In his office at the State Department, Sam Brownback looks on as the wall clock closes in on 5 p.m. — and loosens his tie.
“Close enough, right?” he said, drinking from a coffee mug splattered with faded photographs of himself and his wife, Mary.
The U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom could be excused for the leisurely moment after returning from a whirlwind trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong, where he taunted China by saying its communist government is in a religious war that it is sure to lose.
International condemnation has risen since late last year when the Chinese government partially acknowledged the existence of internment facilities in northwest Xinjiang province as “vocational training” schools, housing up to nearly 1 million Uighur Muslims.
Mr. Brownback, a former Kansas governor and U.S. senator, said condemnation hasn’t increased quickly enough. Leaders of traditional Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went on Chinese television to defend the camps, have felt tied to the Asian giant’s finances, he said.
Even the U.S., entrenched in a tit-for-tat trade war with China, has been selective in choosing which fights to have and when with the Asian superpower.
But the ambassador, far from his Kansan roots, feels comfortable with support in the American heartland for President Trump’s retaliatory approach to China.
“My family farms,” Mr. Brownback said. “And soybean prices have not been good. When I talk with my parents about this, they don’t like what is happening in the trade war to them … but they believe in religious freedom, and they think that we ought to stand up for people of faith around the world who want to practice their faith freely.
“Honestly, if the U.S. doesn’t stand up, there’s not hardly anybody else in the world that will,” he said.
During his trip to Asia this month, Mr. Brownback gave speeches in Taiwan and Hong Kong railing against state-sponsored religious persecution carried out by China’s ruling Communist Party. He remarked dryly that he was surprised the Chinese didn’t revoke his visa.
But his most strident criticism targeted the imprisonment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
“It’s the future of repression,” Mr. Brownback said in his office at Foggy Bottom. He called China’s use of facial recognition software, artificial intelligence and social credit scores a “large-scale” system of surveillance and persecution. “If the Chinese perfect it, they’re likely to sell it to other authoritarian regimes.”
Since 2016, the Chinese government has escalated a campaign to subdue Uighur Muslim culture across the rural, resource-rich northwestern province that shares a border with Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
The campaign, after sporadic violent attacks against Han Chinese over the past decade, has been waged under the guise of anti-extremism and has been headed by provincial secretary Chen Quanguo, who earned his reputation from strengthening state control over Buddhists in the Tibetan province.
Bipartisan bills have been introduced in Congress calling for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to invoke the Global Magnitsky Act to impose economic sanctions on Chinese officials, including Mr. Quanguo, now a member of the Chinese Politburo.
In his interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Brownback stayed quiet about possible timelines for such government actions and turned the conversation to the struggle between “open and closed societies. He noted that China’s regulation of religion has moved from the government to the Communist Party, which is officially atheist.
“It’s this second play that they feel was largely successful in Tibet,” said Mr. Brownback, naming Mr. Quanguo. “If you really want to get at the core of a people, you go at the religion. That’s what holds the people together.”
Mr. Brownback cited news reports that say the Chinese Communist Party has issued stringent anti-Muslim measures, including banning the name Muhammad, outlawing fasting during Ramadan and surveilling mosques. Part of what he calls the Chinese “scaling up” are the vast re-education camps. The one in Dabancheng, which can hold at least 11,000 people, is considered one of the largest detention facilities in the world.
“It’s very sinister,” the ambassador said.
‘A very faith-oriented country’
The former Kansas politician has a long history of supporting religious freedom. In the Senate in the late 1990s, he backed legislation that led to the creation of ambassador at large for international religious freedom within the State Department. He also has been a staunch Christian advocate and social conservative, which some liberal critics have said is inconsistent with his job as a nonsectarian ombudsman for global tolerance.
In 2012, as Kansas governor, Mr. Brownback signed legislation that was largely condemned by Muslim groups, who dubbed it a “Shariah bill.” The law, which never mentioned the word “Shariah,” forbade judges in Kansas from considering foreign laws over the U.S. Constitution. Muslim groups said the law was enacted as a mere overreaction by the Kansas Legislature to public fear that strict Islamic practices were seeping into the U.S. legal system.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said at the time that Mr. Brownback was pandering to “Islam-phobia.”
Today, Mr. Brownback sounds like a man who has moved beyond those debates as he speaks out against China’s crackdown on Muslim practices such as wearing beards and reading the Quran.
The ambassador said the defense of religious liberty around the globe appears to have a “domestic propellant.”
“I was having this issue raised to me as a senator, when I was in Smith Center, Kansas, which is about 10 miles from the geographic center of the Lower 48. It’s literally middle America, and they’re asking me about religious freedom cases in Russia,” Mr. Brownback said. “One of the guys there was a dentist and had been a missionary in far eastern Russia and maintained contact in the region, and they’d tell them what was happening.”
For many Christian pastors in the heartland, religious liberty is a “top portfolio” issue, he said.
“They believe the U.S. should stand up for people who are persecuted because of faith,” he said. “This is a very faith-oriented country. Not everybody, but people here are very sincere about it, and they believe we should stand up and fight about it.”
The ambassador said America’s democratic values and Western ideals are inextricably linked to U.S. economic policy. He pointed to the fight last fall over Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, a U.S. citizen detained by Turkey’s government. After exhausting diplomatic means, Mr. Trump took a harder tack, Mr. Brownback said.
“Finally, the president put steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey, dropped their currency to a record low and made Brunson the most expensive prisoner in the world,” he said.
Turkish authorities released Mr. Brunson in October and returned him to the U.S.
Mr. Brownback is optimistic that a similar tack can be effective with the Uighur Muslim detainment in China.
“I think everybody’s hopeful that China would say, ‘We shouldn’t be [operating] internment camps’ — whatever we, they, want to call them — ‘we shouldn’t be running those, and we’re going to shut them down,’ and they’d open up to religious freedom,” he said. “But if they don’t, then it puts other series of things that people would look at in more consideration.”