President Trump has done a remarkable job leading the nation through the COVID-19 crisis, connecting Americans with the information and resources they need during this time of social distancing. But if the president deserves our applause for anything, it’s his insight on China. Long before the outbreak of COVID-19, the president recognized what few of us were willing to acknowledge: China is not our friend.
Headlines over the past few weeks have focused on China’s strategic attempts to cover up the emergence of COVID-19. Worried about job loss, bureaucrats in Wuhan lied about the number of cases, testing, and death. Doctors who spoke out about the threat the virus posed were quickly silenced, with the state ordering police action against them and producing television programming portraying them as fearmongers. Since then, it has started a disinformation campaign that blames the virus on the U.S. Army. Fear, China’s political weapon of choice, has been used to stifle those who could have helped stop the spread of the virus.
This is hardly news to pro-life activists. China’s record on preserving life, liberty, and happiness is an extremely weak one, to say the least. Though the country rolled back its one-child policy a few years ago, it still prohibits couples from having more than two children. Forced abortions continue to occur, as do forced sterilizations and crippling fines for couples brave enough to defy the state-mandated limit.
China also shows virtually no respect for religious freedom. Documents leaked late last year show major human rights violations. Approximately 1 million Uighur Muslims have been rounded up and placed in detention camps. Through techniques like surveillance, a points system, and a strict daily schedule, these camps aim to brainwash detainees into becoming model, Mandarin-speaking Chinese citizens. Release only occurs when detainees can show signs of complete transformation. One human rights lawyer characterized the camps as “designed specifically to wipe the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang as a separate cultural group off the face of the Earth."
And Muslims are not the only religious group subject to persecution. Despite the fact that China’s constitution ostensibly grants citizens religious freedom, the country has little tolerance for religious difference of any kind. Several thousand practitioners of Falun Gong, a sect that fuses deep breathing, physical exercises and moral teaching, were arrested either for practicing their beliefs or for sharing information about them. The group was placed alongside religious terrorist organizations on a state list of the “most active cults in China,” even though there is no evidence of any kind of violence or terrorist activity on behalf of its members. Tibetan Buddhists also experience persecution: Monks and nuns who won’t swear allegiance to Beijing or condemn the Dalai Lama have been imprisoned and tortured, and laypeople also experience restrictions on their ability to gather together or go on pilgrimages.
Christians are not exempt from China’s intolerance and cruelty, either. A 2019 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted how, even after the Catholic Church agreed to allow Beijing to have a say in the selection of new bishops, the underground Catholic Church continued to be persecuted. Protestant churches are subject to repression as well: A number of Protestant house churches were shut down by the state. The government aims to promote a brand of “Chinese Christianity” via a new translation of the Bible that highlights alleged similarities between the sacred text and socialism – a strategy that takes the teeth out of the gospel and reduces the threat faith in Christ poses to the nation’s authoritarian government.
Thus far, these persecutions are not working: Christianity continues to explode in China, with some predicting that there could be more Christians in China than in the United States by 2030. And the United States federal government is slowly but surely taking steps toward holding the country accountable. Federal legislators have urged the State Department to take action against China, and the Trump administration’s work has prompted other countries to create their own initiatives for religious liberty.
But the time has come for swift and decisive action. China has shown its true colors in these past few weeks. It not only is indifferent to the fate of religious minorities, but it is indifferent to the fate of its own citizens and the fate of the world at large. President Trump’s imposition of tariffs on China showed the world he does not shy away from conflict when it comes to defending the economic interests of the United States. He must bring that same courage and directness to the fight for global health and religious freedom. COVID-19 is not the first ugly threat to emerge from China – but if we work together, on a national and international level, we can make it the last.