Taiwan has adopted a three-pronged approach to defend itself against China’s intensifying pressure campaign against the island. There is the relatively straightforward effort to enhance its ability to mount a military defense, both by upgrading capabilities and in developing a new defense strategy (i.e., the Overall Defense Concept). There is the line of effort aimed at diversifying economic relationships away from China (to deprive Beijing of potential leverage) and to deepen economic linkages with countries across the Indo-Pacific region through the New Southbound Policy, in the Western Hemisphere, and in Europe (thus giving a greater number of countries a material stake in Taiwan’s fate). The third line of effort, however, has received comparably little attention from outside observers: Taiwan’s attempt to seize the moral high ground vis-à-vis China and convince others, especially the free world, that support for Taiwan is the morally correct choice.
In this regard, Taiwan has seized on the issue of religious freedom of late to distinguish itself from China. To be sure, Taiwan has long emphasized the protection of religious freedom, both in practice and constitutionally (Article 13 of the Republic of China Constitution guarantees “the freedom of religious belief”). Taiwan welcomed religious exiles from China during the Cultural Revolution and religious groups, notably the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, played an important role in the island’s later democratization. In other words, freedom of religion is, important ways, central to Taiwan’s character.
It is perhaps natural, then, that Taipei has decided to emphasize this value in its international engagement. Religious freedom appears to be a personal, priority issue for Foreign Minister Joseph Wu; but more than that, it is a key area in which differences between Taiwan and China could not be starker. In its annual “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House gives Taiwan a maximum four points on the question of religious freedom, noting, “Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations that choose to register with the government receive tax-exempt status.”
China, on the other hand, receives zero out of four possible points. According to the Freedom House report:
The CCP regime has established a multifaceted apparatus to control all aspects of religious activity, including by vetting religious leaders for political reliability, placing limits on the number of new monastics or priests, and manipulating religious doctrine according to party priorities. The ability of China’s religious believers to practice their faith varies dramatically based on religious affiliation, location, and registration status. Many do not necessarily feel constrained, particularly if they are Chinese Buddhists or Taoists. However, a 2017 Freedom House report found that at least 100 million believers belong to groups facing high or very high levels of religious persecution, namely Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, and Falun Gong practitioners.
The report goes on to describe a litany of religious freedom violations committed by China, from banning online Bible sales to demolishing houses of worship, and from torturing Falun Gong practitioners to detaining Muslims in “reeducation camps.”
Taipei has been working hard to accentuate these differences. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Wu has not been shy in using the Twitter bully pulpit to call attention to China’s abuses (given Taiwan’s lack of formal diplomatic ties with much of the world, its senior leaders have found Twitter to be a useful means to engage beyond its own borders). In a late May retweet of a report on the Chinese government’s removal of some 1,200 Buddhist statues from public spaces, Wu wrote:
The #Taliban was condemned by the rest of the world for blowing the Bamiyan Buddhas to smithereens. The Chinese commies are 1,200 times worse! What have Buddhists done to deserve this torment? Nothing! Stop fearing #ReligiousFreedom. Let the people believe!
Wu has taken to the pages of the foreign press as well. In a June 11 op-ed published in The Times of London, he described China as “a police state that monitors its citizens with social credit surveillance, puts Uighurs in mass internment camps, suppresses religion and dissent in Tibet, throws human rights lawyers in jail and limits access to the internet.”
On the other hand, Taiwan has also sought to partner with the US government and with foreign non-governmental organizations to promote religious freedom in Asia. As I noted in a previous issue of the Global Taiwan Brief, earlier this year Taiwan played host to the first regional follow-up to the inaugural Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, DC, in 2018. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the American Institute in Taiwan, the US diplomatic outpost on the island, co-sponsored the event. In her opening remarks at the “Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region,” President Tsai Ing-wen declared that “freedom of religious has become central to our democratic life.” She followed this boast with an oblique reference to China:
In countries where human rights and democratic values are suppressed, governments engage in discrimination and violence against people who simply want to follow their faith. In those countries, religious organisations [sic] are being persecuted, religious statues and icons are being destroyed, religious leaders are forced into exile, and people are held in re-education camps, and force to break their religious taboos. Taiwan knows how it feels when someone tries to take away your rights, wipe out your identity, and challenge your way of life.
US Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, who delivered a keynote address, was more direct in calling out Chinese abuses and holding up Taiwan as a model. After listing Chinese Communist Party crimes against minority Muslim groups, Tibetan Buddhists, Protestant Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners, he expressed a commitment to fight for the ability of all people everywhere to exercise their human rights: “Like people can do here in Taiwan should be the norm for everybody throughout the region and the world.”
A few weeks ago, Taiwan held a second major conference on religious freedom. The Taiwan International Religious Freedom Forum, which was co-hosted by the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, the Heritage Foundation, and ChinaAid, included discussions on religious rights issues in countries stretching from Africa and the Middle East to North Korea. Ambassador Brownback and President Tsai again delivered addresses, with Tsai drawing a more direct comparison between Taiwan and China.
Although the forum highlighted a variety of abuses in a number of countries, the gaping chasm between religious freedom in China and Taiwan was again on full display at the conference’s close, with attendees approving the “Declaration on Uyghur Religious Freedom,” or the “Taiwan Declaration” for short. The declaration “urges all governments, religious institutions, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations to actively advance freedom of religion or belief by adopting and fully implementing commitments and laws to upholding freedom of religion or belief in their respective communities and countries.”
Value considerations may not dominate foreign policy making in democratic polities, but they do matter. It appears that Taipei hopes that, going forward, such considerations in foreign capitals will redound to its benefit.
By advertising its own religious freedom track record, Taiwan earns respect from other countries and peoples who value such freedom. Moreover, Taiwan may make itself more important to religious groups abroad that see Taiwan as advancing the cause of religious freedom in China, home to 445 of what Evangelicals call “unreached people groups,” totaling nearly 150 million people.
Religious voters in the United States and elsewhere may also come to care more about what happens to Taiwan, as they do not want to see a country open to the unhindered practice of religion and to missionary work subsumed by a ruling party openly hostile to believers of all stripes. Support for Taiwan at the grassroots level can, even if only minimally, filter up into the halls of the US Capitol and the White House.
To be sure, Taiwan’s leaders may have chosen to focus on advancing international religious freedom for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, they may well simply see it as the right thing to do. Beyond that, it is a good topic on which to engage civil societies abroad without needing to engage with governments directly, making it an issue area in which Taiwan can exert leadership without running into disadvantageous diplomatic roadblocks. Of course, there is a strategic rationale as well: in establishing itself as a champion of religious freedom, and in distinguishing its record from that of China, Taiwan can garner more international support for its continued de facto independence.
The main point: In establishing itself as a champion of religious freedom, and in distinguishing its record from that of China, Taiwan can garner more international support for its continued de facto independence.