Vice President Mike Pence infuriated Beijing when he gave a speech in October warning that China had become a dangerous rival to the United States. While he focused on familiar issues such as China’s trade policies and cyber espionage, Pence also denounced the country’s “avowedly atheist Communist Party.”
Citing a crackdown on organized religion in the country, Pence noted that Chinese authorities “are tearing down crosses, burning Bibles and imprisoning believers.”
“For China’s Christians,” Pence said, “these are desperate times.”
Pence’s remarks, which also addressed the repression of Chinese Buddhists and Muslims, illustrated how religious freedom is a growing theme of President Donald Trump’s confrontation with Beijing, which some foreign policy insiders warn could develop into a new Cold War.
It is a subject that resonates in the U.S. heartland, some Christian leaders say — parts of which, including rural areas, are disproportionately at risk of fallout from Trump’s trade fight with the Asian giant.
The arrests have drawn close coverage from evangelical outlets such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), whose website published an open letter by the jailed pastor, Wang Yi, declaring his “anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime.”
Days after the arrests, Trump’s ambassador for international religious freedom, the former Kansas Republican governor Sam Brownback, decried the crackdown and said that in the weeks since Pence’s speech, religious freedom concerns “have only grown.”
While China’s religious persecution draws less media attention than issues like soybean tariffs and cyber espionage, it is closely tracked by conservative Christian activists and outlets like CBN, where a typical headline recently reported: “Chinese Government Destroys Christian Church, Bills Pastor for Demolition.”
In September, Providence Magazine, which covers U.S. foreign policy from a Christian perspective, wrote that in 2018 China’s religious repression has reached “a sustained intensity not seen since the Cultural Revolution.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized China on such grounds.
In a report on international religious freedom released earlier this year, the State Department noted that throughout China there were reports of “deaths in detention of religious adherents as well as reports the government physically abused, detained, arrested, tortured, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.“
Religious activists note that Pence, Brownback, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top Trump aides are people of faith with genuine concerns about religious freedom. But even they acknowledge the subject happens to be a potent political message for religious conservatives and may help rally them behind Trump’s confrontational China policy.
Some religious leaders even hear an echo of history: Cold War-era denunciations of “godless” Soviet communism by past U.S. presidents, notably Ronald Reagan
“In the great heartland of America, where there tend to be higher levels of people who care about faith, reminding people that a regime — whether then the Soviet Union or today’s communist China — rejects God and has an official policy of atheism is helpful in getting them to understand why our government is taking certain actions in the foreign policy area,” said Gary Bauer, a longtime conservative Christian leader whom Trump appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“Evil empire” was the famous label then-President Reagan applied to the Soviet Union in 1983. Less remembered is the fact that Reagan was addressing the National Association of Evangelicals.
Reagan vowed at the time that the Soviets “must be made to understand: … We will never abandon our belief in God.”
Trump himself rarely addresses religious freedom or human rights, and when it comes to China he focuses mainly on Beijing’s trade practices. But his administration — backed by an evangelical base that stood for Trump in 2016 and continues to support him enthusiastically — has strongly emphasized international religious freedom.
Earlier this year, for instance, the State Department hosted a first-ever gathering of foreign ministers devoted to the subject. (China was not invited and was targeted in a joint statement signed by a handful of countries, including the U.S.)
“This administration is putting this in the matrix of all of our policy,” said Tony Perkins, another prominent Christian conservative who serves on the religious freedom commission and is close to the White House. “It’s more than just the throwaway line.”
Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, has also assailed Beijing for religious persecution, including at a September speech at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, an event affiliated with the Perkins-led Family Research Council.
During an appearance which some critics called inappropriately political, Pompeo decried “an intense new government crackdown on Christians in China, which includes heinous actions like closing churches, burning Bibles, and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith.”
Like Pence, Pompeo also dwelled on the plight of China’s Muslim population, particularly ethnic Uighurs from the Chinese province of Xinjiang. A State Department official recently testified before lawmakers that up to 2 million Muslims are now confined to special camps in China.
“Their religious beliefs are decimated,” Pompeo told Values Voter Summit attendees.
The Chinese government, which often casts Uighur Muslims as potential terrorists, says the camps are designed to teach vocational and life skills. But the State Department official, Scott Busby, said the goal appears to be “forcing detainees to renounce Islam and embrace the Chinese Communist Party.”
While evangelical groups active in Washington tend to focus primarily on the persecution of Christians in China and elsewhere, some make sure to point out that they care about religious freedom for all faith groups, including Muslims. In a past interview with POLITICO, Brownback stressed that he also wants to protect people’s right to have “no religion at all.”
The Trump administration may unveil a set of human rights-related sanctions targeting officials in a range of countries in the coming weeks. Some China observers are hopeful the list will include Chen Quanguo, a top Communist Party official said to have orchestrated the anti-Muslim crackdown and to have had a role in repressing Tibetan Buddhists.
“It’s a critical moment,” said Bob Fu, a U.S.-based pastor and founder of ChinaAid, a group that advocates for religious freedom in China.
Brownback did not offer comment for this story, and a spokesman for Pompeo did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A White House spokesperson said of Pence that “religious freedom throughout the world is a top priority for the vice president and the administration as a whole.”
Bauer predicted that evangelicals and other voters in the U.S. heartland will continue to support Trump even if he expands his trade war with China. The administration, cognizant of the potential pain for its supporters, has taken some steps to cushion the blow, such as offering farming subsidies.
By retaliating against particular U.S. industries, such as soybean farmers, China is trying to pressure the administration. “I think China will fail in this effort and support for the Trump-Pence policies will remain strong,“ Bauer said.
When it comes to pleasing the religious right, the Trump administration has been willing to make some dicey moves.
This past summer, to the shock of the foreign policy establishment, Trump imposed economic sanctions on two Cabinet officials in Turkey — an important U.S. ally and fellow NATO member — due to the questionable imprisonment of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson.
How far the administration will push Beijing on religious freedom could come down to the president himself and what China is willing to do to assuage his concerns on trade.
Trump, after all, has been willing to drop talk of human rights issues when it seems he’s making progress on other fronts — that's what has happened in his dealings with North Korea.
The Chinese in particular are highly sensitive to their global image, and, like the Soviet Union, China cannot be ignored.
“If this tariff business gets really bad and the economy goes down, I wouldn’t be surprised if [Trump officials] ramp up the ‘evil empire’ language,” said a Senate Democratic aide. “It inoculates them from their base.”
But “if you start using the ‘evil empire’ language,“ the aide added, “it’s harder to make up and kiss and be friends.“