US‐​China Trade Relations and Its Impact on Religious Activity in the PRC

July 13, 1999 • Commentary
By Ned Graham

I would like to thank the Cato Institute for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences regarding the trade relationship between the U.S. and China and its impact on religious activity in the PRC.

Before I begin, I would like to first explain what the organization I lead, East Gates International, is and is not.

First, East Gates International is a religious non‐​profit corporation whose primary purpose is to have a positive impact on China’s religious history. We have sought to accomplish this through developing relationships at all levels of Chinese society and through engaging those responsible for establishing and implementing religious policy. We have sought to help the leadership of China better understand that spiritual values are not Western or imperialistic but core to being human and that religious practitioners who live by these values can only serve to help and strengthen society.

Because of this engagement we have been able to legally distribute over 2.5 million Bibles to non‐​registered religious practitioners since 1992. We have also been involved in publishing and distributing biographical, historical and cultural religious literature such as Martin Luther’s Here I Stand. We are currently in negotiations to publish my father’s memoirs Just As I Am. In addition to publishing and distributing literature we are also involved in religious training programs in both the registered and unregistered religious communities.

Second, even though we are extensively involved in the PRC and I myself have traveled there over forty times, we are not experts on China. China is a huge and complex country with a long and involved history. Even the most knowledgeable people I know, including Chinese leaders themselves, have a difficult time truly understanding China as a whole. For myself, the more I learn about China the less I realize I truly know.

Third, we are not political. We do not endorse candidates nor do we take political positions.

Fourth, while we advocate free trade and engagement with the PRC and are therefore aligned with many businesses that work in China, we receive no funding nor benefits from any for‐​profit corporations or businesses. We are funded exclusively through the support of individuals and non‐​profit foundations.

This being said, I would like to address the question before us today: “Have Western religious organizations working in the PRC benefited from the expanding commercial ties between the U.S. and China?”

The answer, as my son would say, is a “no‐​brainer”. YES — of course.

Because of China’s opening to the West through the gates of trade and the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, we have witnessed one of the most remarkable changes in history.

When we first started traveling extensively to China in 1990, less than a year after the Tiananmen Square incident, Western missionary activity was almost completely underground. The only notable “open” involvement was the World Council of Churches which had established diplomatic ties of sorts with the Three‐​Self Patriotic Movement and the United Bible Societies which had funded the Bible printing press in Nanjing known as Amity. There were also a handful of organizations sending English teachers and low level technicians who could not be involved in overt religious activities such as preaching, teaching or proselytizing.

Now there are perhaps hundreds of different missions groups either working or attempting to work openly in China. They are involved in education, service sector training and re‐​training programs, publishing, media, humanitarian assistance, medical and dental work, animal husbandry, agriculture and many other creative endeavors.

Ten years ago there was almost no information exchange technology available to the average Chinese citizen. If we wanted to contact a friend in China, we usually had to do it by mail unless that individual had a private phone which was extremely rare especially in the inland provinces. Also, no one outside of large corporations or government offices has access to computers, modems, faxes or cell phones and even usage of those technologies were tightly controlled and monitored. Up until a few years ago, hotels routinely monitored phone lines for digital tones and then cut connections if they were discovered. (I have spent a night or two in hotels in discussion with Public Security Bureau officials as to why I should be allowed to send and receive e‐​mails from my room.)

In the past, people could not travel freely, choose where to live, have a say in what type of education they wanted, pursue a career of their choice or start a business.

Today, despite difficulties much of this has changed. We routinely communicate with thousands of friends all over China via fax, cell phones and e‐​mail. This proliferation of information exchange technology has allowed us to be much more effective in developing and organizing our work in the PRC.

Along with economic reforms, over the past ten years we have witnessed the dramatic increase in personal freedoms for the Chinese. Now our friends in China can travel anywhere they wish by whatever means they can afford. They can choose a career or start a business and even place their children in private schools.

This sea change within China has been of great benefit to organizations such as East Gates, whose main work involves negotiations and dialogue with Chinese at all levels of society.

But it is important to note that even though East Gates is a religious organization, we confront many of the same challenges that businesses face while working in China:

  • Leviathan bureaucracy
  • Nepotism
  • The use of poorly defined laws, policies and regulations to obtain competitive advantages or outright control.
  • Bribery
  • Opaque decision making processes

The list goes on…

We have been in an ongoing struggle to get our business partners, especially in the area of publishing, to become more transparent and to conform to internationally accepted standards of business practice. Over the years as our relationships have deepened, we have seen improvements in this area but there still needs to be greater consistency in how business is conducted in China from city to city and province to province. This is also true for the implementation of religious policy.

We believe expanding U.S. economic ties with China and especially China’s admittance into the WTO will continue to benefit religious organizations working in China by 1) Encouraging China’s adherence to international law and a rules based trading system, 2) Facilitating China’s civil society in developing it’s rule of law and 3) Expanding personal freedoms for it’s population.

China’s WTO admittance, however, should not be granted carte blanche. Personally, I would like to see us encourage China to fully define and publish all policies, laws and rules governing religion. From the governmental level, all the way down to the township level, China should also be urged to publish and clarify all internal directives concerning Article 36 of its Constitution. China should also clarify (by written rule) exactly how it expects all officials (whether it is the Religious Affairs Bureau, the Public Security Bureau or local village officials) to interpret and implement these religious policies. It would also be helpful if there were either a set penalty for officials who violated these religious policies or a procedure for forcing their accountability and providing redress for individuals whose rights are violated.

Having said this, I believe that succession of China into the WTO will only encourage China’s continued involvement with the global village, increase the availability of information exchange technology, create greater movement in the development of the rule of law and allow for increased contact between U.S. and Chinese citizens. This will certainly serve to benefit Western organizations seeking to assist the religious population in China.

In closing I would like to briefly comment on the propensity of some leaders in the U.S. religious community who naïvely and publicly criticize China—often without firsthand knowledge or information that has been based upon unverified or exaggerated reports of what they are criticizing.

When China sees religious leaders in the West using their religion as a political platform, engaging in “high‐​decibel” China bashing, it only reinforces China’s perception that most religions are Western and imperialistic and reinforces hard‐​liner belief that organized religion is actually a cover for insidious political activity. The misperceptions on both sides only serve to stress the relationship between the U.S. and China and ultimately harm religious practitioners in China and the Western organizations that seek to serve them.

In 1971 Dr. John G. Stoessinger wrote in his book Nations in Darkness:

“International relations are often what people think they are, or, to put it in other words, that under certain conditions, men respond not to realities but to fictions that they have themselves created. To say that there are no objective problems in Sino‐​American relations would, of course, be folly. But the stage of world politics lends itself all too easily to the development of wide gaps between what reality is and the way it is perceived. Because of this fact, perception probably plays almost as important a role in international relations as does objective reality itself.

Misperceptions among nations may have disastrous effects on policy decisions. Stereotyped images on one side may illicit similar ones on the other, compounding the distortion. Even worse, if one believes a stereotype long enough, it may become reality by setting in motion the mechanism of self‐​fulfilling prophecy. Thus, if a nation believes that another is its implacable enemy and reiterates this often enough, making it the guideline of its national policy, it will eventually be right.

Today it is no longer enough for nations to understand each other with their minds; they must now learn to feel each other with their souls. Intelligence and knowledge alone cannot prevent catastrophe. Also needed is the kind of empathy that flows from the knowledge in one’s mind that ultimate tragedy is truly possible and from the subsequent realization in one’s heart that all men—in their brief and precarious journey through life—are truly brothers.”

Even though Dr. Stoessingers comments were penned in 1971, we believe, they are still true and relevant for us today. U.S. trade and NGO engagement with China brings about greater understanding through the personal relationships that develop as a natural consequence of this type of activity. The development of these kinds of interpersonal relationships is essential to bringing about understanding at the State level. The futures of The U.S. and China are intertwined and this relationship will perhaps be the most important throughout the coming century.

About the Author
Ned Graham