Suddenly this year, as the debate over Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status for China was revived, internal divisions were exposed not only within the Democratic and Republican parties, but also within the evangelical community. Conservative evangelical activists played a big role in putting the issue back on the map, citing Chinese persecution of Christian churches as a powerful reason to revoke MFN. Others in the evangelical community defended China's MFN status, alleging that its revocation would harm Chinese Christians. What was a concerned Christian citizen to think?
Persecution of Chinese Christians has expanded during the past five years. Underground Protestant church leaders report continuing church closings, sentences to "reeducation through labor" camps, and torture. Some would say this recent history undermines the pro-MFN argument that free trade and engagement produce greater political and religious freedom since it occurred during the very time that the official U.S. policy has been one of "engagement." Others argue that increased persecution of Christians in China has little to do with the nature of relationships with the United States and more to do with politics internal to China.
Some in the missionary community seem willing to subordinate human rights to evangelism. Some urge that we must choose between evangelism and human rights. That sounds like the tired, old debates between evangelism and social action. It is a false choice, especially when the freedom to share one's faith is the right being denied.
Evangelism is clearly an imperative for the church. But the church has other obligations: speaking the truth, seeking justice, and setting the oppressed at liberty. Evil actions—such as brutal persecution—should be denounced and, where possible, perpetrators brought to justice. It would be foolish for a Christian leader active in ministry to the Chinese publicly to denounce Chinese ruler Jiang Zemin. But it would also be an abomination if the entire church turned a blind eye to its most vulnerable members.
Some also argue that if Christians simply keep a low political profile, things will ease for the Chinese Christians. It is true that virtually all Chinese Christians are markedly apolitical. They simply want to be left alone to preach and teach and worship.
But what the Chinese government leaders are most distressed about is what they saw happen in Eastern Europe where the Christian church played an integral part in the largely peaceful overthrow of communism. In this respect, the paranoid leaders of China may understand the nature of the Christian faith far better than we recognize—that the Christian's ultimate loyalty is a threat to any authoritarian regime. No matter how peaceful and loyal individual Christians are, their faith is, by its very nature, a threat to Chinese communism.
A limited case for MFN
There are good arguments for MFN. Paul Marshall, a human-rights scholar who visited China for the Freedom House fact-finding trip in May, notes that "removing MFN is like a nuclear bomb: if used, it brings indiscriminate destruction. It works best as a credible threat and deterrent." But MFN is useful as a deterrent only if the threat of withdrawal, at the right time and in the right circumstances, is indeed credible.
This year, the anti-MFN forces have sent a clear message to China. The Clinton administration may have "de-linked" human rights from trade and other concerns, but the American people have not abandoned their fundamental commitment to freedom.
If MFN is too blunt an instrument, what options are before us? There are many. The administration should raise the question of human rights on every occasion, including pushing for a censure of China at the annual meeting of the United Nations' human-rights commission. Congress should speedily adopt the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997, with its carefully targeted aid sanctions. We should ban doing business, not with China's private sector, but with the companies owned by the People's Liberation Army. The business community should be challenged to adhere to standards of conduct—something like the Sullivan Principles that were used in South Africa.
Once the dust has settled from the MFN debate, the evangelical community should come together and issue a broad-based "platform for action"—for prayer, education, support of the Chinese church, and religious liberty advocacy. Thus, our current divisions could be transformed into blessing for our beleaguered brothers and sisters.
By Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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