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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Thursday, November 4, 4pm - 8pm

I recently traveled to China with a suitcase filled with 1,000 rosaries, a variety of vestments that once hung in our sacristy, holy cards and religious medals, three Chinese versions of the Catholic Catechism and a variety of purchases from the local pharmacy. I left with only wonderful memories of people who are working to achieve the dream of practicing their religion in a social framework of peace, prosperity and freedom.

Returning home, I find Congress is intensely debating whether China should be granted permanent normal trade relations status, and the House has approved the legislation. I also discover that religion is playing a key role in the debate. For the sake of the dream of the Chinese people, the answer is yes. Trade creates ever more opportunities for our cultures and people to engage each other, an essential prerequisite for the promotion of human rights.

A number of religious groups have come out against continuing normal trade relations with China, on grounds that the Chinese government routinely violates the human right to religious liberty. They are obviously right about the first part of their contention. But there are practical and moral reasons to dissent from the judgment of what to do about it.

These groups have overlooked that isolation would lead to the violation of more human rights in China. Moreover, the Chinese people have a human right to trade their wares, pursue free enterprise and share in the growth of world prosperity. Why punish the people because of the misdeeds of their government?

Now, it is not often that the opinion of religious leaders holds the prospect of fundamentally altering the outcome of a debate over an issue of international economic policy. But in the case of trade with China, religious leaders have been among the predominant critics of granting permanent open trade status. This makes them useful fronts for domestic protectionist groups, such as labor unions and textile manufacturers, who are anxious to guard their competitive economic position from outside pressure.

There are also crucial issues concerning the right to religious liberty in China. In the last year, the central Chinese government has demonstrated its willingness to shut down whole bodies of religious faith insofar as the state disapproves of their possible political effects. Household churches, Falun Gong, aging Catholic bishops and Tibetan Buddhists are all perceived as threats, and so their members are being harassed and, often, treated in appalling ways.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a multifaith group, believes this is enough reason to deny China permanent normal trade relations. In effect, the group is treating the condition of free trade as a merit reward for good behavior. But if that is so, what are the standards we are going to use? It is enough that a government does not shut down any religion with more than 10,000 members or does every trading country need the equivalent of a First Amendment? This issue can be difficult to sort out, since nearly every country in the world harbors some type of official religious discrimination.

Now, it is true that China is worse than most (though not as bad as many Arab countries) in their treatment of Christianity. The real trouble here is the assumption that the right to trade, which is also a human right, should be conditioned on whether a government is sufficiently protective of the rights of religious minorities. This kind of principle can quickly backfire.

If China is more isolated economically, hard-liners will be given greater opportunities to demagogue against nonexistent foreign threats to their well being. Thirty years of sanctions haven't helped Catholics in Cuba, and neither will trade sanctions help the Falun Gong in China.

Other religious groups have made slightly more subtle points. They have assured us that they still desire China's economic advancement in the global economy but argue the United States needs to retain an annual review of China's compliance with human-rights norms. Permanent trade status would presumably remove that ability to monitor and punish human rights.

But this is not true. Permanent status permits China's burgeoning entrepreneurial class to plan its business affairs on the presumption that its contracts will be enforceable in the future, that it can make investments for the long term and that its capital structure won't suddenly be made worthless by a change of political whim. Permanent status also makes the monitoring of human rights easier, since groups can develop large and more secure networks of contacts in all sectors of Chinese society A country that is more fully integrated into the world economy is more transparent to outside observation.

It is difficult to see how an annual threat of sanctions –the current status – has done anything for human rights in China. The groups readily admit that human rights abuses in China have increased during the period of annual review.

Some religious groups have conceded that trade issues are often not the best means of expressing concern on human rights. Indeed, the quickest way to shut off cultural and religious exchange with China is to constantly threatened to disengage our countries' economies.

What tyrants fear more than anything is the light of exposure to the world. So long as the Chinese leadership believes it will benefit from permanent trade relations –when in fact the partisans of all-round freedom will benefit far more – religious people should exploit it for all it's worth. We need more, not fewer, Westerners bringing rosaries, Bibles and money to the Chinese people.