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Jewish World Review May 12, 2000 / 7 Iyar, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Human Rights or Cash?

Jewish silence on the China trade bill is a disgrace -- FADS COME AND GO, but the principles of democratic government are supposed to be eternal. Anyone who is following the debate on what most pundits are calling the most important bill before the Congress this year, however, will have noticed that a passion for human rights is currently out of fashion.

The bill in question is the legislation to grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations in China. The lobbying on behalf of the bill by large corporations, the White House and the Republican leadership is so intense that it has even brought together such fierce foes as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and President Clinton.

The only thing these two men have in common is a devotion to their large contributors. The business community believes free trade with China will make a lot of people a lot of money. Whether that is true or not, big businessís friends in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses are prepared to ďbreak armsĒ ó in the words of one New York Times account ó in order to pass the bill which is being opposed by labor unions and some Christian groups.

The only other obstacle in the path of this bill is the fact that many Americans havenít forgotten that China is the last great totalitarian regime on the planet. While the general principle of free trade is something we should support, rewarding China by removing the yearly Congressional check on human-rights issues (via the votes on Most Favored Nation status) is a mistake. This is especially true now that China has increased its domestic oppression while threatening democratic Taiwan with aggression.

Beijingís Communist leadership has opened up its economy to Western investment in recent years, a move that has created some prosperity for the Chinese but no increase in freedom. Human rights there have not advanced since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Indeed, reports show that the situation is worsening. The regimeís numerous gulags (called laogai) are fille d.

Where China has remained most oppressive is in the area of religious freedom. This record has been documented impressively in a report just issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (The report can be accessed on the Internet at

The commission, which was created by an act of Congress in 1998, might have originally been intended by Clinton to be a bone thrown to critics of his record on human rights. Instead, the commission has resisted the temptation to fade into the background and used its power to issue a stinging indictment of oppressors of religious believers around the world, especially in China and the Sudan.

A clear record of oppression
Obsessed with destroying all non-Communist-controlled faith organizations, Beijing has stepped up its brutal repression of the tens of millions of Chinese Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, as well as members of non-Western faiths such as Falun Gon. In Chinese-occupied Tibet, the oppression amounts to cultural genocide against the local faith-based national culture.

Interestingly, among the commissionís 10 members are two Jews who, like Clinton and DeLay, have opposed each other on many issues. They are chairman Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Elliot Abrams, the conservative former Reagan Administration State Department official, who is currently president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Along with the other members of the commission, Saperstein and Abrams decided to buck administration pressure, urging Congress not to pass the trade bill until China takes the following steps: Open a dialogue with the United States on religious-freedom issues; ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights; allow human-rights organizations unhindered access to Chinese religious leaders, including the many who are imprisoned; and release all those imprisoned for practicing their faiths. The commission also wants Congress to pledge to hold annual hearings on human rights and religious freedom in China.

Rabbi Saperstein told me the thrust of the commissionís efforts would be to create an apparatus similar to the Helsinki Commission, which monitored human-rights abuses in the former Soviet Union when it highlighted the oppression of Jewish refuseniks and prisoners of Zion. His hope is that shining a spotlight on rights violations will create momentum for progress, as it did with the Soviets.

Saperstein and Abrams are right. Whatís more, the commissionís courageous decision to stand up against the tide of business-influenced advocacy should signal the Jewish community that it, too, has a role to play in this debate.

This is especially true since the rhetoric of ďengagementĒ with China is the same argument we refused to accept when businessmen, who opposed the Jackson-Vanik sanctions against the Soviet Union in the 1970s, said their deals would bring freedom to Soviet Jewry.

Time to adjust our moral compass
But aside from the efforts of men like Saperstein and Abrams, little has been heard from Jewish groups on this issue. After having taken the lead on human rights causes like Bosnia and Kosovo, where there were no more Jews at risk than in China, the Jewish community has been unable to find its voice.

Why donít we understand that more people are currently at risk in China and Tibet than were ever in danger in Kosovo, where we lobbied hard for military action? Why was the Jewish community urging war over the rights of ethnic Albanians in Serbia when it prefers to take a pass on an economic measure when the rights of over a billion Chinese and Tibetans are at stake? I have yet to receive a coherent answer to that question.

Given the scale of oppression there and the stake for the Jewish community in supporting the principle of religious freedom, the silence on China is morally indefensible. According to the commissionís report, ďa grant of PNTR [legislation] at this juncture could be seen by Chinese people struggling for religious freedom as an abandonment of their cause at a moment of great difficulty.Ē

With a vote coming up later this month that is reportedly too close to call, now is the time for people of faith to speak up.

Our countryís moral compass, thrown away by contribution-hungry politicians like Clinton and DeLay, needs adjusting. We should let Congress know that we support the commissionís proposals.

Religious freedom is not a matter of fashion. And human rights should never be for sale.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin