In recent years, a US President's visit to China has followed a pattern: urged before his trip to demand progress on human rights, then making a broad statement of support for religious liberty, but stopping short of applying much direct pressure, drawing the disappointment of activists. That's not to say any more realistically could be done, given the powerful position of China in the world. Still, as most practicing Christians in China are forced to worship in secret, it's hard not to wish for more attention to be drawn to a country (the most populous of the world) that pays little more than lip service to the idea of religious freedom, and the freedom of speech.
So, routine as it may have become, it was nice to hear President Obama acknowledge a higher standard in his remarks with Chinese President Hu in Beijing early this morning. Importantly, Obama emphasized that the freedom of religion is bigger than simply an American value.
We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship — of access to information and political participation — we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities — whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation. Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future.
A nation like China may never grow to accept the value of true religious freedom, but that's no reason to stop touting and demonstrating its value. It's all the more important that we continue to set a strong example that highlights our national commitment to preserving religious diversity, and insisting that our government never use its power to promote or impede religious expression.