A New Framework for Promoting Religious Freedom in China

Advocates for religious freedom—and perhaps especially American advocates—need a fresh approach to their engagement of countries like China that have records of egregious abuses of human rights. Past efforts to influence such countries have often failed to improve significantly the protection of religious human rights because they have been perceived as foreign impositions, not as opportunities for mutually advantageous cooperation. Nor have prior efforts consistently been designed to fit the current social context of offending countries or to support the work of specific indigenous actors who are positioned to make the changes. Instead, religious freedom interventions have aroused official and popular suspicion of subversive political intent, eroding trust.A new approach must first recognize that outside actors have a stake in gradual social and political progress. Whether China develops a healthy civil society will determine whether its impressive economic development can continue. And continue it must, for China’s economic failure would be more of a threat to international and American interests than its success. A major financial-economic crisis in China, which could propel perhaps a million economic refugees overseas, would have a disastrous impact on the region and the global economy, comparable to that of any military adventurism. This does not mean outsiders should shore up the regime at all costs, or uncritically accept Chinese government definitions of “stability and unity” goals. It does mean that the many business and nongovernmental organizations that operate in China should be expending more effort, with greater impact, to promote positive change there.Unfortunately, prevailing approaches to promoting religious freedom are ineffective in China and in many countries. This is due in part to flawed assumptions about social change, and also to chronic indecision as public debate focuses on the artificial policy choice of either “engagement” or “sanctions.” This simplistic way of thinking about the strategic alternatives falsely pits business against morality (this in an era when ethical business practices have proven to be among the most effective mechanisms for purveying positive values).Herein the CFIA Task Force on Religious Freedom in China presents a new framework that is a “both/and” approach, emphasizing innovative efforts to support medium- and long-term cultural and institutional changes. At the same time, this approach preserves room for selective use of publicity-oriented tactics and advocacy for urgent cases of abuse. The framework can be used in strategic planning by civic institutions as well as by economic actors to promote respect for religious and other rights in China. These nongovernmental actors are purveyors of “soft power” (i.e. cultural power, exercised across multiple social sectors via explicit training and implicit modeling of important values), and they often have more influence and access to the agents of social transformation than do governmental actors, which typically rely on “hard” political and military power. In an era of transnational interaction of all kinds, government is not always the best choice to play the leading role in bringing about positive change. For example, individual companies are coming together collectively to set standards that address human rights in their areas of activity. Indeed, many of their customers now inquire about the factories being used in China and ask for varying degrees of assurance regarding the working conditions there.While space constraints prevent an exhaustive description in this article,(2) we will sketch the major contours of this framework first by identifying the weaknesses of past efforts, and then explaining the logic and principles of an approach to religious freedom promotion that emphasizes “win-win” diplomacy and multi-sectoral engagement.

The Failure of Conventional Religious Freedom Activism

During the past 15 years, prevailing approaches to promoting religious freedom in China have been reactive, sporadic, narrowly framed, and short-term in focus. Many advocates of human rights, including the right of religious freedom, operate under flawed theories of social change, somehow assuming that moral shaming and political pressure from the outside is sufficient to transform China into a free and democratic country overnight. Such activists have relied primarily on a combination of (a) lobbying for “top-down” government-to-government political discussions at high levels; and (b) media exposure of detentions or arrests, in order to pressure foreign governments into concessions regarding religious rights abuses.To be sure, this has had some positive results in raising the consciousness of U.S. and foreign government officials, as well as secular human rights advocates, who now pay more regular attention to the issue of religion. Some educated urban Chinese and Chinese religious leaders have also become more sensitive to international opinion and aware of international norms in this arena. But the approach has serious limitations, and lasting results on the ground have been minimal. Overall, the past efforts have been short-sighted and counterproductive in several respects:Short-term ImpactIn response to external criticism and threats, the Chinese government now often makes a few token releases of prisoners of conscience in exchange for tactical gains or avoidance of confrontation during high-level state meetings. It also carries out more extensive public relations efforts in this area. But the government has not changed either its policies or its severe practices regarding the control of religious activity. It has merely concentrated on better timing of police or propaganda campaigns in an effort to keep religious rights off the foreign affairs agenda. Local officials have learned to harass and detain unregistered group leaders using administrative mechanisms, such as short-term (three-year maximum) incarcerations, to avoid the publicity that comes with trial procedures and lengthy sentences.Arousing Anti-Westernism and Anti-AmericanismMost Chinese citizens still lack access to objective information, and have become cynical about political ideology of any kind. The result is that in response to what they perceive as “China-bashing,” many Chinese have concluded that expressed concerns about their rights are not genuine, but are aimed at the political goal of weakening or destabilizing China as a nation. Given the historical memory of gunboat diplomacy and cultural imperialism (partly government-sponsored myth and partly historical fact) in the thinking of the Chinese populace, unilateral political pressure will continue to be unhelpful. It fuels hostility to the West generally, and America specifically, and appears to justify nationalistic government campaigns against “foreign infiltration in the guise of religion.” This, in turn, inhibits nongovernmental interaction. If the goal of some rights activists has been to undermine the legitimacy of the Communist Party, it would appear to have had the opposite result.Alienating Allies and Multinational BusinessExternal strategies have often focused on seeking unilateral leverage against the Chinese government, on the false assumption that outside actors can easily change the situation on their own through blanket economic sanctions. Yet the use of national trade or investment prohibitions has rarely been effective anywhere, except in short-term, highly specific situations where they could be rigorously enforced. That China does not fit such a scenario has been clear since the Clinton administration first linked trade and human rights issues in a set of demands to the Chinese in June 1993, only to de-link them a year later when the deadlines passed with minimal Chinese response. No post-Cold War administration is likely to obtain a mandate to curtail trade with China. As the Chinese economy has developed and diversified, there are many places to buy or sell in the global market. Other governments and international organizations prefer less confrontational methods. Furthermore, most economic leaders resent attempts to hi-jack the economy for other purposes, and are naturally offended as well by assertions that they have no moral sensitivities. The result is simply less inclination on their part to work on the rights agenda.Weak American Leverage against ChinaThroughout the 1990s, the U.S. lost leverage as China and Europe coordinated growth of trade and human rights programming, including dialogues, exchanges, and training. Since September 11, 2001 and the transformation of U.S. and European security priorities, the U.S. and its European allies have wanted to keep Asia on the back burner and have been willing to cooperate with China to prevent troubles in Korea or the Taiwan Strait. Such tactical cooperation is superficial and fragile, however, without more basic trust and shared values. If international security cooperation is to be deepened, bilateral discussion and technical cooperation on promoting religious and other human rights should be near the top of the bilateral agenda. Instead, they are further down the list of priorities than at any time since the end of the Cold War. What’s more, moral condemnation by U.S. government officials will be even less effective in the future, in no small part because trust in American leaders as moral authorities is eroding. In particular, the military prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq has done significant damage to the moral authority of the U.S. government for the near term.

The Opportunity for a New Approach

There is rapid change occurring beneath China’s surface appearance of rigid Communist authoritarianism. The operative values for most Chinese today are pragmatism, materialism, and national pride. Younger, better-educated officials and policy advisers are interested in new approaches to modern, accountable, and nonideological governance. The further opening up of Chinese society, and the growing influence of society on politics, creates an array of new opportunities for promoting religious and other freedoms in China. For example, as China prepares to host mega-events connected to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo 2010, it will become apparent that government-business-nonprofit sector partnerships are necessary to do the job.In this new context, a more cooperative approach by Americans and other external actors can align with growing domestic rights-consciousness and expectations for democratization under new leaders. There is a rapidly growing self-perception by Chinese as “citizens” who are more conscious of their rights and determined to exercise them. Younger generations, new political, social and economic elites, grass-roots social groups—all have less vested interest in maintaining the status quo. As more and more Chinese interact directly with foreigners, outside actors have the opportunity to incorporate religious freedom goals into their engagement with the Chinese people.The new younger leadership is now paying attention to the need to balance economic growth with social justice measures to better manage the social challenges of transition from a socialist to a market economy. These challenges include: unemployment, mass migration to the cities, and the huge and growing economic inequities between social classes and geographic regions. The Chinese public worries about immorality and expresses its outrage over widespread official corruption. The government knows that state solutions will not begin to meet all the current political/social/economic needs, and that it must pay more attention to public opinion and to civic interests and civil rights. There is a new consensus among Chinese political, social, and cultural leaders that China must build a humane civil society and fight corruption through promoting public morality and personal ethics.Engagement strategies should accordingly strive to show these change agents that freedom of conscience, religion, and belief is not only morally right but also is vital for developing a healthy and stable civil society. As governments strive to develop their “human capital” to build up globally competitive societies, they should pause to consider the important role of religion in human motivation. Individual freedom of conscience, religion, and belief is the sine qua non for developing human creativity. People today need more, not fewer, religion and belief options for building a just and humane society that promotes human dignity and social justice. Public discourse that accommodates competing beliefs and ideational diversity does not foment serious social conflict; it prevents it. Where true religious freedom exists in the public forum, transparency grows, trust is built, civil society matures, and economic success and government legitimacy increase.Introducing positive views of religion and society in China would fit well with the government’s desire to harness “social forces,” vaguely defined, to help with social service delivery as the government withdraws from (some would say, abandons) those obligations. Outside resources (including ideas and modeling) could help put flesh on these goals. Of course, appealing to the state’s utilitarian approach to morality should not be substituted for principled support for human rights. But taking into account the state’s interests provides a rationale for progressive forces on the inside to make headway.

Principles for a New Framework

It is time to let international nongovernmental actors play a major role in bolstering efforts by Chinese citizens themselves to improve human rights. Ethical modeling and practical help will go further than policy prescriptions. Social and cultural institutions, including purveyors of popular culture, should be encouraged to add their resources and influence to promoting a culture of respect for religious and other rights in China. From this new perspective, the main task of the U.S. government and other external governments becomes maintaining good political relations and eliminating barriers to nongovernmental interchange. This framework does not suggest any top-down effort whereby the U.S. government coordinates what other sectoral actors are doing; this is not the way our society works, and in any case, such an effort would only politicize the issue further and elicit suspicion and opposition in China.Creating a sustainable approach that can effectively promote steady progress toward religious freedom will require sophisticated cooperative initiatives that involve various sectors, actors, and nationalities. The various sectors of society represent a broad array of “subcultures,” all with differing interests, responsibilities, and trade lingo and terms. A multi-sectoral approach is necessary because Chinese society is still highly compartmentalized—Chinese who work in government rarely interact with Chinese in business, Chinese in business rarely interact with Chinese religious leaders, Chinese civic organization leaders rarely interact with foreign affairs officials, etc. If foreign actors from a broad spectrum of interests will discuss religious freedom issues with their Chinese counterparts, Chinese who might otherwise have no exposure to religious freedom issues will be enlightened and, hopefully, convinced that this is something relevant and appropriate for their particular sector.While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to promoting religious freedom abroad, by following the eight principles listed below, groups from all sectors can engage in successful projects, operating within their own distinct norms.(1) “Mainstream” Religious FreedomThere is a strong tendency inside and outside China to think of freedom of religion as an issue that only affects those who already are members of organized religions. Chinese state policy and structure reflect the intent that religious rights are to be extended mainly to a small percentage of the population that belongs to ethnic and religious minorities, including Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, and Christians. Mainstreaming religious freedom concerns can help counter narrow conceptions of religious rights and responsibilities that do not match the reality of widespread folk religion, increasing religious pluralism, and rapidly growing communities of faith in China.(2) Build Consensus among Outside ActorsChina has little incentive to meet demands for religious or other rights improvements unless and until it sees evidence of consistent international policies backed by social consensus. Nongovernmental initiatives would indirectly provide needed evidence of widespread public concern about religious freedom in China. Particularly valuable would be cross-sectoral exchanges that bring together government, civic, and business leaders in discussions or demonstrations of the role of religious freedom and diversity in community building. Such initiatives indirectly would strengthen the hand of the U.S. government and the international human rights community in convincing allies, as well as China, that freedom of conscience, religion, and belief requires a high priority.(3) Support Indigenous Problem-solving“Human rights” and “religious freedom” have become loaded ideological terms in the minds of many Chinese, who want these freedoms for themselves but view with suspicion the unilateral promotion by foreign governments of Western ideals. To the Chinese, such ideals do not necessarily reflect even Western social reality, and seem remote from the Chinese context. But foreign participation is often welcomed if offered in a spirit of cooperation and problem-solving that offers practical working models and best practices for developing healthy civil societies. Human rights and religious freedom advocates need to offer ways of developing not only accountable governments, but, also, responsible citizens.(4) Promote the Link to Economic DevelopmentAcademic, media, and policy circles need to counter existing anti-religious attitudes in China, where official propaganda counterpoises religious “superstition” and “modern” scientific values. International scholars of religion and society are publishing research highlighting the key role in economic development played by social capital (values and behavior that promote trust and cooperation), and the prominent role of faith-based organizations in creating social capital. Religion as social capital is increasingly viewed as an important national resource, equally desirable and necessary compared with financial or human capital. Religious freedom is essential to social capital, and social capital is essential to the development of a healthy economy characterized by low corruption and norms of transparency and reciprocity.(5) Address Security ConcernsAnxiety over social unrest, including the spread of new spiritual sects, coupled with a lack of understanding of religion, makes the Chinese government reluctant to change policy. The international war against terrorists also has fueled the Chinese government’s natural proclivity to suppress rather than dialogue with representatives of unregistered religious groups and spiritual movements. Officials need to be shown how security interests are best served when countries experience religious freedom. As noted by Philip Jenkins in his comparative studies of religions, suppression of dissent on questions of ultimate concern produces only a façade of order and stability while stoking the fires of unrest that can spill across borders.(3) Disaffected minorities who turn against the state when they experience persecution tend to become radical in doctrine and behavior, and seek alliances with sympathetic neighbors. They may seek solutions in separatism or serving as a genuine fifth column in networks manipulated by outside interests. Apocalyptic doctrines come to the fore that elevate the power of authoritarian clergy and portray the state as a tool of Satan, justifying violent rather than peaceful opposition. In other words, persecution that aims to ban whole religious groups tends instead to produce lasting enemies. Rule of religion by law, in contrast, allows more finely tuned suppression of specific acts of unlawful behavior in ways that have public legitimacy. The application of the rule of law toward religion could function as an antidote to religious extremism rather than as a cause of it.(6) Include Provincial and Local PlayersOutside efforts should take into account the interests and needs of provincial and local levels, for China has become too complex and the central government too limited in its reach for lasting change to come solely from the top down. As authority is shared between center and periphery, local interests and circumstances differ more than ever, and it is becoming more difficult for the center to control local behavior. Practical local incentives count all the more.The reporting on human rights issues should likewise be sensitive to the diversity across Chinese second-level localities. (These are the 31 provinces, autonomous regions, special economic zones, and large cities directly under the central government.) Current human rights reporting focuses on abuses, with little attention to improvements, and on national policy prescriptions rather than diverse local approaches to implementation. It would be valuable to have a kind of “report card” that would compare a given locality’s past and current practices. Local officials would begin to see it in their interest to pay more attention to the rule of law and to earning positive media stories about ongoing or new efforts to promote respect for human rights. The emphasis should be on carrots, not sticks—that is, reporting should highlight improvements and identify localities that merit rewards in the form of new investments of resources, rather than calling for boycotts as punishment for abuses. The latter only limits the influence of new ideas brought in by outsiders.(7) Work with the Chinese DiasporaTransnational Chinese business, educational, philanthropic, and religious networks have been the main outside actors quietly transforming Chinese society for the past 25 years. Chinese networks have opened up the market for new values and ideas, along with goods and services. Chinese churches and temples overseas are filled with highly-educated clergy and lay professionals who have family members scattered globally and who interact with counterparts in China on a regular basis. Mainland Chinese permanent residents in the U.S. would be more likely to visit or return to China if they could count on exercising their freedom of conscience, religion, and belief, thus reversing the “brain drain.” Chinese professionals are best positioned to help the government see the connection between freedom of conscience and belief and its stated desire to promote a “brain gain” and create a knowledge society.(8) Coordinate Initiatives around International NormsChinese citizens have high expectations for China to become accepted as a “normal” country, a responsible member of the global society of nations. China’s adherence to international norms and conventions for arms control and economic trade have set the precedent for China to conform to international human rights norms as well. But positive Chinese response to any outside effort is easier to mobilize and justify internally if it is not primarily an American initiative pushing uniquely American values. A regional or international effort instead provides an opportunity for China to engage in internationally accepted behavior on a voluntary basis rather than under duress. When the U.S. is seriously at odds with its allies in Europe or Asia over human rights issues, our influence in China is greatly diminished. The resulting “good cop, bad cop” routine serves European interests and allows China to play one against the others. A positive environment for religious rights among China’s neighbors, and especially modeling of religious freedom by the Chinese societies of Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, and Taiwan, will be particularly important in shaping Chinese behavior. Unfortunately, however, many nations in the region struggle on this front, and some serve more as a negative than positive example. Americans and other Westerners might use their direct influence in Asia to create regional success stories in dealing with ethnic-religious conciliation and cooperation, which in turn would influence China. To this end, the development of broadly inclusive Asia-Pacific forums to educate and advocate respect for religious and other civic rights for the sake of regional development and stability should be a high priority. These would be more effective than bilateral efforts by the U.S. and its allies, which are perceived as being more political in motivation.


Conventional approaches that emphasize public moral condemnation, top-down pressure, and reactive diplomacy have not delivered sustainable results on the ground. While case-by-case intervention is important, much more is required to promote cultural and institutional change. The new practically minded, multi-sector framework offered here should guide future thinking about religious freedom engagement. No single actor leading a grand coalition will “own” this new framework. Rather, it is for multiple actors working in multiple channels to create a shared mindset, a consensus on principles for use by organizations and associations as criteria in shaping concrete initiatives.Champions are needed in many sectors to start cooperative initiatives and projects that incorporate religious rights objectives. Because religious freedom is not generated overnight, such projects should include medium- and long-term activities that promote cultural tolerance and institutional change. The desired result will be effective parallel actions by government and nongovernmental agencies that are synergistic in the same direction—promoting the goal of freedom of religion, belief, and conscience in a healthy civil society.

ArticlesJason Truell