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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Thursday, November 4, 4pm - 8pm

Despite occasional tensions between social conservatives and economic conservatives, most social and cultural goals have an economic dimension about which the two camps are generally in agreement. But now a leader of a leader of the socially conservative camp has proposed that there is an issue that pits morality and prosperity irreconcilably against one another- U.S. trade with China, a nation known for human-rights violations, and particularly for religious persecution.

Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council is demanding that the U.S. government wage economic war against China with sanctions, boycotts and embargoes. In his campaign for trade restrictions with China, Mr. Bauer and a few other conservative leaders are working hand in glove with labor unions and other left-liberal protectionists, normally die-hard opponents of the religious right.

Barricades Have Collapsed

The usual political barricades have collapsed as Mr. Bauer's comrades join forces to oppose congressional attempts to continue normal trading relations with China. In a recent letter, Mr. Bauer compares the urgency of imposing sanctions to issues such as ending slavery and defeating Hitler.

How restricting trade with China will help strengthen American family, faith, and morality is still unclear. What is clear is that Mr. Bauer finds China's treatment of Christians morally objectionable. I do, too. And he is to be commended for his efforts at raising the public's awareness of this reprehensible state of affairs. Christians are threatened, jailed, expelled, and even killed in China. Whether this occurs more of less today than in decades past is in dispute. But even one human rights violation is one too many.

That's why I, along with many others, signed an open letter from the Family Research Council to the Vice President that appeared in major newspapers. It objected to Mr. Gore's failure to emphasize China's poor human-rights record during his March visit. The letter particularly highlighted China's vicious suppression of the rights of Roman Catholics to worship in freedom. The letter said nothing about a broader trade agenda.

I would have signed a similar letter about the appalling treatment of Christians in Egypt (which receives U.S. foreign aid), Saudi Arabia (whose interests the U.S. has defended militarily), and Iraq (a country where a Kurdish convert to Christianity, Mansour Hussein Sifer, was recently martyred). Friends of freedom should oppose restrictions on worship and the right of religious speech anywhere they may appear, including the U.S.

When I signed the letter on China, however, I did not understand that it was a prologue to a full-blown political campaign that would seek to curtail commercial ties between China and the rest of the world. Mr. Bauer's position has evolved from taking a strong moral stand in favor of religious freedom to one of waging total trade war.

A charge often leveled against the Christian right is that it is not sensitive to the difference between urging certain moral ends and using government coercion to bring them about. It's usually a canard: In the case of the arts, for example, the religious right seeks not censorship but an end to taxpayer subsidies for blasphemy and obscenity. I regret having to say that this time, however, the Family Research Council has lived up to the stereotype. It is attempting to enlist government power, at the expense of everyone who benefits from American-Chinese commercial relations, thus choosing an inappropriate means to achieve a moral end.

What's more, trade sanctions would be counterproductive. Sanctions won't bring freedom for religious expression in China. They won't end China's cruel policies limiting family size. They won't stop the horrific policy of forced abortions. They won't bring about democracy. They can only further isolate the two countries from each other and close off avenues for greater degrees of Western influence.

The growth of Western businesses in China, however, would dilute the power of China's communist rulers. As commercial networks develop, Chinese business people are able to travel more freely, and Chinese believers have more disposable income with which to support evangelistic endeavors.

No one understands this better than evangelical missionaries currently working in China. Mr. Bauer's passionate campaign has elicited pleas from many of them for Congress not to cut off trade relations. It would endanger their status there, and quite possibly lead to the revocation of their visas. It would severely limit opportunities to bring in Bibles and other religious materials that make it possible for them to share the Gospel. These missionaries understand that commercial relations are a wonderfully liberating force that allow not only mutually beneficial trade but also cultural and religious exchanges. Why doesn't Mr. Bauer listen to those who know far more about China than Washington think tanks and labor unions do? “They may be too close to the situation,” he answers, somewhat flippantly.

Until recently, trade warriors have cited the case of the U.S. Bishops who have opposed renewing normal trading status with China. At the same time, however, Hong Kong's official Catholic newspaper, the Sunday Examiner, reports new contacts between Beijing and Hong Kong's Catholic hierarchy. These contacts are a major step towards an official recognition of the Catholic Church on the mainland.

To The Good

This would be all to the good. Diplomacy and international trade strengthens people's loyalties to each other and weakens government power. It is indisputable that Beijing has shown itself to be supremely interested in fostering prosperity at home. Christians must take advantage of this impulse, rather than recklessly treating China as a monster that must be slain.

This need not be an issue that divides social conservatives from economic conservatives. Economic prosperity through free trade is the most effective distributor of wealth and power, and trade with China is the surest way to break the grip of centralized political power. Religious conservatives should broaden their focus beyond purely social and cultural issues. Mr. Bauer and his supporters are right to decry the immoral treatment of believers in China. But allowing themselves to be used by protectionist and labor lobbies is an imprudent approach. Just as religious freedom offers the best hope for Christian social influence, economic freedom is the best hope for spreading that influence around the world.