Dancing with the Dragon

By Linda Burkle, PhD

Recently, there has been daily attention in the media regarding the US-China trade wars—the colloquial term ascribed to new strategic and controversial tariffs imposed on Chinese goods by President Trump. In response—or retaliation—the Chinese government also plans to increase tariffs on some Chinese exports to the United States.

Trade relations between the US and China have been a focus of discussion and concern for decades, leading to repeated calls for action to balance the trade ledger which has historically heavily favored China. China is currently our largest goods trading partner with $659.8 billion in total (two way) goods traded during 2018. That year, goods exported totaled $120.3 billion; goods imported totaled $539.5 billion and the US goods trade deficit with China was $419.2 billion.[1] By comparison, in 2000, goods exported totaled $16.2 million; goods imported totaled $100 million, leading to a trade deficit with China of $83.8 million.[2] The exponentially growing trade deficit is compounded by China’s reported theft of intellectual property. The current US Administration is addressing these trade imbalances; albeit through actions that are highly controversial due to the potential of adverse impacts in some production sectors.

You may be wondering what the trade deficit has to do with religious freedom or persecution. What, if any, are the links between trade, human rights generally, and religious freedom specifically? With the enactment of the US International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), the United States Congress created a structure to monitor religious freedom as well as codify use of a variety of policy tools which can be imposed on countries found to have severe restrictions on religious freedom and related persecution. These policy means include diplomatic, political, cultural, economic and military actions.  One such tool is economic sanction, or our capacity to leverage trade activity in consideration of religious freedom.

To monitor religious freedom, IRFA established the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as an independent, bi-partisan commission composed of private citizens representing a diversity of faiths with experience and expertise within the area of religious freedom. Its purpose is to advise the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State on international religious freedom issues. It does this primarily through a report published each year. A primary focus of the report is USCIRF’s recommendations of countries for designation as ‘countries of particular concern’ (CPCs) under IRFA. Such designation is assigned to those countries whose governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, egregious” acts such as “(1) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (2) prolonged detention without charges, (3) causing the disappearance of persons; or (4) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”[3]

Determination of CPC designation relies on international media outlets, NGO reports that monitor human rights, and “on the ground reports” of persecuted persons.  China has consistently received this USCIRF designation as a CPC since 1999. Consequentially, the Secretary of State has each year identified the following sanction, “existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991.” ([Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402 (c)(5) of the Act.[4]

Whereas China has been identified as a CPC each year since the inception of the USCIRF twenty years ago, it appears that the trade restriction on the specific exports noted above has had no discernable impact on reducing religious restrictions and persecution. In fact, the 2019 USCIRF report presents a bleak picture of increasing oppression and persecution of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims as well as Christians. According to the 2019 USCIRF Annual Report, “In 2018, religious freedom conditions in China trended negative after the new Regulations on Religious Affairs—implemented on February 1, 2018—effectively banned “unauthorized” religious teachings and required religious groups to report any online activity. — In March 2018, jurisdiction over religious affairs was transferred from the government to an organ of the Chinese Communist Party, further eroding the barrier between religion and party.”[5]

Recent technological advances in surveillance and facial recognition have greatly broadened and deepened the monitoring capabilities of the Chinese government. Considering suspicions of Chinese theft of US intellectual and technological property, it is probable that China used this contraband to further their persecution of Christians and other religious groups, as noted by USCIRF. While the current US sanction of trade restriction is noteworthy, it is woefully insufficient and ineffective in effecting reduction of religious freedom violations of the government and the Chinese Communist party.

What can be done? The USCIRF has made several recommendations to the US government, the first regarding US-China trade. The Commission encourages the US to “integrate religious freedom and related human rights diplomacy into ongoing trade negotiations—The U.S. Congress should: Support legislation that would increase restrictions on the export to China from the United States of advanced technology—including surveillance and biometric equipment—that has enhanced the Chinese government’s capacity to monitor and harass religious and ethnic communities; and raise the profile of religious freedom in the U.S.-China relationship.”[6]

The President and Congress should implement the recommendations of USCIRF. With China being a key economic partner, the current ‘’trade war” and negotiations provide a window of opportunity to press the issue of religious freedom by expanding sanctions and restrictions on certain exports. It should be noted that President Trump recently announced exported Bibles are exempt from tariffs. This is encouraging for Christians, but more must be done. Trade with the dragon is the dance step of the hour.

Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically, regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska.  She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates

[1] [https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/china-mongolia-taiwan/peoples-republic-china].

[2] [https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5700.html#1998].

[3] IRFA

[4] https://www.uscirf.gov/countries/china

[5] https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier1_CHINA_2019.pdf

[6] [https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier1_CHINA_2019.pdf].


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