A few weeks ago while visiting China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on one of her first overseas trips as President Obama's foreign policy spokesperson, said the United States will continue to press China's rulers on Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights. So why are evangelicals and other human rights activists feeling a distinct chill?
Perhaps it's because of this statement from Clinton to reporters: "Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." She later added, "It is essential that the United States and China have a positive, cooperative relationship."
Clinton's timing could not have been more impeccably embarrassing for the Obama administration — or more discomfiting for house-church Christians and human rights activists inside China. That same week, Clinton's State Department issued its 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, in which it lambasted — who else? — China, for deteriorating human rights.
"The government's human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas," the report said. "During the year the government increased its severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Tibetan areas — Other serious human rights abuses included extrajudicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labor, including prison labor." The China report goes on like this for 40 pages.
Noting that the persecution of house-church Christians has also worsened, advocacy group China Aid called Clinton's remarks "a retreat on the priority of human rights issues in U.S.-China relations." And in an interview with Christianity Today, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), a leading human rights advocate, called Clinton's comments "unbelievable." He said her words will have a chilling effect on human rights monitoring within the State Department. It does not bode well, he told CT, that the Obama administration also shows no signs of using influence on China to improve human rights in Sudan, one of China's major trade partners.
On March 4, a bipartisan group of 16 congressmen, including Rep. Wolf, sent Clinton a letter urging her to refrain from divorcing human rights from other legitimate government concerns: "[T]hese complicated, multi-lateral issues will only be solved when the government and its people work together, with justice and mutual respect," read the letter. "These issues cannot and should not be separated from concerns about human rights and the rule of law. As long as practices of forced abortions, imprisonment of human rights lawyers, and persecution of unregistered churches continue, the people of China will be neither free nor safe."
The annual Index of Economic Freedom, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, ranks nations by their citizens' level of control over their own labor and property. Not surprisingly, nations that offer robust economic freedom often also offer robust religious freedom. While the relationship between economics and religion is complex, the point is that religious freedom should not be eclipsed by trade or economic issues. A vigorous concern for comprehensive freedom need not crowd out other important issues. Indeed, economic freedom and religious freedom often support — or undermine — one another.
The Obama administration may be pressured by the economic crisis to downplay human rights concerns so that Beijing will continue to loan the U.S. government money through the purchase of U.S. bonds. But evangelical activist Bob Fu of China Aid says Americans committed to human rights can bypass governments if necessary: "We do not need to be afraid to press human rights issues. If the Chinese government's fist is closed to input now, we can go directly to the people within China — people whose hands are open to receive help, advice, encouragement, and support. In fact, they are the best investment for promoting China as friend and partner in years to come."
The Obama administration and Secretary Clinton will have many interactions with China's top leaders in coming months, including President Obama's first meeting with President Hu Jintao in early April. China isn't the only concern. Activists are equally worried about the Obama administration's handling of human rights concerns in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and other troubled regions.
Our leaders need to consistently stay the course for freedom and human rights. This is the only way to help China (and other nation-states) get the message.
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