If children shout gweilo or guizi at you, they're calling you a 'foreign devil.' Smile and show them that foreigners aren't all that bad." So The Travelers' Guide to Asian Customs & Manners advises American visitors to China. Cultural stereotypes do not exist solely on the far side of the Pacific Rim. For generations some Americans have demonized China and the Chinese as secretive, untrustworthy, and manipulative. In supporting Permanent Normal Trade Relations, the U.S. House, the Clinton Adminis tration, and China's Communist leadership are creating a fresh opportunity for both Americans and Chinese. But it is also a foreign-policy experiment that may not produce either fairer trade or a more humane China. Yet the tide has turned against the annual review of trade relations with China. After 20 years, the threat of severing trade has lost its power. China no longer believes the United States will ever cut off all trade. Meanwhile, China is still a threat to its Asian neighbors, which include Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. China continues to deprive its citizens of guaranteed basic human rights.

Unending Repression

For American Christians, much more is at stake with China than marketplace freedom for Chinese to drink Coke, eat McNuggets, listen to a Pearl Jam CD, or log onto the Internet with an iMac. Within China's borders, one of the largest and most vibrant branches of Asian Christianity is in jeopardy. From urban centers like Beijing, Shanghai, Canton, and Hong Kong to the central heartland and remote western regions, China's Christians are planting new congregations, evangelizing villages and neighborhoods, and caring for widows, orphans, and the disabled. The vitality of China's churches turns upside down the Marxist idea that religion withers as socialism gains strength.So year after year, China's Communist leaders continue to harass pastors, seize and destroy church property, and imprison Christians. (The Chinese government also persecutes other religious groups, including Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners).In addition to religious abuse, the Chinese state sanctions mandatory abortions, forced sterilizations, trafficking in human organs, arbitrary arrest, child labor, and exploitation of prisoners.Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and other organizations have performed a great service in documenting these abuses of human rights. But human-rights advocates have been less effective in presenting a practical alternative to Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China.For example, the commission objects to an "unconditional grant" of normal trade relations because China's communists will misinterpret improvements in trade relations as "American indifference to religious freedom." But for years China's leadership has recognized American protests about human-rights abuses; China spurns those complaints as self-righteous meddling by foreigners.

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Matthew 28:19 Foreign Policy

A praiseworthy goal for American foreign policy is to strengthen the hand of China's reformers and in turn to weaken the efforts of reactionaries. Trade policy may never be the most potent means to stop a sovereign nation's repression of its people. Normal trade should help that reform by increasing China's interaction with the rest of the world. Peaceful political reform could lie within the grasp of China's people, but government repression of reform completely short-circuits that process.Freer trade with China will dramatically accelerate close contact between individual Americans and Chinese. In such one-on-one interactions resides an enormous opportunity for the gospel. Every Christian church should have a Matthew 28:19 foreign policy: "Go and make disciples of all the nations" (NLT). The U.S. government and China's communist leaders, perhaps unwittingly, are about to give America's Christians a Jericho moment. The high walls around China's markets are coming down. Are we Christians ready? Christians in China already have the gospel. But they seek help with Christian education, Bible translation, pastor training, and many other areas.During debate over Permanent Normal Trade Relations, some members of Congress drew parallels between China and Nazi Germany, Communist Cuba, or the former Soviet Union. Such comparisons fail to account for China's uniqueness. Our world has never known a country with 1.3 billion citizens (plus the tens of millions of Chinese in a global diaspora). Embargoes, trade sanctions, and boycotts usually do not succeed against a small nation such as Iraq, much less for China.

Fresher Carrots, Sharper Sticks

How then should we keep human rights on the agenda? The House version of the China trade bill creates a new commission that will monitor China's abuses, keeping a list of victims and reporting annually to the House. This effort, though modest, would be helped by a clearer focus on repression of religious freedom and other basic rights. Fresher carrots and sharper sticks are also needed. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has identified five standards by which to measure human-rights improvements, including immediate release from prison of anyone confined for religious reasons. Congress should embrace those five standards and use them to evaluate the success of the current trade policies. China's 25 provinces compete vigorously with each other for foreign investment. Christians in the business community should urge an investment strategy (like the Sullivan Principles, which were used against South African apartheid) that rewards provincial governments that have openly improved human rights.Anthropologists have observed that Western culture has a guilt-justice disposition. In Eastern cultures, shame and honor are long-standing cultural sentiments. We have tried unsuccessfully to shame China's government into justice. But justice in China may only take root fully when consciences are pricked by the gospel's transforming power.

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Related Elsewhere

See today's related news story, "Freer Trade, Freer Faith? | The unexpected support of house-church leaders helps turn the tide in the China trade debate, but Christians remain divided." The article includes many links to Christians on both sides of the debate over Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China.Past Christianity Today opinion pieces on China trade include:Do We Love Coke More Than Justice? | Will we continue giving aid to nations that burn churches, jail pastors, torture religious believers? By Charles Colson & Nancy Pearcey (Mar. 2, 1998)How to Pressure China | The Christian's ultimate loyalty is a threat to any authoritarian regime. By Diane Knippers (July 14, 1997)

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