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Priest's action highlights rights abuses in China

NCR Staff

While the debate grows in the United States about how to address human rights abuses in China, a Capuchin friar has launched a campaign to draw attention to the abuses by taking on The Boeing Co., which has dominated the Chinese market for Western-made planes.

Fr. Michael Crosby has caused a stir at the highest level of The Boeing Co. by filing a shareholder resolution asking the company to develop human rights criteria for its operations in China.

The story of Crosby's approach to Boeing and his ultimate filing of a shareholder resolution reveals the highly sensitive nature of the issue. At one point, Crosby was visited at his office in Milwaukee's inner-city by three high-level Boeing executives who, during a more than three-hour meeting, attempted to convince him to withdraw the resolution.

The resolution, with an opposing recommendation from Boeing officials, will be voted on during the annual shareholders' meeting April 28 at Boeing's Seattle headquarters.

Although other religious groups may be sympathetic to Crosby's cause, none has been very vocal. According to experts, many religious groups that have not yet formulated a policy on China face a dilemma: speak out on human rights or continue to have access to do missionary work in China.

An exception was Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, chairman of the International Policy Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a Dec. 3 letter to then U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, McCarrick said the bishops "are deeply distressed by recent reports about the diminished place of human rights in U.S.-China relations at a time when religious and political persecution in China is on the rise. We note recent reports of increased arrests of clergy and interference with gatherings for the purpose of worship. ... We believe the suffering believers of China, including Catholics of the unauthorized 'underground church,' Tibetan Buddhists and Christian evangelicals deserve effective diplomatic defense on the part of the United States. Similarly, prison laborers and pro-democracy activists should expect more from our country than kind words."

Crosby's shareholder resolution comes on the heels of a growing dispute over the Clinton administration's 1994 decision to "delink" concern about human rights monitoring from issues of U.S. trade and a few initiatives in Congress to reverse the decision. The matter may be further complicated by the death Feb. 19 of China's 93-year-old leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng is credited with having opened China to the international market, improving life for millions of Chinese. At the same time, he ruled the political arena with an absolute grip, tolerating no dissent and squashing expressions of freedom and challenges to the Communist Party.

Michael Jendrzejczyk (pronounced Jendreezik), Washington director of Human Rights Watch Asia, said, "Since May '94, the [Clinton] administration not only has repudiated the policy of linking trade and human rights, it is going further and trying to delink the entire Sino-U.S. relationship, economic and political." Human Rights Watch Asia is a privately funded human rights organization.

"Beijing and Washington have reached a tacit understanding," Jendrzejczyk said, "that warming political and economic relationships go hand-in-hand and that human rights will be kept on the margin."

At the same time, it is generally agreed that human rights abuses in China are on the rise. A 1996 report by the U.S. State Department on human rights around the world concluded: "Chinese authorities stepped up efforts to cut off expressions of protest or criticism. All public dissent against the party and government has been effectively silenced by intimidation, exile, the imposition of prison terms, administrative detention or house arrest."

Nine principles

In his shareholder resolution, filed for the Corporate Responsibility Office of the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order, Crosby asks Boeing to abide by nine principles in its dealings in China.

The principles ask Boeing to refrain from using "goods or products manufactured by forced labor in the People's Republic of China and Tibet." They ask protection for Chinese and Tibetan employees who engage in nonviolent demonstrations or have past records for such activities or who hold membership in unofficial nonviolent groups.

The principles also seek environmental protections; a prohibition against military presence on the premises where Boeing work is performed; and promotion of freedom of association and assembly.

The principles ask that Boeing press Chinese authorities to "list those arrested in the last three years, to end incommunicado detention, and [to grant] access to international observers to places of detention."

The resolution notes that in 1994 Clinton promoted "constructive engagement" through business contacts as the best way of ensuring human rights. In 1997, Crosby wrote, "Clinton admitted his 'constructive engagement' policy had not produced positive results regarding human rights in China."

The administration, however, persists in its belief that "constructive engagement" remains the best long-term approach to the human rights issue.

In correspondence with Boeing officials that began in October, Crosby refers to a newspaper characterization of Boeing as "China's most valuable lobbyist" and expresses Crosby's disappointment that the company "seems to be so diffident toward the Chinese government, which has been so blatant in its repression of its own people and the people of Tibet."

In a recent interview, Crosby told NCR that he came to the issue of China by way of his order's concern about the people of Tibet.

"The issue of Tibet for us paralleled our experience of the Native American people," he said.

The order works among several American Indian groups in Montana and northern Michigan. In the case of Native Americans, said Crosby, it was not just a matter of a more powerful group taking over another group, but "by crossbreeding and other ways and sending more and more of its own into the territory, undermining the very cultural identity of the people."

Crosby said, "There was a parallel with what China is doing to repopulate Tibet."

As he read more and more about U.S. corporate involvement in China, the issue of abuse became more centered on China itself. As he wrote a chronology for himself, "I began seeing it in black and white, one thing after another: accounts of abuse, the tightening of the grip of Chinese leaders on any form of dissent. And then I saw the degree to which Boeing was in the leadership of U.S. corporations to keep U.S. policy from addressing human rights. There is no way we can be silent on this issue."

Boeing was a major force in lobbying the Clinton administration to delink human rights from trade decisions and in conferring Most Favored Nation trading status on China.

The airplane manufacturer was one of 10 corporations that jointly wrote Clinton on May 11, 1994, "to offer our support for reaching a long-term solution to the China MFN and human rights conundrum."

While recognizing the importance of human rights "as a fundamental cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy," the group wrote, "it is our firm belief that pursuing U.S. commercial interest with China is not only fully compatible with our human rights and other objectives, but, in fact, acts to reinforce these objectives.

"For each of our companies, China is a major growth market of the future. We estimate that in 10 years our cumulative sales to China will reach $158 billion assuming normalized relations."

The group, which included Chrysler Corp., Digital, Kodak, General Electric, Honeywell, Motorola, TRW and AT&T, concluded, "We urge you to pursue an approach towards China which does not put at risk the commercial relationship in order to advance other policy interests."

An attachment to the letter detailing the activities of U.S. corporations in China noted that 13 Chinese airlines now fly more than 170 Boeing aircraft. "The number will soon rise to 15 airlines and 234 aircraft. Boeing jetliners are the mainstay of China's air travel and cargo system, enabling a greater movement of people and commerce than ever before."

In a Dec. 13 letter responding to Crosby's intention to write a shareholder resolution, Heather Howard, Boeing corporate secretary and corporate counsel, restated the company's belief that "Boeing products, technology, services and our way of doing business are bettering conditions in China."

"The question," she wrote, "is whether stating 'human rights criteria' for Boeing business operations" in China "would enhance or accelerate the social benefits of our business there."

The hostility of the Chinese toward any criticism from the outside was exemplified earlier this year, Howard wrote, when the Chinese government "deflected major commercial aircraft orders and a new airplane business venture" to the Europeans. "That loss of $1.5 billion in sales and of a prospective joint venture was widely recognized as retaliation for U.S. congressional and administrative judgments on China."

On Jan. 14, Crosby received a visit from three Boeing executives, Michael Zimmerman, president of Boeing China, Valerie Kasuca-Smick, Boeing's program manager for Asia Trade Development, and corporate counsel Howard.

According to Crosby's minutes of the meeting, which also included representatives of two other groups cosponsoring the resolution, the group discussed details of Boeing's activities in China and how the company felt it was enhancing human rights in China. The other sponsoring groups are the Passionist Community of Chicago and Franklin Research and Development Corporation of Boston.

From 9:30 a.m. until 1:15 p.m., Crosby said, the participants engaged in frank discussion but did not reach an agreement that would have persuaded the sponsors to withdraw the shareholder resolution.

Improved human rights

A month later, after acknowledging the Crosby resolution, Boeing sent him a copy of the company's response asking that the proposal be defeated. "The Board of Directors believes that the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese have improved dramatically under economic reform and through the engagement in China of international companies, including Boeing. As former U.S. Ambassador to China Staleton Ropy has stated, the recent years of modern China's history are 'the best in terms of prosperity, individual choice, access to outside sources of information, freedom of movement within the country and stable domestic conditions.'

"Boeing's participation in China's economic modernization effort in the past 25 years has contributed to this dramatic increase in living standards of the average Chinese citizen and improved the overall human rights environment in China."

The Chinese further benefit through regular training programs that bring Chinese workers to the United States, exposing them to Western thought and culture, according to the company statement.

With other issues he has taken on in the past -- apartheid in South Africa, the tobacco industry and the overseas marketing practices of infant formula companies -- Crosby has received a great deal of public support from religious groups. But that is not the case with China. Most denominations and orders are still trying to figure out a strategy, he said. In doing so, organizations are weighing activism against the chance to enter China to do missionary work. "It isn't that they have been remiss in any way," he said. "The issue is just coming to the fore and they don't really have a position. They don't know whether they should say something and, secondly, what they should say."

According to Jendrzejczyk, there is great concern in the religious community, but the issue is just beginning to surface in a public way. Religious groups are constantly asking his organization about Protestant and Catholic communities in China and the plight of dissidents.

The situation highlights the importance of shareholder resolutions, he said. Boeing and the U.S. government have leverage that can be applied. "Two things China wants from us," said Jendrzejczyk, "are admission into the World Trade Organization on terms they feel are acceptable and permanent Most Favored Nation status. That is where the United States has substantial leverage."

Tim Smith, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, disagrees about the religious community's reluctance. The ICCR, he said, acts on the concerns of member organizations, which include Catholic and Protestant groups, including religious orders and a few dioceses.

He said he believes most religious communities simply have not gotten around to the China question. Most have "very full plates" when it comes to matters of corporate responsibility, "from apparel to diversity issues to the environment -- we've got about 150 to 200 issues we're already working on," said Smith. To take on China would require an enormous amount of "homework," he said.

Such actions also usually stem from requests of religious leaders inside the country in question. "In China," he said, "there has been no sort of directive or urging from religious leaders to take position a or b."

Smith applauded Crosby's resolution, saying it does not dictate specifics, but urges Boeing to develop its own criteria based on general principles.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 1997