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U.S. forsakes its values in wooing China

Writing in the Feb. 14 New York Times, A.M. Rosenthal asked: "Why are communist and militant Islamic dictatorships persecuting Christians? Why are Western democracies reacting so passively -- or not at all?"

He went on: "Every government knows Protestants and Catholics are persecuted in a score of countries. For trying to worship openly and as their religion teaches, Christians are arrested and tortured by the thousands -- and many killed. ... Among countries with the most vicious records is the one that the West courts most lustfully, China."

So why the silence?

The germs of an answer may rest in the article detailing the current efforts of Capuchin Fr. Michael Crosby (page 12). It brings to light maneuvers by The Boeing Co. to cozy up to the Chinese government to better assure its planes will gain a primary foothold in the Chinese market in the years ahead.

Crosby, a veteran watchdog of corporate behavior, has been waging a heroic and lonely effort to remind Boeing officials of the serious human rights violations accruing in the land that is now making tail rudders for the next generation of Boeing aircraft. In the past, Crosby has been active on business ethics issues for his province and as a board member for the ecumenical Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. He and ICCR played a large role in involving the religious community in antiapartheid campaigns. And he also helped initiate shareholder resolutions opposing the activities of the tobacco industry and the overseas marketing practices of infant formula manufacturers.

Twenty years ago, President Jimmy Carter placed human rights concerns at the center of U.S. foreign policy; in the last four years, the Clinton administration has steadily eroded this human rights policy, continuing a process begun by the Reagan and Bush administrations. In 1995, Clinton officially "delinked" human rights from U.S. trade and tariffs.

Again Rosenthal: "The new U.S. policy of betrayal of religious and political rights was shaped by companies doing business with the dictatorships. They turned President Clinton right around -- his back now to his own promises."

It is said by some that China, more than any other nation, could shape the 21st century. It is important what kind of China emerges in the years ahead. Claiming more than one out of five people on the planet, China matters. Its economy over the past decade has grown as fast as any in the world.

Is China already viewed as so important that U.S. policymakers fear speaking of and living by our most prized values? Or is the United States' blind eye on Chinese rights violations a sign our values have changed? Is serving corporate -- not human -- needs the new calling? If this is the case, we have come a long way as a society in discarding our basic religious tenets. And, thus, perhaps we turn away from the languishing of the religiously motivated and persecuted in nations such as China.

Twenty-five years ago this month President Nixon and a small army of TV technicians and journalists headed off to Beijing for "the week that changed the world" -- as the trip was later portrayed with some justification by White House spin doctors. Over 25 years, this boldest of strategic maneuvers in U.S. diplomacy has changed the histories of both nations, with many benefits to each. Today another challenge faces us -- maintaining the ties while staying honest to our democratic values.

Today in China human rights violations are widespread and well-documented, and they stem from the authorities' intolerance of dissent, fear of unrest and the absence or inadequacy of laws protecting basic freedoms. Abuses include torture and mistreatment of prisoners, forced confessions and arbitrary and lengthy incommunicado detention.

Prison conditions are harsh. China has placed severe restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, privacy and worker rights. In many cases, the judicial system denies criminal defendants basic legal safeguards and due process.

Thousands of people are believed to be detained or serving sentences for "counterrevolutionary crimes" or "crimes against the state," including activists arrested for circulating petitions or open letters calling for reforms and greater democracy.

Consider this summary of 1996 human rights conditions in China: "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, prison terms, administrative detention or house arrest.

"Meanwhile, serious human rights abuses persist in minority areas, including Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Controls on religion and on other fundamental freedoms in these areas have also intensified."

The source? The 1996 U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report.

It can't be said we do not know. The question is, How will we react?

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 1997