The state of religious liberty in China

A Q&A with Nina Shea

July 12, 2019

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik from our policy team in D.C., recently interviewed Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea on the current human rights situation in China. They discussed the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, the widespread use of technology, and how the U.S. can leverage their trade relationship to see change in the country.

Chelsea Sobolik: Can you give us an overview of the human rights situation in China over the past five years?

Nina Shea: Since the cultural revolution, religious tolerance has waxed and waned, though never has there been religious freedom as we know it in the United States. Sometimes persecution has been very bad, like right after Tiananmen Square, and sometimes it’s eased. In the last two or three years, it’s taken a reverse turn to the point where I fear for the continuation of Christianity in China. It was on the trajectory of being one of the world’s largest Christian communities. And now, I’m wondering if it can survive as a true Christian religion at all.

CS: What accelerated that change over the past few years? 

NS: I think that there was a growing boldness on the part of President Xi and his determination to get control of Christianity. At one point, Christianity was said to have more members than the Communist party, and they were viewed as a challenge to the single-party Communist state. They don’t want any ideological competition or anything independent of their control. They want to control organization, speech, and association, so they didn’t like the fact that Christianity was blossoming exponentially and largely doing so outside government control.

We’ve seen Beijing crackdown against the Falun Gong, an indigenous Chinese spiritual exercise movement. The group claimed to have had about 30 million followers. They were completely crushed inside China in the 1990s. China is quite capable of using the most brutal means to crush movements it doesn’t like, whether political, religious, or cultural. 

CS: How is that playing out right now? 

NS: We’re now seeing extreme levels of crude repression again directed against the Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims of China. A million Muslims have been confined to indoctrination camps [located in] the desert in western China. They are tortured, psychologically abused, and enslaved. They can’t leave, and they have no due process. They’re forced to renounce their belief system and act in a way that’s contrary to it, by being forced to drink alcohol and eat pork. China is ready to use the most brutal means, but they are reluctant to do so to a large extent with Christians because Christians have a stronger tie to the West and to countries with large markets, particularly the United States. They are more in the spotlight. Instead of using the most iron-fisted means toward Christians, China will turn to more restrictive regulatory and big tech measures to pressure its Christian communities.

CS: Can you touch a little bit on the surveillance state and how China is using technology to persecute religious minorities?

NS: China is using its own internet to censor people. They’ve gone to underground churches and attached facial recognition cameras to the pulpits, aimed on the congregations. They are keeping track of who’s going to church. They have technology that opens social media on cell phones without passcodes. They track how much people exercise through their cell phones, and then limit their healthcare based on that. They are instituting a social credit score system which will score you on where you go, what you believe, what you’re reading, and who you’re meeting with. And those with low scores are excluded from government-run operations, such as government jobs, transportation, schools, housing, pensions, and every other benefit in healthcare and education in general. They have banned Bible sales online. They have signs outside of churches saying that pensioners will lose their pensions if they attend church services. Youth are forbidden from attending church as well, and they and their families will be punished for violating this, both with fines as well as being cut off from government schools and other services.

CS: What has been the response of the international community? 

NS: Unfortunately, the world is just awakening to this looming threat. The Chinese have been envisioning this now for a while, at least since President Xi. This is his vision. It frightens me because it’s like a high-tech North Korea. He’s replacing Jesus Christ’s picture in churches with his own. His sayings are being sent to people on their phones. There’s a cult forming around him. This will be a threat to all around the world. Vice President Pence spoke about this threat in October 2018 at the think tank where I am a scholar, the Hudson Institute. Europe is just now beginning to recognize it. Other countries are not. I know the Taiwanese are very concerned about their future, independence, and sovereignty. So Xi’s quest for control is bigger than just an attack against Christians, but that’s certainly a piece of his plan. 

CS: What has been the response of Western Christians? 

NS: I don’t think that Western Christian churches realize the full extent of China’s aims to control and suppress religion and their newfound capabilities to carry this out. Christians here may be lulled by assurances that China has been set to be the largest Christian church in the world. They were right to project that for years, but Beijing is working to reverse this. Megachurches are no longer being tolerated, and many large underground churches are being closed. It is a shock to the system for even the Chinese Christian community that robust churches comprised of good citizens of China and which were tolerated for several years—like Zion Church in Beijing and Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu—were abruptly shut down last year, and their pastors and congregations were punished. 

CS: What can the U.S. be doing in terms of bilateral trade with China to prioritize human rights?

NS: The U.S. has awakened, but it’s only willing to speak up on trade and defense issues with China. There has to be a third “basket,” as we called it during the Cold War under the Helsinki Final Act, a human rights category of discussion, and maybe even one specifically on religious freedom. This would empower Chinese people to claim their fundamental rights and freedoms.

CS: How do we move from where we are today to incorporating that human rights component in trade discussions on the world scale—starting with our own country, but then elevating that a little broader, too?

NS: I think that we can take a lesson from the way China has tried to hide its human rights abuses. With the Uyghurs, China tries to cover it up, saying these are just vocational training camps, not re-education camps. So it lies out of shame, which indicates that it sees it is in its own interest not to appear as a repressive, totalitarian state that deprives its people of all rights. That suggests a strategy for us to move forward. The more we can expose and bring to the surface China’s oppression, the more that China will feel pressed to pull back. Western criticism hurts their brand. China aims to be the new political model for the future—a highly efficient, high-tech, expansive economic system, and at the same time, a highly repressive political system. The more that we can show what a dystopia it is, the more that the China model is discredited. 

CS: What can the U.S. be doing in terms of our multilateral engagement at the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council, pressing the UN to act a little bit more at the international level?

NS: Well, it would be tough because China is a member of the UN Security Council, so it would veto anything at that level. And the UN Human Rights Council is severely compromised and politicized. The best route would be for a coalition of the willing in the West to speak up about religious freedom and other basic human rights, since China is very eager to have access to Western markets. A coalition of Western governments must begin to press for basic religious freedom right now, and this topic should be included in the talks that the U.S. is holding on trade and defense. Trade and religious freedom should not be isolated initiatives separate from each other, and the U.S. should not be the only government raising human rights. China’s crackdown, including through technology owned, sold, and invented in the West, is a very big problem, and it’s bigger than any single country can take on.

CS: What can the U.S. do to get the developing world, which China has such a strong influence over through trade, to speak up on human rights abuses and violations?

NS: Frankly, the developing world can’t do that much. Those countries don’t have a strong voice, and will be crushed or isolated by China. It’s very hard for them to stand up, which is why we need to take the lead. So, we should continue giving aid to Africa and elsewhere, and building relations with developing countries so they don’t fall into China’s orbit.

Nina Shea serves as the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.

This article originally appeared in Light Magazine

Chelsea Sobolik

Chelsea Sobolik serves as the Director of Public Policy with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in the Washington, D.C. office. Previously, she worked on Capitol Hill on pro-life policies, domestic and international religious freedom, adoption, and foster care issues. Chelsea has been published at the Wall Street Journal, USA … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24