Bilateral Conversations with China Can Help Advance Religious Freedom, But More Must Be Done

02/12/2021 China (International Christian Concern) – According to the official White House readout of a call earlier this week between President Biden and President Xi of China, Biden “underscored his fundamental concerns” about China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Xinjiang is the site of an ongoing government campaign against the Uyghur ethnic and religious minority group. The conversation comes on the heels of a recent determination by the United States that China’s persecution of the Uyghurs amounts to genocide.

The official genocide designation was made under the Trump administration, but the Biden administration has, thus far, stood by the designation.

China’s official readout of the call with Biden addresses the issue of human rights in Xinjiang flippantly. “Xinjiang-related issues are China’s internal affairs,” President Xi told Biden. “The United should respect China’s core interests and act cautiously.”

China has a long history of repressing religious expression, both inside and outside its borders. Over the last several decades, it is known to have forced abortions on its citizens, sterilized women without their consent, and murdered religious minorities to sell their organs on the black market. Christian home churches are an attempt to escape government scrutiny, but even they are often raided and their members arrested on charges of working against the interests of the state.

Recently, China began a concentrated campaign of persecution against its Muslim-majority Uyghur population. The recent genocide designation comes after detailed research by government and civil society organizations around the world documenting a vast network of concentration camps throughout the Xinjiang region, used to oppress and indoctrinate Uyghur prisoners of conscience.

China has even reached beyond its own borders to suppress religion and silence opposition. Afghanistan recently discovered a Chinese spy ring operating out of Kabul. The ring worked with the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated terrorist group, to hunt down Uyghurs and bring them back to China. China also recently stepped up its efforts to capture religious minorities through the more traditional route of formal extradition requests.

China has come under harsh condemnation from human rights groups and governments around the world for its repression of political dissent and religious expression in Hong Kong, which it reestablished control over in the summer of 2020.

The international community has a vested interest in ensuring that human rights, including the right to religious freedom, are respected in every country. No government should be allowed to trample the rights of its citizens with impunity, and when a government does not allow its people to speak up it is the rest of the world’s responsibility to speak up for them.

The vast majority of observers support America’s recent hardline stance against China’s human rights abuses, but some analysts fear that the genocide designation could actually be harmful if the Biden administration does not take active steps to back up the designation with real-world consequences. The very term “genocide,” the argument goes, will be watered down if the United States continues business as normal with China.

This concern is prescient, and should cause the Biden administration to double down on its efforts to impose real consequences on China for its disregard of human rights. Biden is to be commended for bringing up the issue of religious freedom in his recent conversation with President Xi, but it is the practical punishments that he imposes, or fails to impose, that will speak the loudest in the days and weeks to come.

For interviews, please contact Alison Garcia at press@persecution.org.

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