Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, is pressing the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Chinese leaders associated with the country’s crackdown on faith groups, according to two congressional aides briefed by the administration.
Brownback told Republican members of Congress in private meetings this month that the United States has a unique moment to address religious liberty given ongoing trade talks with China, according to the aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the effort.
Under Brownback’s proposal, President Trump could write an executive order, based on Obama-era human rights legislation, telling the State and Treasury departments to freeze the bank accounts and other assets of Chinese politicians involved in the suppression of worship.
His first target would be Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party’s secretary of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims are reported by the State Department to be detained in “reeducation centers,” said one of the officials.
Beijing has denied suppressing religious minorities, asserting that its tightening regulations on worship are meant to curb crime and prevent terrorism. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment by midday Thursday.
Brownback, the former Kansas governor who took the State Department post in January, is the first Catholic to fill the role and has deep ties to the evangelical community.
His plan, if enacted, would mark the first time the Trump administration has put sanctions on Chinese officials for restricting religious freedom.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment. It’s unclear whether Trump backs the idea and whether it will move forward.
The details of the effort emerged a month after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared religious liberty a priority.
“We will get in the ring and stand in solidarity with every individual who seeks to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights,” Pompeo said in May, speaking broadly.
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of “upcoming actions” but said the agency is considering sanctions to fight human rights abuse and corruption worldwide. Agency officials can make recommendations to the White House on whom to target.
Human rights legislation known as the Global Magnitsky Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012 and expanded by Congress in 2016. The measure was named after a Russian lawyer who uncovered tax fraud linked to the Kremlin and later died in jail, and it was designed to punish foreign nationals who commit human rights abuses.
The Trump administration first used the law in December to penalize 52 people and entities, including a Myanmar general cited for deadly crimes against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group. The administration also levied sanctions on a Beijing police chief over the death of a Chinese human rights lawyer who advocates said was denied medical treatment while in detention. (A spokesman for the Chinese government at the time said the police maintain public security in accordance with the law.)
In April, acting deputy assistant secretary of state Laura Stone told reporters in Beijing that the administration was considering sanctions against Chinese leaders in Xinjiang, where much of the country’s Uighur Muslim population is concentrated.
Now Republican lawmakers and evangelical advisers are urging the White House to turn up the pressure.
“The United States should raise China’s abhorrent human rights record in all of our bilateral discussions with China,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a statement to The Washington Post. “A government willing to commit grave abuses against Uighur Muslims, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists & Falun Gong practitioners will have no problem repeatedly violating intellectual property laws or undertaking unfair trade practice.”
The administration, he added, “should use every tool at its disposal” against China, including sanctions on individuals and visa restrictions.
The State Department has branded China a “country of particular concern” for 19 years in its annual report on religious liberty worldwide. The 2017 edition, released in April, found that the Chinese government had “tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison or harassed” people for engaging in religious activities.
The Rev. Johnnie Moore, one of Trump’s top evangelical advisers, said the president has a rare opportunity to wield his influence as the world’s two largest economies reconsider their trade terms.
“There is massive negotiating leverage,” said Moore, one of eight commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
He pointed to the case of ZTE as demonstrating the power one U.S. decision can have. Trump intervened to relax a ban on the telecom equipment maker buying American electronics parts, imposed after the company violated U.S. sanctions by selling its products to Iran and North Korea and then lying about it.
ZTE said in March that it would have to shutter without U.S. parts before Trump pledged on Twitter to save it, citing “too many Chinese jobs lost.”
Beijing unrolled stricter religious regulations in February, ordering anyone managing or participating in religious practice to “adhere to the principles of protecting legitimate religious activities, curbing and preventing illegal and extreme practices, resisting infiltration, and fighting crime.”
Religious-liberty groups say the law has empowered police to detain more people, ramp up surveillance and block children from entering churches.
“The persecution against religious minorities across the board has been the worst I’ve seen since the end of the Cultural Revolution,” an era in the 1960s and 1970s when worship in China was outlawed, said Bob Fu, founder of China Aid, a nonprofit that aims to help persecuted Christians.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the congressional China committee with Rubio, said the United States should not allow its trade relationship with China to contribute to “horrific abuses.”
“U.S. companies should not be helping Chinese police to expand their surveillance capabilities, and Chinese officials complicit in human rights abuses should not benefit from access to the U.S. or its financial system,” Smith said in a statement to The Post.
However, Shaun Casey, former special representative for religion and global affairs at the State Department under Obama, said Brownback’s move looks like a symbolic way to please Trump’s evangelical base.
“The notion the Chinese will change their behavior is delusional,” Casey said. “This is grandstanding for a domestic religious audience.”
More than 658 million people practice some form of religion in China, according to U.S. government estimates, including roughly 251 million Buddhists, 70 million Christians and 25 million Muslims.
Wrapping religious liberty into trade dealmaking would prove extraordinarily difficult, said David Dollar, who served as the U.S. Treasury’s economic and financial emissary to China from 2009 to 2013.
Obama and President George W. Bush publicly advocated religious freedom in China but stopped short of threatening sanctions. President Bill Clinton’s administration criticized China’s human rights record ahead of its admission to the World Trade Organization.
“The Chinese didn’t blink,” Dollar said.