Jeffrey Sachs and the Vatican: Silent on China’s Rights Abuses

It remains unclear whether Sachs’ approach to China has had a direct influence on the Holy See’s own dealings with Beijing.

Jeffrey Sachs, Professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, attends the second day of an international summit of Mayors on "Modern Slavery and Climate Change" on July 21, 2015 at the Vatican.
Jeffrey Sachs, Professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, attends the second day of an international summit of Mayors on "Modern Slavery and Climate Change" on July 21, 2015 at the Vatican. (photo: Tiziana Fabi / Getty)

VATICAN CITY — The Chinese government continues to be heavily criticized for its treatment of the Uyghurs, an ethnic Muslim minority in the country’s northwest, while the Vatican remains publicly silent — along with one of its influential longtime advisers. 

A Human Rights Watch report released Monday, titled “Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots — China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims,” declared that the Chinese communist government is committing “crimes against humanity” against the ethnic minority. 

The regime operates hundreds of detention camps in the Uyghur province of Xinjiang, the report said, and former detainees have reported systemic torture and sexual assault in the camps. It also documented abuses and restrictions on religious and cultural practices that have reached “unprecedented levels.” 

But while many, including the Biden administration, are condemning these atrocities and other Chinese government human rights transgressions, including ongoing reports of persecution of Catholics as well as human rights abuses in Hong Kong, the Vatican has remained publicly silent. 

Asked about this approach last month, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for the Vatican’s Relations With States, told America magazine that the Holy See “does not have a policy, a diplomatic policy, of denunciation almost anywhere in the world, and there are human rights abuses in many, many countries.” 

He went on to explain that the Holy See is trying to work with the Chinese to “resolve the difficulties we have in the appointment of bishops, and that is all it is about.” 

Archbishop Gallagher added that he and his colleagues “consistently try to argue for normalization of relations between the Catholic Church and the Chinese authorities, but we realize that this is a very long-term objective.” 

But the absence of any comment or reaction may also be partly influenced by some of the advice the Holy See is receiving from external advisers. One of them is professor Jeffrey Sachs, a regular speaker at the Vatican on sustainable development and climate change, who has long been an apologist and zealous defender of the Chinese Communist Party while remaining silent about its human rights abuses. 

A population control advocate whom for well over a decade the Vatican has regularly relied upon as an expert on the environment and other global issues, Sachs has frequently urged cooperation with the communist regime, seeing advantages of engagement and dialogue over hawkish, confrontational diplomacy which he has often derided. 

The Columbia University economics professor, who advises both the U.N. and the Holy See on the environment, warned last August against escalating tensions with the People’s Republic and in 2019 took himself off Twitter after comments he made defending the Chinese tech giant Huawei caused a media storm (Sachs continues to be a supporter of the company, which critics say is a tool for Chinese espionage). 

Meanwhile, he has dismissed the human rights atrocities against the Uyghurs as “propaganda” against the Chinese government but backtracked in 2018, tweeting he was “trying to understand” the situation.

In more recent articles, Sachs has continued to promote a diplomatic approach to the Communist regime similar to the Holy See — one that is silent about Beijing’s human rights violations while arguing for cooperation. According to Yuichiro Kakutani, writing in The Washington Free Beacon last November, Sachs has maintained “a long relationship with the Chinese government and business elite, which can be traced back to at least the early 2000s.”

But his approach has lately drawn criticism — also from his allies. In a March 4 article headlined “Jeffrey Sachs: Xi Propagandist,” The Globalist website, which would normally be sympathetic to his views, censured Sachs for taking an uncritical, hagiographical approach to China’s President Xi Jinping. 

Referring to a Feb. 25 article that Sachs had written urging the U.S. to cooperate with China, the article’s authors, Stephan Richter and J.D. Bindenagel, criticized him for persistently failing to question the veracity of President Xi’s statements. 

“Jeff Sachs has done much to frame and popularize the language and thinking to push a sustainable development agenda on the world stage,” they wrote “That is an achievement in which he can rightfully take considerable pride. But that should not mean turning oneself effectively into a China — or rather: Xi Jinping — propagandist.”

Sachs’ close ties with China were again evident last week when he scolded the BBC on one of its news programs for focusing on China’s human rights abuses while ignoring those of the United States. 

“What about America's human rights abuses?” he asked in a heated exchange, and offered examples such as the Iraq War, sanctions against Venezuela, leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, and “massive racism, white supremacism” in the U.S. 

Chinese Communist Party-controlled media quickly jumped on his comments: The Global Times, the CCP’s English language newspaper, tweeted that the BBC was “caught red-handed” and that Sachs had “slammed” the broadcaster for “ignoring Western human rights abuses.” But they failed to report on the response of Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights activist who has suffered detention and torture at the hands of Beijing, who said during the BBC program that Sachs was using “exactly the Communist Party’s narrative strategy” that was “really misleading” and “political ‘whataboutism.’” 

Western human rights abuses, he said, are not the equivalent of “detaining millions of Uyghurs, not killing a whole people,” Biao said. 

The author of several books and recipient of many awards, Sachs is regarded as the chief architect of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — 17 points for a sustainable future specifying 169 targets to be reached by 2030 including objectives involving more accessible contraception and abortion under the term “reproductive health.” 

He has worked with George Soros and Bill and Melinda Gates, the strongly pro-abortion and pro-contraception billionaire philanthropists, and has been a supporter of the former presidential candidate and socialist Bernie Sanders. At the same time he has been a bitter and vociferous opponent of former President Donald Trump, and throughout last year’s presidential campaign he appeared on Chinese state media to blast U.S. foreign policy as a “crusade against China.” 

Whether Sachs’ approach to China has had a direct influence on the Holy See’s own dealings with Beijing is unclear, but he is reportedly “an unabashed Francis fan,” according to the National Catholic Reporter He visits the Vatican “as often as twice a month to consult with the Pontifical Academy of Science and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences” where he has a kindred spirit in Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the academies’ chancellor. 

The Argentinian prelate, who famously said in 2018 he believed China was the best implementer of the Church’s social doctrine, showed visible approval of a speech Sachs made last year at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences during which Sachs ignored China’s human rights abuses while excoriating the Trump administration.

Sachs continues to be heavily involved in Vatican affairs. 

Last November, the Keynesian economist, who believes in high government spending serviced by large fiscal debt, was a keynote speaker at the Economy of Francesco conference that aimed to make economies more inclusive. 

In December he took part in a Vatican Youth Symposium hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that launched a collaboration between Pope Francis’ Global Compact on Education initiative and Mission 4.7, a U.N.-backed advisory group aimed at accelerating achievement of the SDGs. 

The Register contacted Sachs for comment for this article but so far he has not responded.