Pompeo defends US' moral standing to raise religious freedom concerns amid Floyd protests

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media in the Press Briefing Room at the Department of State in Washington D.C., on June 10, 2020.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media in the Press Briefing Room at the Department of State in Washington D.C., on June 10, 2020. | State Department/Ron Przysucha

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to China's accusation that the United States has “double standards” when it comes to protests, noting that the communist nation doesn't allow free speech and it imprisons religious minorities, unlike the U.S. 

A spokesperson for China's communist government denounced the U.S. for supporting Hong Kong protesters and then said the U.S. has a double standard because some police officers have used force against protesters and journalists in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Pompeo countered the argument by emphasizing that the contrast between the two countries couldn’t be “more clear.” 

In a press conference Wednesday during the rollout of the State Department’s annual international religious freedom report, Pompeo decried China’s “obscene attempts to take advantage of our domestic situation to press their political agenda.”

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“There is no equivalence between our two forms of government,” Pompeo said. “We have the rule of law; China does not. We have free speech and embrace peaceful protest. They don’t. We defend religious freedom; as I just noted, China continues its decadeslong war on faith.”

Last week, a spokesperson for China claimed that the U.S. is beautifying "violent protests" for Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China while the U.S. also “calls its own people protesting against racial discrimination ‘rioters.’”

“Why does the U.S. point fingers at the constrained law enforcement by Hong Kong police but turn a blind eye to what happens at home while using shooting and even the National Guard against the protesters?” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was quoted as saying during a press briefing last week. 

Hua Chunying, another ministry spokesperson, mocked a tweet sent out by State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus in support of the Hong Kong protests. 

Chunying responded to Ortagus’ tweet on May 30 by tweeting the phrase “I can’t breathe,” the words uttered by Floyd before he died with his neck pressed to the pavement by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day. 

In a press briefing, Chunying pointed to an article by The Guardian that cites data compiled by the investigative journalist website Bellingcat to report that there have been over 148 instances of police violence against journalists between May 26 and June 2 in the U.S. 

Given China’s record on human rights, Pompeo responded by telling reporters that the contrast between the U.S. and China “couldn’t be more clear.” 

“During the best of times, China ruthlessly imposes communism,” he said. “And amidst the most difficult challenges the United States faces, we work to secure freedom for all.”

The State Department’s 2019 international religious freedom report, a congressionally mandated document, lays out the various violations of religious freedom committed by the Chinese government against various religious communities. 

Reports have shown that there are over 1 million Muslims imprisoned in so-called re-education camps in Western China. Additionally, a yearslong crackdown on Christianity has led to arrests of churchgoers, the closure of house churches, and removal of hundreds of Christian crosses from state-sanctioned churches nationwide. 

China's regime has also committed human rights violations against the Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhists.  

The State Department has long called out China for its human rights and religious freedom abuses and China has long been listed by the State Department as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systemic and egregious violations of religious liberty. 

“The Chinese Communist Party is now ordering religious organizations to obey CCP leadership and infuse communist dogma into their teachings and practice of their faith,” Pompeo said. “The mass detentions of Uighurs in Xinjiang continues. So does the repression of Tibetans and Buddhists and Falun Gong and Christians.”

Pompeo was later asked by a reporter what position the U.S. has to raise religious freedom concerns “morally” given the increased attention to racial disparities and the use of force against protesters outside the White House in Lafayette Park on June 1. 

Pompeo called the reporter’s question “troubling.” 

“Because you ask the question assuming there is a moral equivalency between what takes place in these countries, where they repress their people and they bludgeon their people and they burn down their religious facilities, and they deny journalists ... the chance to ask a question of a secretary of state — just like the question you had. [You have] the opportunity to ask me and demand that we provide responses to you and hold us accountable,” he said. 

“Those things don’t happen in those nations [China or Iran].”

The secretary added that the U.S. is “a nation that has God-given rights ensconced in our fundamental founding documents …” He said those rights ensure that when something as “tragic and awful as what happened to George Floyd takes place, that the government responds.” 

“We saw both local law enforcement and our Department of Justice move very quickly to address the particular situation,” Pompeo said. “We’ve now seen people say, ‘Hey, we’re calling for changes in the way law enforcement works.’ It’s not my space here as the secretary of state, but you can see this debate take place in America. That doesn’t happen in nations across the world.”

During his recent trip to China, Pompeo met with survivors of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, where the Chinese government killed and wounded thousands of people. 

“In Tiananmen Square 31 years ago, when thousands of people were massacred, instead they repressed journalists, they disappeared people. It’s fundamentally different,” Pompeo added. 

This week, the online web conferencing giant Zoom faced criticism after it followed through with the Chinese government's demands to shut down the accounts and meetings of activists who held conferences related to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the protests in Hong Kong. Zoom admitted that it was contacted by the Chinese government in May and early June about four zoom meetings commemorating the massacre, activity deemed to be illegal in China.

As China's regime silences dialogue about the massacre, Pompeo said Floyd's case will be an “incredible opportunity” to tell the “important story about how America confronts challenges inside its own country in a way that reflects the finest of what our founders would have hoped America could achieve.”

“Our nation is so special and it’s the greatest nation in the history of civilization,” Pompeo said. “It’s so special that challenges like the ones that we’re confronting here in the United States today will be managed head-on, there will be a political process that’s engaged of, there will be wide-open debate, and our core principles — the fact that we respect every human being because they are made in the image of God — will be reflected in the way that the United States responds to these challenges.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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