China’s Communist leaders believe they can exploit the recent assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and use it as a tool to blunt anti-communist sentiment in Japan and marginalize Abe’s allies, such as the Unification Church, according to a former high-level U.S. official and renowned China specialist.
Michael Pillsbury, the Mandarin-speaking analyst who has advised nearly every U.S. president since Richard Nixon, told an international conference in South Korea on Friday that Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Japanese Communist Party both believe they can use the Abe assassination — and the gunman’s claimed grievances with the Unification Church — to smear the church’s reputation, denigrate Abe’s legacy, and compromise religious freedom in Japan and across the region.
Mr. Pillsbury and numerous other prominent U.S. political and religious figures spoke at Friday’s event, which centered on threats to religious freedom around the world, including those posed by communist forces in Asia. The aftermath of Abe’s assassination at a campaign rally this summer has proven a continuing political controversy for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
“Xi Jinping wants to exploit Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tragic assassination on July 8 and demonize Abe’s allies, including the Unification Church and the Liberal Democratic Party, especially the Abe faction,” Mr. Pillsbury said.
“It is obvious why China also wants to undermine the memory of Abe: He was the most anti-Chinese Communist Party prime minister in Japanese history,” he said. “The Japanese Communist Party not only attacks the Abe wing of the LDP but also the work of the Unification Church in Japan and around the world. China attacks the Unification Church at the same time it attacks everything Abe worked for.”
The gunman who shot Abe — the longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japanese history — said he acted out of personal grievance. He said his family’s fortunes were ruined because his mother made large monetary donations to the church in the early 2000s, and he reportedly targeted the former prime minister for having appeared at Unification Church events in Japan.
Church leaders have cooperated with the investigation and said they moved to reform donation and solicitation practices more than a decade ago. But the Kishida government has been under pressure to do more in recent days as its popularity has fallen.
Abe’s killing and subsequent reports of extensive ties between the church and senior LDP figures sparked some calls for the Japanese government to crack down on the church’s operations in Japan — calls that have been amplified by communist voices both inside and outside the country.
China’s ‘virtual police state’
Mr. Pillsbury made his remarks at the Second Conference of Hope for Universal Human Rights and Religious Freedom, an event organized by the Washington Times Foundation, Universal Peace Federation and the International Association of Parliamentarians for Peace. The gathering, which was live-streamed from South Korea to an audience of millions around the world, cast a light on the growing threats to religious freedom abroad, particularly from countries such as China that have shown an outright hostility to people of faith.
Former Secretary of State and potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate Mike Pompeo, for example, tied recent protests in China over the government’s harsh “zero-COVID” policies to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) broader desire to stamp out freedom of religion and expression among its people.
“Fundamentally, these protests are about freedom. The CCP’s consistent actions over the years and its response to these protests are about securing its permanent control and authority,” Mr. Pompeo said.
“While the communist regime may now claim to be lifting some of its zero-COVID policies, the greater fight remains. You can be sure that its tactics of censorship and brutal oppression will remain,” he said.
Unlike communist regimes of the past, the government in Beijing has unique 21st-century tools at its disposal. The ability to track and monitor citizens’ every move allows for a systematic repression of religion to an extent never seen before, according to Sam Brownback, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Chinese leaders, he said, “have created this virtual police state” consisting of cameras, facial-recognition software, cell phone tracking, and other tools that offer the communist government new powers to crack down on religious freedom.
“The control factors that these sort of virtual police states all woven together can create for a communist country like China that’s big in technology and has a strong economy is devastating on people of faith, the very people that actually could stand up to a ruthless regime,” Mr. Brownback said.
Fallout in Japan
But the threat to religious freedom abroad certainly doesn’t end with China, numerous speakers said Friday evening. Even longstanding U.S. allies such as Japan are susceptible to political movements that can blame a particular religious group, organization or church for tragic acts of violence.
Such appears to be the case in some corners of Japan, where the Japanese Communist Party has targeted the Unification Church in the aftermath of Abe’s death. The gunman’s apparent animosity toward the church — including his claim that his mother’s monetary gifts largely bankrupted their family — has led critics to call for deeper investigations into the church, its political influence and its fundraising practices.
Earlier this month, Japan’s parliament even enacted a new law aimed at restricting religious groups’ donation solicitations, a move that appears to directly target the Unification Church.
Church members, meanwhile, said they’re experiencing their own blowback. They say they’ve faced harassment, and some say they have even received death threats in the months since Abe’s killing.
“Even democratic states can fall short, sometimes allowing political passions to overwhelm legal safeguards and basic justice,” said Doug Bandow, a senior fellow specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties with Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, saying Japan’s Communist Party was “perversely using the tragic assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attack the Unification Church for its work against communism.”
“Americans and others of goodwill should do what they can to support believers. Democratic governments should include religious liberty in their efforts to advance human rights,” he said at Friday’s event. “There is no more important freedom than seeking to understand one’s role in the grand pageant of life and relationship to the world beyond.”
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich went even further, saying that the attacks on Abe and the LDP “are designed to hurt the Abe legacy, to weaken the LDP, to drive a wedge between the United States and Japan.”
“All this would serve to open the door for China’s encroachment on Taiwan and the continued spread of communism,” the onetime Georgia lawmaker said, sketching out the potential geopolitical consequences if China and communist forces across the region are successful in that effort.
Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Pompeo and other speakers at Friday’s event highlighted the work of the ardent anti-communist fighter the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who founded the Unification Church in 1954.
Rev. Moon’s wife, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, has headed the Unification movement since Rev. Moon died in 2012. Together, the two devoted their lives to reunifying the Korean Peninsula and promoting world peace. They founded The Washington Times in 1982.
“Dr. Moon and her husband have been an unwavering force against communism, which denies God and oppresses the faithful,” Mr. Pompeo said.