(Open Doors) — Weeks before the extremist takeover in Afghanistan, a diplomatic meeting between Chinese leaders and the Taliban sent a clear and ominous message: An established authoritarian state is poised to sponsor an emerging one.
The world cares about the scene unfolding in Afghanistan because we have watched it happen. We saw the crowds of people clinging to planes, desperate to escape the oppressive incoming regime. Like other totalitarians, the Taliban is driven to paint a public picture of hope and progress while hiding its catastrophes and censoring its dissenters.
China’s Communist Party knows how to spot a good geopolitical opportunity. Its leadership is seeking to build warm relations with the Taliban in order to centralize its power in a volatile region while gaining access to the natural resources it needs to expand its footprint. In return, the Taliban benefits not only from China’s authoritarian model, but also from its economic investments.
Their alliance is more than a threat to democracy; it’s a human rights crisis that can threaten global religious freedom. China is a known violator, using surveillance technology to identify, censor and punish religious and political dissidents. More than a million Uyghurs are detained in Chinese concentration camps without criminal charges. Though any perceived threat to the CCP authority is suppressed, religious minorities are especially at risk. Churches are regularly raided or coerced into ideological compliance, their members forced to choose between practicing faith openly or fleeing the country.
The CCP has earned its reputation as an opponent of religious freedom, and it’s looking for a chance to counter that narrative without conceding any power. By paying the religiously motivated Taliban, the CCP can purchase both the press and the power to expand its reach.
Though the Taliban’s persecution tactics are more violent than China’s, the message is identical: submit, leave or die. Open Doors USA, the organization I lead, ranked Afghanistan as the second-worst persecutor of Christians in the world before the Taliban takeover. If the country’s rights violations were trumped only by North Korea, then one can only imagine their severity now and in the future — especially if paired with the sophistication of the Chinese model.
Wherever an authority enforces total allegiance to one prevailing ideology, people suffer. The China-Taliban alliance incentivizes mass persecution.
In return for China’s good graces, the Taliban already discontinued its support of Uyghur separatists. It’s eager to accept the infrastructure investment of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, offering its benefactor a clear path to Iran and plentiful access to essential elements for technology supply chains. Both assets enable the Chinese regime to expand its authoritarian influence — and the reach of its human rights violations — along the way.
The Afghan people are no strangers to oppression. But in order to establish a free and independent state, they need infrastructure, education and, most importantly, rights protections. While China and the Taliban can build the infrastructure, neither can establish the other two.
We are being given a rare glimpse of the immeasurable human cost incurred when authoritarianism is allowed to spread unimpeded. That’s why we cannot dismiss the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan as merely unintended consequences of a noble-minded mission.
In vulnerable countries, the practice of faith is often the first freedom to go. The CCP knows this, and they smell blood in the water. The U.S. must advocate for a stable and free Afghanistan, which means we must wake up to the ways authoritarian countries such as China are seeking to exploit this situation. In the deal between the CCP and the Taliban, the biggest loser may be religious freedom.
(David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which advocates on behalf of those who are persecuted for their Christian faith. Follow on Twitter @OpenDoors. For more than 60 years, Open Doors USA has worked in the world’s most oppressive and restrictive countries for Christians. Open Doors works to equip and encourage Christians living in dangerous circumstances with the threat of persecution and equips the Western church to advocate for the persecuted. Christians are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world and are oppressed in at least 60 countries. For more information, visit OpenDoorsUSA.org.)