The Chinese Communist Party touts itself as a global leader. And it is a leader. It’s leading the world in persecution, says Sam Brownback, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.
From forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners to forced sterilization of Uyghurs, the Chinese regime, in Ambassador Brownback’s words, has waged “War with Faith.” And it’s exporting its repressive model abroad, to the detriment of freedoms across the globe. But authoritarianism ultimately can’t defeat faith, Brownback says, in China or anywhere.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Ambassador Sam Brownback, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Ambassador Sam Brownback: Happy to join you. I wish it was an in-person interview, but this will have to do.
Mr. Jekielek: You had an article that you wrote recently which was, “Humanity Will Win The Battle For Religious Freedom.” Frankly, a lot of people, not just in the U.S. but in Canada, my home country, and elsewhere, are not so sure about this right now, especially in China which we’ll talk about. Tell me what you’re thinking here.
Amb. Brownback: It is in the innate nature of the human being to have dignified freedom. I just don’t think any government over an extended period of time can win this fight of tying people down from their freedom. Now, if that weren’t in the nature of the human species, if that weren’t in our soul, in our heart, you can look at these times right now and say, “We’re just headed downhill.” But it’s within us, it’s within our creative DNA that we want freedom.
We want to be free, and there is just no government that over an extended period of time can suppress that. What we’ve seen taking place recently, certainly within the last couple of decades, is really governments confining these human rights and human dignity, particularly on religious freedom. But I think you’re starting to see that breaking out now, too. I think you’re seeing changes happening really even before our very eyes that are opening up religious freedom around the world.
Mr. Jekielek: I also wanted to ask you: you were actually instrumental, I think, just over 20 years ago in some pretty landmark legislation related to international religious freedom, and you’ve been following that up all along. Where does this passion for freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, for you, come from?
Amb. Brownback: In my own personal search, my faith is incredibly important to me. And then early on, when I was in the U.S. Senate, I had a staff member that had worked in this field and started to tell me about people that were imprisoned around the world simply because they wanted to practice a different faith than the dominant beliefs in that country, and it just rubbed against me.
And that may be [because of] my background in Kansas. My mother grew up on the property where John Brown would stay when he was [part of] Bleeding Kansas and we had the slavery situation, and so anything that smacks of slavery to me, it just rubs against me. And I carried the original human trafficking bill. Don Nickles carried the original religious freedom bill, but I was a main supporter of it, and these have always been a deeply passionate piece of mine.
I love the days whenever we get somebody out of prison somewhere around the world, that’s in prison simply because they want to practice their faith, and we can help get them out and get them free. Those are just great happy days.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about communist China. This is actually a little bit of my background. I came in from the Human Rights around China thing. That’s why I ended up working with The Epoch Times in the first place as this is an issue that’s particularly important to me. You describe what’s happening in China as a war on faith. That’s pretty strong words, and I wanted you to basically have the opportunity to extrapolate on that a little bit.
Amb. Brownback: It is. And they are after all faiths. I gave that speech in Hong Kong a year and a half ago declaring that China was at war with faith. It is a war they will not win. It’s a war that the kingdom of man has tried to win for millennia, and they’re not going to win this one and they haven’t won it in the past.
And I think you can just look at all the evidence. You can look at what China did to the Tibetan Buddhists and still [does]: the persecution, keeping the Dalai Lama out of the country, and now even declaring that they get to appoint the next Dalai Lama—the Chinese Communist Party. You can look at Xinjiang which is probably the most egregious religious persecution taking place in the world today. Million Muslim Uyghurs in concentration camps.
And then if you get out of those, you’re in this police state of a virtual prison by all the cameras, the facial recognition systems, and the limitations on you, the destruction of the house church, the desire to control the Catholic Church, the persecution of Falun Gong, the credible reporting now of taking place of organ harvesting, and then top it all off with Hong Kong that’s supposed to be “One country, two systems” being merged into “one system, one country,” and the system is what Beijing is saying.
This is just across the board. It’s everywhere. It has gone more nationalistic. Instead, it used to be more at a provincial level and it’s gone harsher under Xi Jinping. His main implementer is Chen Quanguo. He’s the party chair over Xinjiang. He put down the Buddhists; he’s putting down the Muslims now. And the United States recently sanctioned him with the Global Magnitsky sanctions.
Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of sanctions, recently, a number of Xinjiang officials were sanctioned by the U.S. But what I noted in particular was the sanctioning of XPCC, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. This is a massive, massive paramilitary operation company in Xinjiang responsible for a significant portion of its economy. Some people are describing these as some of the first real biting sanctions on the issue of religious freedom. I wanted you to have the opportunity to comment on that a little bit.
Amb. Brownback: You’re seeing the Trump administration go hammer and tongs at these human rights abuses and particularly religious freedom abuses that are taking place in western China. We are going at the companies that are then used in the forced labor, that is being forced by the Chinese Communist Party. We are going at the entities that their technology is being used to observe and to oppress people.
We really see the future of oppression being fewer people in concentration camps and more people controlled in a society with 24-hour surveillance systems on people and limiting what they can do in that society. So we’re going at those technology companies, we’re going at the production companies, we’re going at the individual, and we are serious about this, that this is wrong what China is doing.
They seek to be a global leader and yet they’re leading the world in persecution—the global leadership is in persecution. That’s not the kind of leadership that the world wants, and the world needs to see this. We’re putting a big light on it.
Mr. Jekielek: Recently, there have been reports of basically the Chinese Communist Party mandating that hospitals in Xinjiang either abort or even kill, after birth, Uyghur babies. I find it even difficult to talk about this, frankly. What do you make of these reports?
Amb. Brownback: I make that they’re credible. I make that they’re credible reports, and they’re in the numbers. We certainly see that in the numbers of Uyghur children being born dropping precipitously. We have eyewitness accounts of people that have gotten out and have testified now regarding this, and that this is at the horrific level.
Again, here’s China that’s holding itself up, that the Communist Party is a global leader, and doing this to an ethnic group of their own people. I think this is completely unconscionable and it’s taking place today.
For years, the world kind of turned a blind eye to what the Falun Gong was saying about organ harvesting. People were saying, “Well, I’m not sure this is credible,” and yes, you would see it, you’d look at it. It was in the numbers. The circumstantial evidence was there. Now you’ve had two credible institutions outside of China saying that this organ harvesting is taking place.
And think about that just mentally, that you’re taking and persecuting this individual. You’re going to kill them, and then harvest their organs to sell them. This is just horrific [what’s] taking place.
And I just don’t think the world can now sit back and say, “Well, we’re just not sure if this is happening.” This sounds like what we’ve done in past with genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic purges, whatever category that you want to start calling these things, where we just want to say, “I don’t really want to confront the factual setting here. I’d rather just not know.” I think we do know, and I think we have to act.
Mr. Jekielek: These recent reports suggest to me something on the level of genocide. In fact, at the China Tribunal that did the work on the forced organ harvesting and established that it’s credible most recently, they kind of had a debate in their report, from what I recall. They said that because the profit motive’s so big, because they’re [the CCP] making billions of dollars off this murder for organs, they’re [the China Tribunal] not quite sure if it’s fair to call it genocide. For that reason, that just chilled me to the bones.
Amb. Brownback: It should, all of us. We’re not talking about being in the 1800s or the 1940s. This is 2020 and this is happening. And it’s happening in our world today. I think it should be absolutely chilling to people to think that this is happening once they hear this.
The other side of this too, I want to say, if China would just come forward and open up their books on their organ transplant system and show people everything that’s taking place, be transparent about it, [we could believe them]. If they’re saying it doesn’t happen, they have the answer in their own hands. They could answer this credibly themselves if this is not happening. They choose not to and they are not answering it.
And the same with Xinjiang. They said these are education camps. Then open them up, let people see what’s taking place, and they don’t. They’ll take people on tightly controlled trips, and set up apparatuses instead of really opening it up, and they ignore the factual eyewitness accounts from people that have come out of these concentration camps and what they personally experienced.
Mr. Jekielek: Now, Ambassador Brownback, you made the point earlier that the world, for quite some time, was turning a blind eye to China. The executive director of the Falun Dafa Information Center, Levi Browde, made this observation recently that the persecution of Falun Gong has been happening for 21 years. Actually, the State Department marked that in a statement by Secretary Pompeo, which I’m sure you also had something to do with.
But he actually mentioned that the inaction over 21 years allowed the CCP to hone these methods of use of indoctrination, torture, the technology development over decades, now to be applied onto the house Christians, onto the Uyghurs, and so forth. What are your thoughts?
Amb. Brownback: That’s been true throughout history. If you don’t stand up to the bully, they just keep coming. And too often people in the past have said, “Well, that’s not my religious group. Falun Gong is not who I adhere to. If they pick on them, that’s one thing, but I’m a Muslim, or I’m a Christian, or I’m a Buddhist, or religion doesn’t matter to me, so I’m just not going to pay any attention to it.” And yet we’ve seen repeatedly throughout history, if you don’t stand up to them early, they just keep coming.
The Communist Party, communism as a philosophy, has had trouble with faith from its very beginning. It’s always persecuted faith. It doesn’t have a space for believing in a higher moral authority. The higher moral authority is the Communist Party. It’s an officially atheistic system. They don’t abide by an allegiance to any sort of other authority and so, they may come at a smaller group, but they’re going to come after the next groups, and they perfect the systems.
I would say that they perfected in Tibet, what they’re using on the Uyghurs today in Xinjiang. And it was the same person Chen Quanguo that started in Tibet, and they moved him then to Xinjiang—gave him more budget, more police, more technology. He’s got the system in place now. And then my concern is, too, they’re going to start marketing and selling these sort of authoritarian control systems to other authoritarian regimes around the world that want to seek to control their population through the use of these advanced technologies.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned Hong Kong earlier and so are you seeing the encroachment on freedom of belief since the advent of this national security law in Hong Kong? And if so, how is that playing out?
Amb. Brownback: I’m not getting reporting on it yet. I look for it to happen soon. Hong Kong, the people of Hong Kong, have been very brave and standing up. They have a guarantee, an agreement, that they’re to have a “two systems” for a 50-year time period. Their 50 years isn’t up, and yet they’re being brought into this maw of the Communist Party and being run.
So I anticipate, you’re going to start seeing that persecution taking place there. But I haven’t had a series of reports coming in yet and maybe even this interview will stir people up to start sending things in that they’re seeing taking place now.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ll definitely make sure it gets to the right people in that vein. Ambassador Brownback, you have initiated these ministerials on religious freedom, of which there have been several. I wanted you to speak a little bit on the purpose behind them and what the impact now has been, because it’s something that you seem to have found that has some sort of positive effect hence it’s being repeated. How is this working? What is going on with these?
Amb. Brownback: Two things. One is we wanted to really motivate, and really urge, and move forward governments around the world that are interested in religious freedom and get them to make it a bigger piece of their portfolio, because there’s so much religious persecution that’s taking place and if we don’t get on top of this issue of religious persecution, persecution of religious minorities, you’re going to see a lot more security problems, a lot more fighting, a lot more violence around the world.
So we’re really trying to motivate governments first to just stand for everybody’s religious freedom, everywhere, all the time. That’s the standard. And we’re seeing more governments step up and say, “Yes, this is a key piece of us moving forward on human rights writ large.”
The second is we want to really create a grassroots movement around the world of religious freedom, that this is an inherent part of who you are as a person. And we want people to be able to practice their faith freely and to do that, we need to see people all over the world stand up and say, “Look, this is my right. This is my right as a human being. It’s my right under UN Charter.” My view: It’s your God-given right that you are given by the Creator, and that happens to be in our Constitution in the United States.
So we really want to do both, get that grassroots movement going. We have a series of religious freedom roundtables now starting around the world. We hope more come where religious adherence of all different stripes and of none at all, atheist as well, come together to stand for each other’s religious freedom. And then we want governments at the governmental level to become far more active in pushing religious freedom. And so far, we’re seeing a really swift uptake in this idea.
Mr. Jekielek: Now, I noticed in your article that I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, you actually mentioned that the freedom to believe and not to believe, that is actually ultimately the freedom of conscience, as I understand it.
Amb. Brownback: It is. It is, and that’s in the UN Charter, it’s in our Constitution, it’s in many countries’ constitutions, but it’s the individual human being’s dignified choice, and no government has a right to interfere with that. That person gets to believe whatever they choose to believe as long as they’re peaceful, or not to believe anything at all.
And a number of people in the faith community look at this as God’s freedom that He gave us, to choose whatever we wanted to choose, and we could choose Him, we could choose not. But that was such a key part of us being dignified creatures, again, in my estimation, created in the image of God. It’s that choice; it’s that free will.
Mr. Jekielek: Any particular success stories that you would like to draw attention to for the Office of International Religious Freedom?
Amb. Brownback: To really stand out right now, one is Sudan—the first country in the world that’s repealed blasphemy laws. And this is a country that overthrew a radical Islamist government that had previously housed Osama bin Laden, and they’ve repealed it all. They said that you’re free to do what you choose, and it’s just amazing what they’ve done.
And Uzbekistan in Central Asia is a country that really has broken with more of a heavy-handed police state past, and said, “No, we want to be an open free country.” And I predict you’re going to start seeing a lot more open societies in the Middle East taking place with the move that UAE and Israel just did of coming together on diplomatic relations. The UAE is pioneering some of these fields where they’re going in and saying, “Look, we believe our faith, we are Sunni Muslims, but we want to have an open society where people are free to practice their faith without fear of reprisal.”
And you’re seeing other countries in that region really see that as something they need to do. They’ve got young populations in the area, that younger people just want a normal country with normal freedoms. So I think you’re going to start seeing this as 2.0 of the Arab Spring where the governments are going to work with the people more to let these societies open up and blossom more.
Mr. Jekielek: It was fascinating to see the news today that the first, i think, a direct flight from Israel to Sudan now—the inaugural flight happened. Not something I was expecting to see.
Amb. Brownback: It’s really stunning. I’ve worked on Sudanese issues for 20 years because the previous government was just so bad on persecuting people and now to see them having flights to Israel, do away with blasphemy laws, having an open society. But they’re not the only ones. I’m hearing a lot of action. A lot of it’s percolating underneath the surface. But these countries are saying, “We’ve got to listen to where our people want to go, and they just want to be free, and they want to make their own choices.” And that’s why I’m very hopeful.
Mr. Jekielek: Aside from communist China, where are the real pressure points right now in the world that your office is focused on?
Amb. Brownback: Communist China is the big one because they’re really the biggest enabler of human rights abuses around the world, and they walk around with a lot of money and they try to bribe a lot of places. So really, they’re in a kind of a league by their own because of their status and stature.
We’re also seeing lots of difficulties developing in Nigeria, in northern Nigeria in particular, where you’ve just got a lot of terrorist groups coming in and wanting to establish the caliphate in some of those regions in northern Nigeria and adjacent countries. It’s a very, very troubling region of the world to watch.
Pakistan’s been in a lot of difficulties, and seems like an acceleration of communal violence taking place. We’re seeing communal violence throughout the Indian subcontinent, really, and in India as well, not at the governmental level but more at the communal level, but a lot of violence.
That’s why we keep pushing the country and saying, “You’ve got to stand up for religious freedom for everybody, all the time, because otherwise, within your own country, you’re going to see these violent explosions taking place. It’s going to be bad for your society, bad for your people, bad for your long term economic growth, bad for the security of your own people.”
You may not agree with people’s theology, this is not about establishing a common theology. It is about a common human right that is fundamental to the growth of us as human beings.
Mr. Jekielek: Powerful words, Ambassador Brownback. Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Amb. Brownback: I hope people will really engage on this topic on a personal level, make it something that they become educated about, and advocate to their elected representatives, to people that they’re around, that they write about it, because the human rights projects around the world have been in decline for the last 20 to 25 years.
The United States thinks, if we can start to get some of these fundamental human rights like religious freedom, you’re going to see the other human rights start to flourish more—the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. The other issues will start to really flourish more. It’s like in football, you got to get blocking and tackling right before you can pass the ball. This is one of those foundational ones, and I hope people will advocate for it amongst the folks that they’re around. And I hope they’ll pray if they’re people of faith.
Mr. Jekielek: Ambassador Brownback, such a pleasure to have you on.
Amb. Brownback: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.