- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Two recent items highlight the connection between religious freedom and broader political trends in China. First, our former NSC colleague Elliott Abrams points out over at his blog Pressure Points that the Dalai Lama is visiting Washington this week and next week. But the Tibetan Buddhist leader doesn’t, as of yet, have any official meetings scheduled with his fellow Nobel Peace Laureate President Obama, or any senior Administration officials for that matter. This is unfortunate. Hearkening back to his days in the Reagan Administration heading the State Department’s Human Rights Bureau, Elliott describes the history of the Dalai Lama’s visits to Washington, Beijing’s predictable bleats of protest, and how the State Department’s skittishness eventually turned to acquiescence in American officials meeting with the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, Beijing came to an understanding (possibly even reluctant respect?) that U.S. leaders would hold these meetings and would not allow China to dictate the American president’s appointment schedule — even while the U.S. continued to cooperate with China on other strategic equities.
Thus President George W. Bush in particular set the precedent of meeting with the Dalai Lama in the White House without derailing US-China relations. (The Bush-Dalai Lama friendship has continued post-presidency, and the Dalai Lama recently donated an historic early draft of the 1963 Tibetan Constitution to the Bush Institute in Dallas). The Bush precedent was not limited to the Dalai Lama. Bush also met on different occasions in the White House with other prominent Chinese religious dissidents including Uighur Muslim leader Rebiya Kadeer, Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, and several Protestant legal activists and house church pastors. Given this precedent, one would have hoped that by this point the Obama Administration would have overcome its missteps from its first year and its neglect of the Dalai Lama. Perhaps the White House might yet find time this coming week for a meeting?
Meanwhile, the second item comes from the eminent sociologist Peter Berger over at his blog "Religion and Other Curiosities." Berger provides some fascinating context for political and religious trends in China – context which highlights just how important it is that the Obama Administration support religious freedom in China. Observing a series of developments including the removal of the 31-foot tall Confucius statue from Tiananmen Square, the ascendance of a new cohort of Communist Party leaders, the scattered resurgence of accolades for Mao, and the escalating crackdown on Christians in China (both Catholics loyal to the Vatican and independent Protestants), Berger notes that Beijing appears to be retreating from its previous flirtation with a Weberian appreciation of religion’s social and economic utility, and instead embracing a renewed Maoist suspicion of religion. This is because, in Berger’s words, "modern authoritarian rulers have understood instinctively that uncontrolled religion can be a threat" and "religion most emphatically proposes that there are limits to the legitimate power of the state." After all, "violations of religious freedom frequently foreshadow other measures of tyranny. Thus Chinese Christians today may resemble canaries in a coalmine, their fate sending out an alarm." Limits, it appears, that the Chinese Communist Party fears and eschews.