New Human Rights Lobby Emerges

China’s security police were busy during Holy Week stepping up their eighteen-month long siege against Christians who worship outside the aegis of government-sanctioned churches. During the Easter Vigil, they raided and ransacked the residence of a Jesuit priest in Shanghai. A few days before they had done the same to the elderly Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang, S.J., the underground Catholic Coadjutor of Shanghai. Fan has already served twenty-five years in China’s laogai or gulag; this time they only confiscated his Bible, catechism, code of canon law, and his diocese’s meager treasury.

Earlier in the week, they had struck a hard blow against the Protestant evangelical underground. Eight leaders of three of the largest evangelical house-churches had been arrested and jailed. Among them was Peter Xu, possibly the most important independent Protestant leader in China and the founder of the enormous New Birth house-church network, reported to have four million members.

The Easter time attacks occurred against a backdrop over the last year of hundreds of closings of house-churches and shrine desecrations, the arrests of four Catholic bishops, and the beating deaths, by police, of at least four Christians, including a priest. They are the latest examples of what the underground Catholic and Protestant churches in China are saying is the most intense repression since the catastrophic Cultural Revolution.

Gore Toasts China

It was in this context that Vice President Al Gore traveled to China the week before Easter. He is the highest-ranking American official to go to China since the massacre at Tiananmen Square eight years ago.

It was startling then that the vice president failed to make any public mention of religious freedom during his trip. In fact, there was a glaring absence of any public criticism or demand by Gore on any human rights issue. In contrast, he did make a public act of confession about the slaughter of buffaloes by American settlers. He also gave repeated assurances of an impending White House invitation to China’s president.

Above all, Gore’s trip was defined by the powerful symbol he created in toasting the success of new commercial agreements for Boeing and General Motors with China’s Premier Li Peng—the man who had ordered out the tanks to Tiananmen Square.

The symbolic importance of the trade toast was not lost on the Chinese leadership or China’s subjugated populace, who were bombarded with images of it in the state controlled media: The Clinton administration stands for profits over rights; values glamour contracts over freedom; and is indifferent to the aggressive course being undertaken by China to eradicate the Christian underground.

Did the vice president seriously and specifically raise issues of religious persecution at any time during his meetings with Premier Li Peng or his other Chinese hosts? Did he or any other person of authority in the Clinton administration direct our U.S. Embassy in Beijing to put human rights at the top of our concerns for Chinese relations? Did he take any other steps to fulfill the pledge made in the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign to hold China accountable for its abysmal human rights record?

Growing Outrage

These and other questions were put to Gore in an open letter on Easter Sunday in the Washington Times by an unexpected bipartisan, ecumenical group of influential Christians—Gary Bauer, Governor Robert Casey, Rev. Richard Neuhaus, Ralph Reed, Robert George, James Dobson, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Bernard Dobranski, Richard Land, D. James Kennedy, Ron Sider, and others. Not only did their questions go unanswered but Gore’s spokesman summarily dismissed those who posed them as “right-wing extremists.”

The American public is becoming increasingly outraged about the administration’s failure to articulate and demand deeply held American ideals, ideals by which Americans define themselves and that are—when it comes to China—in America’s self-interest to promote.

Revelations of possible Sino-American influence-peddling in the White House are fanning the flames of popular discontent concerning America’s China policy. So are press reports that Chinese companies with ties to the Communist government were poised to sign long-term leases to control a former U.S. naval base in Long Beach, California, and to control the Panama Canal’s Atlantic and Pacific ports. Other alarming reports include: severe Chinese restriction of U.S. exports; China’s attempt through military-owned companies to export assault weapons and surface-to-air missiles to Los Angeles youth gangs; the smothering of freedoms in Hong Kong; military threats against Taiwan; the selling of cruise missiles to Iran; and the Chinese military’s high-tech weapon build-up that includes Russian missile destroyers.

All of these factors are igniting passions across a broad swath of the American political spectrum, prompting American citizens to engage a matter of a foreign policy for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The Primacy of Human Rights

After the democratization of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, South Africa, and Latin America in the early 1990s, the constituencies for human rights in American international policy dissolved. As a consequence, for the first time in twenty years of institutionalized protection within U.S. law, human rights have been all but dropped from our foreign policy agenda in favor of trade. At the same time, the world’s remaining tyrants—knowing the role that the churches played in the democratic revolutions of this decade—are cracking down ever more harshly on the Christian churches within their borders.

A critical mass of support is now building for the idea that human rights should be given greater salience in U.S. foreign policy. At the forefront of this campaign are Catholics and evangelical leaders with strategic support from Jewish activists. They are emerging as the new—and natural—constituency for international human rights. On the China issue, the religious sector is serving as the moral conscience of America.

As was seen in the Easter Washington Times ad, this new alliance of Christians is demanding that the U.S. government speak up for their persecuted brethren abroad. It was in response to this new lobby that House Speaker Newt Gingrich found his voice on human rights during his own trip to China over Easter, making for a sharp contrast with the vice president’s performance. Gingrich presented to China’s president a hard-hitting letter protesting the persecution of Christians and Tibetan Buddhists that was signed by a bipartisan group of sixty-five members of Congress. He won wide praise in the American media for doing so.

Directly raising the issue of religious freedom and human rights with foreign oppressors is a necessary, but, in itself, insufficient step. After the past several years of waffling on human rights policy, U.S. words have come to mean very little. At the UN in April the United States could not even muster support from its allies in Canada, France, and Germany to open a debate on China’s human rights record, much less agree to a censure. The United States now must choose among an array of options to back up talk with pressure.

Immediately at hand is China’s “Most Favored Nation” trade status, which will be up for renewal this spring. With a trade deficit now nearing $40 billion, U.S. trade is irreplaceable to China and MFN is a powerful tool.

Every year Congress debates China’s eligibility for trading privileges, evaluating its human rights performance in the process. While MFN was never revoked, it served to apply pressure in creating a less than secure investment climate. That is, until 1994 when President Clinton rescinded his own executive order of the prior year that linked MFN to specific human rights goals. After that support within Congress for MFN withdrawal fell off, the human rights discussion took place in a vacuum, and support mounted for a campaign to grant China permanent MFN status, thus eliminating the annual human rights review altogether.

The Importance of MFN

This year MFN is back. The United States Catholic bishops and the AFL-CIO, traditional opponents of MFN, are being joined by the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Campaign for the American Family, among others, in a high-visibility campaign to deny blanket trading privileges to China. Significantly, it is precisely over the issue of religious freedom and human rights that they are organizing. This new human rights lobby—unlike human rights groups per se—holds the promise of providing the grassroots support that will be needed to counter powerful trade interests.

The MFN lever is a blunt instrument, penalizing both the private sector and the government. For this reason our friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong and many Chinese dissident intellectuals argue against it. With formidable backing from business interests, China still is likely to win MFN. But the new coalition should use the MFN debate to target Beijing more directly to obtain sanctions against the segments of China’s industry that are government-controlled. To begin with, the thousands of companies owned by the People’s Liberation Army—the heart of the repressive apparatus—should be banned from doing business in the United States or importing their products here. The anti-MFN lobby will win no matter what the outcome of MFN itself. It has reopened a serious review of China’s repression, has clouded the investment outlook for China, and might even achieve fine-tuned sanctions.

Another bill introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf and Sen. Arlen Specter in May proposes a variety of sanction alternatives against countries, including China, that persecute on the basis of religion. In support of these bills, the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eskstein, has pledged staff to organize a legislative task force composed of leading Christian and Jewish organizations as well as organized labor and human rights groups. As this goes to print, the drafting process is still in its early stages and it is not clear how China might be affected.

Building Pressure on China

An exciting new development is that local jurisdictions are also beginning to consider sanctions. With the encouragement of John Cardinal O’Connor, Peter Vallone, the speaker of the New York City Council, introduced a resolution, adopted in May, expressing concern about the persecution of Christians around the world, including China. New York City is considering selective purchasing ordinances and divestment sanctions paralleling those it used in the 1980s to protest apartheid in South Africa. New York is a powerful venue, with buying power of $32 billion, larger than many small countries.

State Senator Ray Haynes has introduced a resolution in California’s legislature specifically on Chinese religious persecution, which calls for the denial of MFN. These local efforts should be replicated in other jurisdictions around the country. They can make a sizable impact in themselves and put pressure on Congress to act. America’s Christian community should take it upon itself to see that this happens.

China’s quest for lenient-term membership in the World Trade Organization and summit exchanges with President Clinton are other levers that can be pulled for the sake of expanding freedom. These are levers that are exclusively under the control of the administration. However, they are not immune for the emerging grassroots protest.

Finally, it is morally incumbent on religious and civic leaders of the international business community to adopt and adhere to codes of business ethics specifically designed for doing business in China. The RUGMARK stamp that certifies a commitment to eradicate child labor by carpet manufacturers and to new “anti-sweatshop” codes agreed to by American manufacturers in April provide precedents. At a minimum, codes for those doing business in China should prevent American companies from: using goods produced by forced labor; discriminating on the basis of a person’s religious, political, or other beliefs; and permitting the workplace to be used for ideological indoctrination. These standards necessitate another fundamental standard—the American company must have direct control over its labor force.

In fact, American firms in China routinely delegate the hiring, firing, promoting, rewarding, and disciplining of the work force to unsupervised middlemen, local partners, the government’s labor bureau, or other third parties. It is in the context of this practice that many shocking abuses take place, leading American companies to adopt China’s repressive tactics unawares.

For example, Chrysler’s Beijing operation was discovered by the international press to have dismissed a Christian employee after he had missed work for two weeks—while serving jail time for praying without state authorization. McDonnell Douglas delegated its personnel duties to China’s Ministry of Aviation and allowed the Communist Party to maintain a permanent presence in its Shanghai workplace. American companies have been caught using slave labor. In December 1994, a U.S. federal court ruled that fifty diesel engines could not be imported by China Diesel Imports, a San Diego company, because they were manufactured with slave labor. In 1992, the U.S. Customs Service imposed a fine of $75,000 on E. W. Bliss Company in Hastings, MI, for importing stamping presses made with Chinese prison labor—the company pleaded guilty.

It is also known that the Chinese government asks American companies to enforce within their work forces the one child population control program (which has been enforced by the Chinese authorities with forced abortions and sterilizations, as well as job firings, demotions, and steep fines). At least one company refused, but one wonders how many others cooperate and how. One businessman told me that the U.S.-China Business Council told her it was advising American companies to delegate the population control enforcement responsibility to the women’s branch of the Communist Party.

Ending Future Abuse

American companies should take further steps to expand human rights. They should, for example, make their company premises available after hours for religious or study meetings for employees. They should provide a well-stocked library for its mid-level management. They should contribute donations to promote the arts, culture, or other private endeavors. Executives should use their contacts in the government to make appeals for the release of specific prisoners of conscience.

To prepare for doing business in China, the first step any American businessman in China should take is to become well informed about the nature of China’s human rights abuses—against religious believers, workers, journalists, dissidents, defendants, and prisoners. No company would dream of opening a business in China without seeking legal advice on commercial practices. But few seek expert briefings on the status of human rights. Knowing the problems may prevent missteps such as those taken by one American company, which learned—after reading a damning series about itself in the international press—that its Chinese partner was using slave labor for its products manufactured in China.

It is in its self-interest for business to further human rights in China. As McDonald’s discovered in Beijing a few years ago, corporations working in a country that lacks an established rule of law may soon find their own rights unexpectedly curbed, challenged, or outright obliterated.

The business argument, adopted by the Clinton administration, that trade alone will open up China’s political system has been proven false. The United States needs to reassert human rights as a primary goal of its foreign policy and provide the teeth to show it is serious. The U.S. government has been tough on Chinese pirating of CDs and computer software. It now needs to demonstrate similar resolve on human rights. It should speak out forcefully against religious persecution and other human rights abuses and reinforce its words with sanctions and business codes of conduct.

A small window of opportunity now exists to influence the future of China.

Today the United States is the lone superpower and can wield tremendous influence. In a generation China is predicted to join the superpower league and become the dominant power in Asia. Unless China is liberalized, half of the world’s population will be dominated by a power that rejects individual rights and the rule of law, suppresses independent Christian churches and Buddhist temples, bans free labor unions, bars a free media and free assembly, profits off slave labor, and pursues an economic plan that is contingent on forced sterilization and abortion.

This is a momentous time in history. All Americans should support the new religious pro-rights lobby to force open the windows and let in the air of freedom.


  • Nina Shea

    Nina Shea is an international human-rights lawyer, and international Christian religious freedom advocate.

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