Sanctions wouldn't help reduce religious persecution in China

Sanctions wouldn't help reduce religious persecution in China

Religious activists have recently drawn attention to the plight of persecuted religious minorities around the world, particularly Christians in China. Many of these activists also insist that trade sanctions against foreign governments, including a denial of most favored nation (MFN) trade status to China, are the best means for curbing and punishing persecution. They insist that such sanctions would give U.S. foreign policy a moral center it has lacked since the end of the Cold War.

No doubt these activists, and the legislation they advocate, are well-intentioned. And President Clinton's trip to China has given them another occasion to advance their arguments. But by attempting to curb trade rather than extend it, they overlook two key points. First, the right to international economic initiative and thereby build a prosperous future, which is what trade is all about, is not contradictory to human rights but instead is an essential dimension of them. Second, using threats and sanctions to punish foreign governments has not usually contributed to the causes of human rights but to even more rights violations.

China's dramatic economic transformation, one of the most remarkable in history has occurred since the West, through the diplomacy of Richard Nixon, began to follow a path of openness rather than ostracism. This brilliant diplomatic step was designed to drive a wedge between Russia and China, bus it eventually led to MFN status in 1980, which in turn permitted an influx of American missionaries and encouraged economic liberalization.

Economic exchange, within China and with the rest of the world, is helping to strengthen this civil sector. It is creating pockets of independent wealth that allow people to separate themselves from material dependence on the state. This is especially important to churches, which have to depend, to a great extent, on the charitable sector to flourish. From conversations with missionaries and Christian business people, it is clear there is a struggle taking place between the growing civil society made up of churches, business associations and local governments over and against the state-sector bureaucracy.

There is no guarantee that either trade or trade sanctions will make for a free China. But the dissemination of technologies like phone systems, computers and the Internet allow dissident religious groups to be in contact wish each other and with other groups around the world, and thereby draw attention to the plight of those persecuted for their beliefs.

The rise of a Chinese entrepreneurial class has even helped mitigate population control measures like forced abortion. In rural areas, according to New York Times reporter Seth Faison, larger families are becoming more common because people can afford children for the first time in many years. Meanwhile, people have new wealth, which allows them to pay off local enforcers, and local government would rather have the money than obey central government edicts.

Many problems remain, and I don't doubt the authenticity of horror stories that the advocates of sanctions relate. Everyone is in their debt for drawing the world's attention to them. But in all my travels and my meetings with average people and political dissidents, never once has a persecuted Christian intimated to me that sanctions are the answer. Quite the opposite. These people desire more contact with U.S. business, American consumers and missionaries from around the world. They understand, unlike some activists in the United States, that their plight will be mitigated by more contact and trade, not less.

It is understandable that Americans do not want to see their tax dollars used to back regimes that are unfriendly to their core values. Neither should American firms doing business in China avert their eyes from violations of human rights. Rather they should serve as advocates for greater freedom. But denying China most favored nation status would do more than end special loan deals and campaign finance capers.

Judging from their rhetoric, the backers of sanctions would like to see countries like China treated as Cuba is now: a complete embargo. What would this accomplish? In Cuba's case, isolation kept the Roman Catholic Church on the margins, and Fidel Castro even refused to make Christmas a holiday until the Vatican reached out to Cuban leaders and arranged a visit for the pope.

In countries where religious minorities are treated poorly, Americans face a choice. We can erect wall that shuts out our influence. Or we can keep the door open, using moral suasion, commerce and diplomatic ties to encourage and extend the process of reform. A policy of peace and trade stands the best chance to promote a wider range of freedoms and actually holds out the prospect for making the right kind of difference by placing morality and common sense at the center of our foreign policy.