A Pope and a President Visit America, While Religious Persecution Grows in China

By: William Inboden

Two towering world leaders will visit the United States just days apart next week: Pope Frances and Chinese president Xi Jinping. The two share some notable similarities. Each presides over constituencies of about one billion people—whether one billion Chinese citizens or one billion of the world’s Catholics (and they even have some overlapping subjects in the estimated 10-15 million Chinese Catholics). They made almost simultaneous debuts on the world stage. Each ascended to his current position just one day apart in 2013: Pope Francis on March 13, and Xi Jinping the next day (though Xi had become General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party five months earlier). Each has captured global attention as he tries to chart an ambitious new direction for his institution, different from his respective predecessor. Each has defied expectations and predictions of how he would preside: In Pope Frances’ case, by being a much more assertive and risk-taking reformer; in Xi Jinping’s case, by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy abroad and by consolidating political control and authority at home to a degree not seen since the days of Deng Xiaoping, and perhaps even since Mao himself.  

Their similarities pale in comparison to their differences, however, which are considerable. Xi Jinping is an atheist; Pope Frances assuredly is not. Xi Jinping commands the world’s largest military force and second largest economy; Pope Frances leads a spiritual flock and lives in relative simplicity. Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are among the world’s foremost persecutors of Christians; Pope Frances has frequently spoken out against the growing persecution of Christians around the world.  

This last point is of particular salience on the eve of Xi’s Washington visit. China in the last several months has launched a new round of religious persecution, targeted especially at Christians but also including Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.  While periodic crackdowns on human rights and religious freedom are regrettably a reality in China, this latest campaign is unprecedented in several troubling ways:

  • For the first time since Beijing assumed control of Hong Kong in 1997’s handover, Hong Kong churches and pastors are now being targeted for restrictions and, in some cases, harassment. It is an ominous trend, as it violates the previous agreements Beijing signed to respect Hong Kong’s liberties and chokes off one of the only pockets of religious liberty under Beijing’s control. 
  • While past crackdowns have mostly been against unregistered Protestant house churches and Catholics loyal to the Vatican, this new campaign has also targeted churches approved by China’s official governing bodies, the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Three Self Protestant Movement. Many of these churches in Zhejiang province—not coincidentally the home of some of China’s fastest Christian growth—have been torn down or had their crosses forcibly removed. 
  • The new campaign has singled out lawyers and other activists (many of whom are Christians) who focus their efforts on working within the Chinese legal system. Unlike many other dissidents who will often be willing to break laws (however unjust and arbitrary those laws are) to advance their cause, these legal activists have focused on advocating for greater rights protections as purportedly guaranteed under Chinese law. Beijing’s harassment of them portends a troubling new precedent of disregarding Chinese law to maintain the Communist Party’s control and power monopoly.

What can be done? Here the Pope’s visit might provide (if I may) providential timing. In their private meeting, Pope Frances can urge President Obama to prioritize religious freedom in his meetings later in the week with Xi Jinping. In turn, President Obama might consider suggesting the addition of one more item to Xi’s itinerary: inviting Xi to attend a Sunday morning church service in the United States. Doing so might not convince the avowed atheist to embrace faith (though given the Lord’s mysterious ways one never knows), but at the least it might expose him to the fact that the vast majority of Christians are peaceful, law abiding citizens who love their respective countries and only desire to worship in freedom and peace.  

Some of the most important and consequential foreign policy events are relatively unnoticed at the time they first occur. As Christian Caryl describes in his outstanding book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, Pope John Paul II and Deng Xiaoping took power within a few months of each other. At the time few could have known that they would each play central roles in two of the most important foreign policy developments of the late twentieth century: the peaceful dissolution of Soviet communism, and the economic expansion that brought China back into the top ranks of global powers. 

The explosive growth of Christianity in China in the last 35 years is also such a story. Exact numbers are impossible to verify, but reliable reporting and meticulous scholarly research both estimate that China may have as many as 100 million active Christians. In shaping China’s future, this growth of the church may be the most consequential development thus far this century. 

The Chinese Communist Party realizes this, which may help explain the current crackdown. 

William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and executive director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. 

This piece was originally authored on September 16, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. A version of this post appears at ForeignPolicy.com.

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