interests.”

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