Acton Commentary

Fostering Openness and Enterprise in China


Picture, if you will, a young man with a rod of bamboo more than twice his height laying across his shoulders. Hanging on each side of the rod are the bags and personal belongings of tourists from the West. The young man is assisting them make their way from a bus or taxi to their accommodations. The young man is paid for his services, and then returns with his rod to assist the next round of visitors.

This was one of many scenes witnessed by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, during his recent trip to China. It illustrated that the spirit of enterprise is alive and well in the Chinese citizen. Fr. Sirico traveled to China to meet with church leaders and assess first-hand the economic, religious, and cultural issues facing the Chinese populace. The experience left him “more convinced than ever that freer, more open trade, ultimately is what is needed to help the Chinese people.”

With the U.S. Congress holding hearings this week on whether to establish permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) with China, Representatives and Senators would do well to remember the Chinese people and how trade has helped them in recent years. For example, during his stay, Chinese contractors had been hired to provide more infrastructure to underdeveloped areas, offering those residents increased access to the technology and markets of the cities. Fr. Sirico observed Chinese workers laying the foundation for a new highway system–using only shovels and other hand-held tools. How much better for all involved it would be if modern construction tools–bulldozers, backhoes, etc.–were employed by the road-builders! The West could easily trade such products with China and in the process improve the working conditions of Chinese workers, but only if the Chinese people are allowed to continue on the path to prosperity. Fr. Sirico witnessed a smaller aspect of such an exchange, as luggage merchants on riverboats and buses received service calls on their cellular phones.

Why have China and the West not yet fully engaged in this mutually beneficial exchange? A major reason is that companies need assurance that the U.S. will not stop trade with China in the future. With the establishment of PNTR, American businesses will no longer view investment in China as risky due to political disagreements. In addition to providing more consumer options for American and Chinese citizens and encouraging more highly-skilled labor in both countries, PNTR would mean that China would begin receiving, along with the likes of construction equipment and cellular phones, the influence of economic and personal freedoms as exemplified by its American trading partners.

Those opposed to expanded Western trade with China and the country’s admittance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) usually cite the Communist regime’s crackdown on human freedoms as reason to isolate China. What these groups need to understand, however, is that trade and contact with Western ideas is essential to expanding the very freedoms now restricted. Fr. Sirico explains:

[C]hina is stepping up its efforts to privatize state industries, permit greater freedom in labor mobility and choice of occupation, and is even encouraging the private accumulation of wealth. But with economic liberalization and private wealth comes a shift of power away from the government and toward the private sector.

By necessity if not intent, the ruling class that liberalizes the economy ends up surrendering power, not just in one area but every area. (Feb. 8, 2000)

Indeed, with their upcoming decisions, Congress and the WTO have a chance to foster the ideals of freedom in China, rather than turning their backs on a billion souls yearning to breathe free. Only through openness can the free exchange of ideas take place. Pope John Paul II affirmed this notion when he stated, “the majority of the world’s nations, therefore, are experiencing a weakening of the State in its capacity to serve the common good and promote social justice and harmony. Globalization of the economy is leading to a globalization of society and culture.” (Apr. 7, 2000) It is imperative that China be exposed to more humane social structure (democracies and free-market systems) through this globalized trade if it is to progress in reforming.

Fr. Sirico’s trip offers evidence that the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and growing in China. It is now time to give that spirit a boost and watch as further freedoms spring from its success.