On a gray Beijing afternoon in May, I found myself back at Nantang Church, an otherwise nondescript building that rests on ground given to a Jesuit missionary by the emperor four centuries back. In the courtyard outside I bumped into several parishioners, all politely curious about where I was from and what I thought of China.
Ordinary stuff, in most places. Yet, for most Chinese, "ordinary" is a huge step forward. At the first Mass I attended in this very church almost a decade ago, the Chinese, who made up most of the congregation, kept their distance from foreign Catholics such as myself. This time was quite different, and American Christian leaders calling for restrictions on trade with China would do well to keep in mind that the greater freedom--or, at least, the lower levels of apprehension--with which many Chinese Christians now practice their faith owes itself in large measure to China's economic opening to the world.
This is not to say that Beijing now respects freedom of religion. But when American critics declare that things are getting worse, it prompts the great unasked question: Compared with what? With what China was 10, 20, or 30 years ago? With what we are likely to get even in the best of circumstances today? Or with some romantic abstraction about what we would like China to be? (Also see "Christians as Victims? Part 1," Franklin Foer's "Cross-Purposes: The spurious campaign against the persecution of Christians.")
Viewed from Asia, much criticism now leveled by American Christian activists seems less a snapshot of China in the late 1990s than a caricature drawn from the high days of Maoism a generation ago. Perhaps that's because few of these critics have taken the trouble to spend much--or even any--time there, or to consult with their fellow Christians in Taiwan and Hong Kong who are actively exploiting opportunities in China. One notable exception is Nina Shea of the Puebla Institute, whose wider experience may explain why her recent article in Crisis magazine at least acknowledges that many "friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong and many Chinese dissident intellectuals argue against" tying Chinese trade to human rights.
A t the heart of the problem there exists a simple impatience for the long-term give-and-take any real China policy demands. The immoderate language employed, moreover, is often both intolerant of those who would achieve human rights by other means and out of touch with current realities. For example, an open letter to Vice President Al Gore on the eve of his 1996 visit to China--signed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, Christian right activist Ralph Reed, and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus--claimed that the "campaign against men and women of faith has been intensifying rather than diminishing." The Family Research Council's Gary Bauer, another signatory, claimed in the Weekly Standard that human rights are being sold out "in order to sell a few more Big Macs."
For those of us who have seen firsthand the dramatic improvement in the lives of ordinary Chinese that opening the market has brought, this agitation against Americans doing business in China is baffling. Indeed, for unregenerate anti-Communists such as me, it is the height of irony to now find ourselves attacked as being "pro-China." Nor do I speak as a Rockefeller Republican. My family has helped build two churches in China, my daughter is from Yangzhou, and I doubt that anyone has devoted more editorial space to China's repellent one-child policy.
Undeniably, China remains a nasty place for many Christians, who, in many parts of the country, risk harassment and detention simply for practicing their faith. And their co-religionists abroad should be encouraged to continue to document and publicize these abuses, such as the ransacking of the home of Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang of Shanghai just before Easter. But, as one missionary who has been building churches in China for two decades put it to me, "Almost everything that is said about the church in China is true for some part of China. But it no longer comes from the center [Beijing]."
Friends in the United States to whom I mention this have little patience for such fine distinctions. But in China they can make a world of difference. Just last month, Seth Faison reported in the New York Times how economic growth is fast eroding the government's control over people's daily lives, in this case with respect to the one-child program. The new mobility of labor means the government simply cannot exert the control it could when everyone stayed put and depended on the work unit for everything. At an even more basic level, as Faison pointed out, more and more Chinese women are now able to escape once-mandatory abortions by simply paying a fine. As anyone involved in China will tell you, you can do a lot more than the rules suggest as long as you don't rub the authorities' noses in it. How many Catholics who signed the letter to Gore know, for example, that some two-thirds of the government-appointed Catholic bishops have been reconciled with Rome?
This kind of progress is messy, but it is real and palpable. Surely it is no coincidence that the countries most cut off from trade and business (and embargoed by the United States) have been among the most miserable for Christians and human rights: Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam. It is a slow process, but daily China looks more and more like Taiwan or South Korea in the 1970s. Ask Chinese Christians what they want from the United States, and they will not talk about linking trade with human rights. It is more likely they will talk about help in building churches and developing stronger links with their co-religionists overseas.
What matters most for China's struggling Christians is not where religious freedom ranks on some abstract scale of good and bad. What matters is how to make a bad situation better, how to widen the cracks in the Communist concrete. Instead of walking away from China, American Christians should be rushing in.