The spiritual and religious factor of Taiwan in Sino-American strategic relations is not often discussed by those trained in a realist approach to international politics. However, in the case of the United States and China, including Taiwan, there has long been a spiritual and religious element in the relationship. From the early 1830s until their expulsion following the Korean War, there were altogether several thousand American Christian missionaries and their families in China who spread the gospel and built churches, schools, and hospitals. In this capacity, they established close personal, secular, and religious relationships with many Chinese, more than a few of whom attained positions of influence. American missionaries played a key role in U.S.-China relations as interpreters, intermediaries, and educators. Many of the “China hands” who filled official positions for the United States in its modern relationship with both China and Taiwan were children of missionaries. 

The largest Protestant missionary groups on the mainland included the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions, the American Presbyterian Mission, and the China Inland Mission. Many American Catholics also went to China as missionaries following World War I. In 2010, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life estimated there were over 67 million Christians in China. On Taiwan, the largest Christian missionary groups have been Catholic and Presbyterian, with several other American churches sending missionaries after the Korean War, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, was a Christian, as well as ROC presidents Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, and Lee Teng-hui. Today, there are roughly a million Christians on Taiwan.

On both China and Taiwan, American missionaries focused on converting people to Christianity as well as on ministering to the needs of the people, especially in the areas of education and healthcare. Also on both China and Taiwan, American missionaries often found stiff opposition to their efforts. However, the level of violence historically brought to bear against the missionaries was far greater in China (for example, the Boxer movement) than on Taiwan.

Today, religious persecution by the government is rare in Taiwan but widely experienced in China. For example, the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 noted that on Taiwan the primary issue was local Taiwanese Buddhist resistance to Tibetan Buddhist missionaries because local Buddhist organizations believed the Tibetan beliefs were not true Buddhism. In China, on the other hand, the government routinely tortures, detains, and imprisons thousands for practicing their religious beliefs. The PRC has been cited since 1999 as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Among the most severely prosecuted by Chinese authorities have been Falun Gong members, and the Uighur Muslim and Tibetan Buddhists communities. During the past several months, there has been a growing number of reports of harassment and abuse of South Korean Christian missionaries and Chinese Christian churches and communities. These are considered to be part of a campaign by the CPC to tighten its control of religious groups. The CPC is officially atheist, prohibiting its members from holding religious beliefs and demanding the expulsion of party members who belong to religious organizations. Scores of incidents of religious persecution by Chinese authorities are cited in the 2017 State Department report.

The fact that on Taiwan there is widespread religious freedom, while on mainland China there is widespread religious persecution, creates a moral dimension to the Taiwan issue in Sino-American relations. According to the Pew’s Religion & Public Life Survey of 2015, more than 75% of Americans identify with some religion and over 70% of Americans consider themselves as being Christian. This means that in the eyes of most Americans, there can be no moral equivalency of Taiwan and China in terms of respect for a person’s freedom of religion. A quick review of many 2018 articles and reports on China’s “war on Christianity,” as some have called it, suggests a considerable hardening of American public opinion about China. In terms of Sino-American strategic relations, there may be a strong moral, religious, and spiritual element of U.S. support for Taiwan that would make Washington concessions to Beijing on the Taiwan issue very difficult and unlikely.