China ‘in a Category by Itself’ of Religious Rights Violators

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China ‘in a Category by Itself’ of Religious Rights Violators

An interview with Gary Bauer, commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

China ‘in a Category by Itself’ of Religious Rights Violators
Credit: Depositphotos

“Of the countries named each year by USCIRF as egregious violators of religious liberty, one is in a category by itself. Communist China doesn’t only deny its citizens basic human rights, including the right to seek and worship God. It is also asserting itself as a new authoritarian model for developing nations around the world. It is actively engaged in undermining international human rights standards.”

So wrote Commissioner Gary L. Bauer in the 2021 Annual Report brought out by the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF, pronounced YOU-SURF). USCIRF “monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad,” using international standards “to monitor religious freedom violations globally,” and making “policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.”

The Diplomat’s Bonnie Girard had the opportunity to ask Bauer, a lawyer, Reagan-era official, former presidential candidate, and activist, to expand upon his ideas and insights related to China’s religious freedom abuses. Edited for space, the interview with Commissioner Bauer follows.

I’ve come up with three general questions that I’d like you to expand upon. One focuses on Europe, one focuses on America, and one focuses on Asia.

The USCIRF report made mention of Germany’s leadership of 39 countries jointly condemning China’s abusive policies toward ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, in October 2020. This was shocking, as Germany has deep business ties in China, and normally refrains from talking about human and religious rights issues in China. With Germany as the de facto head of the EU, what can the United States do to support, acknowledge, and amplify what Germany has done to lead that effort of criticizing and condemning China for its religious rights abuses?

Well, if all three of the questions are going to be this difficult, we could be here for a long time [laughter]. I mean, clearly this is the challenge that any American president is going to face. Most of America’s foreign policy elites have been very much in favor of a unified Europe. A unified Europe with Germany at its head is going to be more and more likely to have a foreign policy that’s independent of America’s foreign policy priorities.

Speaking not as a USCIRF commissioner but as somebody who’s been involved in these issues, Europe very much wants America to continue the transatlantic partnership and the defense umbrella. You know there were great tensions between Europe and Trump because he pressed for Europe to carry a greater burden.

U.S. presidents have to be willing to use leverage of the fact that we are committed to standing with Europe against any national security threat. I think we’re likely to get this kind of cooperation if they see a robust, serious American foreign policy that utilizes the strengths and leverage that we do have.

I also think that there are elements of German society and across Europe that care deeply about human rights, about concepts of the Western world – they’re protecting and promoting a certain set of values. And I think the United States should seek out alliances with those like-minded forces throughout Europe and in Germany to defend Western values and to call out countries that are engaged in the kind of egregious persecution and repression that we see routinely in Communist China.

Someone mentioned in a recent press briefing that all of you on the Commission are volunteers.

I started to say that was news to me, too, but no [laughter], I think it’s a good thing, actually, that we’re volunteers, because the people that are willing to be appointed as a commissioner are people who hopefully care enough about religious liberty and desire it to be a component of America’s foreign policy. So there’s definitely no monetary motivation here. In fact, a number of us have become more critical about American multinational corporations who have turned a blind eye on these issues.

There is a financial impact for people who speak up and speak out about what American corporations are doing.

Yes, right.

There’s a special section in the report where you make your own points. Was that because you partially dissented with the majority?

Well, on occasion I’ve dissented from what the majority decided in a particular case, I wanted to say a few things in the sort of language that I grew up with in the Midwest, near Cincinnati, Ohio. Reagan was a plain talker [editor’s note: Bauer spent eight years in the Reagan administration], and I’m used to that, just to try to be more direct and more understandable.

It’s a call to arms, really – not only a “buy America” policy but an “at least buy from someone other than China” policy, right?


There are many in business, and many consumers, willing to join this effort. Do you interact with organizations like the pro-China U.S. Chamber of Commerce to get your views across, to amplify the reasons that they need to distance, if not decouple, themselves from the Chinese environment of today? How can you amplify this call to arms?

I did push for the Commission to write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce – a strongly worded letter – on our chagrin and disappointment on the Chamber’s reaction to the introduction of legislation requiring U.S. companies to make efforts to determine whether their supply chain is being contaminated by slave labor. [Editor’s note: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement in which it said, in part, “…The Chamber believes that H.R. 6270, the “Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act of 2020,” and H.R. 6210, the “Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” would prove ineffective and may hinder efforts to prevent human rights abuses.] I prevailed on that…

Personally, for years, I’ve been interacting with American business and with other entities and through the other work that I do with a number of public policy groups. And I, in fact, not that it’s relevant for your story, but in 2000, when I had my unsuccessful run in the Republican presidential primaries, one of the issues that famously George W. Bush and I clashed on at one of the presidential debates was that he was all-in for Most Favored Nation status for Communist China and I was vehemently opposed, and he said to me at one point, “Gary, you’ll be shocked how quickly freedom comes to Communist China once we start interacting with their entrepreneurial class.” You know, he was giving sort of the classic “Trade with China will change China,” and my view was that “I think that we’re all going to be shocked with how quickly American corporations end up becoming lobbyists for Communist China. It’s much more likely to change us than to change them.”

We also held a hearing about the influence of Communist China on multinational corporations, which I also pushed very strongly to have, and we were eventually able to do that hearing this year.

More specifically to your question, look, I know that this is hard – it’s almost a vicious circle, you know. The trade agreements we made in the 1990s and particularly the 2000s with China gutted the American heartland’s manufacturing base and a lot of communities have never fully recovered and a lot of working class families never got new jobs that were as lucrative as the old jobs they’d had. So now here people like me come along and tell those working class families, “Look, you need to start boycotting these cheaper goods coming in from Communist China,” well, easy for me to say, right, but if you’re in one of those working class families in Wheeling, West Virginia or Columbus, Ohio or St Louis, Missouri, you’re looking for bargains and we’re asking a lot… The same forces that laid them low have brought cheaper goods into America. The problem is their jobs went to China. But I do think that if we’re going to revive America’s manufacturing base we need to start buying American as much as we can.

Let me get to the third question. So at the beginning of the report, you wrote that of the countries that are egregious violators one is in a category by itself, Communist China. Your point is that China is not only restricting the rights of its own citizens, but asserting itself as an authoritarian model for developing nations around the world.


A majority of The Diplomat’s readers are in Asia. What can you say to those readers who ask, “What can I do to counter the influence of China in the religious affairs and freedom of my country?”

A great question. Many of those countries have unfortunately been tempted and have succumbed to temptation to borrow from Communist China for needed infrastructure projects in countries that are going through development and help to provide a better standard of living for their people. As countries are finding out, from Sri Lanka to Montenegro in Europe, those loans, which often seem to be too good to be true, are too good to be true and they come with all the baggage that we see with Communist China. Demands for access to strategic ports, and so forth.

You know, in American foreign policy we’ve often used foreign aid loans as leverage to get cooperation on other things, but I think by and large countries find that what the United States required for us to continue to want to aid a country… is a lot less disturbing and dangerous for the population of a country, when it comes to basic rights and human and religious liberty, than what Communist China will demand.

I think there’s a particular challenge right now in Asia where there is a necessity for an alliance between countries to counter what clearly is Communist China’s goal of replacing the United States as a dominant power in the Pacific. I’m sure America’s presence in the Pacific has sometimes been frustrating for some countries in the region, but again I would argue to policymakers in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, that a Pacific down the road that has to get up every morning trying to figure out how it’s going to please the leadership in Beijing is going to be a Pacific that is much less hospitable to the desires, the ambitions, of the people of those countries.

Can you say that within the four corners of being a USCIRF Commissioner?

I think that what I just said is certainly consistent with the spirit of what the Commission is doing on Communist China in recent years.

U.S. refugee policy has become a hot-button political issue these days. Are Uyghurs potential refugees? What are we doing to help the Uyghurs?

You’ve really zeroed in on something incredibly important. Yes, by any definition they are refugees. It’s really extraordinary what they’re being subjected to. The Commission has in the past, including this past year, made statements about the need to provide more resources for refugee resettlement and we’ve spoken out against some countries that are actually sending Uyghur refugees back to China, which is reprehensible. I hope this is something there can be a political consensus about when dealing with real refugees. We need to do more.

My own bias is that it’s not best to bring everybody to America. I think it’s much more productive to provide resources so that those refugees can escape and be able to prosper closer to what is their homeland with the hope that they will be able to return there at some point and live there as free men and women.