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Interview

US fears for Hong Kong's religious freedom under security law

China has a track record of limiting rights everywhere, Ambassador Sam Brownback says

Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. (File photo by Reuters)

WASHINGTON -- China's new national security legislation could be used to crush religious freedom in Hong Kong, said Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, in a Nikkei interview.

"The people of Hong Kong, to date, have had a very open religious-freedom society," said Brownback, a close ally of Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "They are guaranteed that in the British-Sino agreement that handed over Hong Kong to China, and they're guaranteed that for 50 years and it hasn't been 50 years yet" since 1997, when the U.K. returned the city under the 1984 Joint Declaration.

Brownback, who is in charge of promoting freedom of religion for the U.S. State Department, spoke with Nikkei on Wednesday, the day the department released its annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

He expressed "deep concern" over the plight of the Uighurs under the Chinese Communist Party.

Brownback criticized Chen Quanguo, the party secretary in charge of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, for putting a "virtual police state in place" there.

"They're trying to remove Islam from the Uighur people," he said.

"There is just deep concern about the actions that have taken place, throughout China, and specifically in Xinjiang and Tibet," Brownback said. He would not rule out or preview possible sanctions on Chen and others involved in religious oppression.

"By their actions, the Chinese government has limited these rights in virtually every other place in China," Brownback said, and "it doesn't seem to be much of a stretch to think that they would do similar things in Hong Kong now."

Hong Kong protesters hold East Turkestan Uyghur flags at a rally in support of Xinjiang Uighurs' human rights in Hong Kong in December 2019.

The ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom promotes religious freedom around the world. Before assuming the role in February 2018, Brownback had served in numerous national and state positions, including U.S. senator and governor of Kansas.

His reiteration of a firm stance on Hong Kong and the Uighurs -- two issues on which Chinese President Xi Jinping is unwilling to compromise -- could heighten Sino-American tensions.

On the new national security legislation that paves the way for China to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, Brownback said it "looks as if it has the potential to significantly undermine religious freedom."

The law could be used to undermine religious activities by categorizing them as acts aimed at separating Hong Kong from the mainland or overthrowing the central government, for example.

The U.S. has accused the Chinese Communist Party of banning Bible sales and demolishing churches on the mainland. Brownback said there have not been reports of religious freedom suffering in Hong Kong so far but expressed concern that mainland-style repression could come to the city, especially with Pompeo recently saying the "one country, two systems" principle is no longer operative there.

In May, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the violating Uighurs' human rights. President Donald Trump is expected to sign it soon, according to media reports. The bill names Chen as one of the senior Communist Party officials responsible for "gross human rights violations" in Xinjiang.

Brownback's comments suggest that Washington could swiftly move to punish Chen as soon as the bill becomes law. Sanctions on Chen, a member of the Politburo, could further worsen bilateral relations. China has long denied any oppression of the Uighurs.

Brownback also expressed worries that China's high-tech public-monitoring system, believed to be under construction, could be used to undermine the freedoms of its people.

"I'm very concerned about the misuse of technology for religious oppression purposes," he said, after acknowledging that the coronavirus pandemic could push China further toward a surveillance society and promote exports of the system.

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