The Internet brings us relentless cataracts of overwhelming, undesired, and often unwelcome information. But once in a great while the immense swirl of digital 0s and 1s assembles itself into something surprising—and leads to unexpected truths. One such moment materialized recently when I came upon a news story that the University of Notre Dame bans sales on campus of objects made in China and even forbids companies like Nike from putting the ND logo on sports items made in that country. The reason? China does not permit independent labor unions.
Now, depending on your political inclinations, you will probably think that this news item falls somewhere between, on the one hand, an all-too-rare effort at social justice for poor workers in developing areas (only ND has implemented such a ban), and on the other hand a pretty weak and misdirected gesture over economic rights when Chinese Catholics and other Christians, together with Tibetan Buddhists, the Falun Gong, and even traditional Confucians, are continually harassed and sometimes even killed for exercising what many believe to be the first human right: freedom of religion.
I confess to falling closer to the latter end of the spectrum, though I hope I bow to no one in my anger over the full range of violence, oppression, and sheer human abuse meted out by the Chinese Communists to whole swaths of their own people, religious and not.
For me, the offense of China’s human rights abuses is compounded by the smooth-talking spin doctors from China who show up periodically in Washington with some of newest and lamest excuses for what is in fact straightforward, old-fashioned tyranny. Except for the “smartest man in the world,” Henry Kissinger, who is still defending—and profiting from his relationships with—prominent Chinese leaders (see his new On China), anyone literate enough to follow even our dumbed-down news sources can easily learn about the repeated brutality and strong-arm tactics in the allegedly civilized Middle Kingdom.
Consider abuses engendered by the One Child Policy alone: In China, women who become pregnant a second time can be forced to abort even months past the point of viability. Parents who somehow succeed in having a second child anyway are fined, usually an amount equal to five years salary, and children born without a birth permit are officially designated “non-persons.”
Cultural preferences for boys have led to 40 million more baby girls than boys being aborted, and the resulting imbalance has made marriage for tens of millions of future Chinese men an iffy prospect. As in the rest of the world, the lowering of the birth rate now also threatens both traditional arrangements by which there were enough younger people to care for the elderly, and the newer social programs that require large numbers of active workers to pay for support of the poor, marginalized, and old.
In response to criticism, the Chinese government has called connection between such problems—which have also included trafficking in stolen children—and the One Child Policy, “ignorant and simplistic.”
How fortunate that Chinese children actually allowed to grow up and enter the workplace at least will know that they have a labor relations advocate in South Bend, Indiana.
Why hasn’t Notre Dame, an institution that likes to believe it is where “the Church thinks” thought about its responsibilities to its co-religionists and many others suffering at the hands of one of the few truly brutal Communist regimes still in existence? And why aren’t many more Christian and other socially aware campuses in an uproar over Chinese mistreatment of religious believers of all kinds?
I have the feeling that if you went to Notre Dame and followed out the case far enough, someone would say that putting pressure on the Chinese over religious persecution might foul up the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts with the regime. And indeed it might—just as John Paul II’s more muscular stance towards an equally persecuting Soviet bloc upset the ineffective Ostpolitik put together through careful diplomatic measures by his predecessors. And brought down Communism.
But Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges show little deference towards Rome in many other areas. And when the Chinese bad guys are not just holding down workers’ wages or denying them collective bargaining powers, but killing believers over what Chinese authorities know might become uncontrollable social initiatives—they studied the whole Solidarnosc phenomenon very carefully—what’s really holding you back?
I’m sorry to say that it’s something like academic etiquette. Defending workers’ rights is what good liberal academics ought to do. Defending religious rights is, well, kind of parochial. Besides, the gay alliance and women’s groups (despite forced abortion and anti-female sex selection) and no doubt some members of the theology department probably don’t much want to be involved on the side of protecting the institutional Church, much less to see it portrayed as some kind of victim—even if its members are victims in the literal sense, not the campus-bound Pickwickian sense.
To be fair, hardly none of this means anyone on America’s campuses condones the persecution of Chinese believers. In the abstract—and especially if it’s a question of non-mainstream American faiths, not Catholics loyal to Rome and Protestants faithful to the Bible—our campuses stand for tolerance and respect. And were the question put directly, I have no doubt they would even denounce persecution of traditional Christians, Protestant and Catholic.
But it’s telling that the question is rarely asked. There was a time when Christianity was considered a foreign invader in China. In 1900 alone, during the Boxer Rebellion, 100,000 Christians were killed for their beliefs. In the more than century since, however, indigenous Christian churches in China have survived and grown rapidly, despite all pressures, even recent sharp spikes in arrests and repression.
Most Americans just now are more concerned about the amount of money we owe the Chinese. Still, there are debts and debts. We owe Chinese believers a lot more than money. Trying to get workers a fair deal for their labors is an honorable effort, in its way. But if we fail to defend religious freedom, we haven’t really understood the core of human dignity, and we will inevitably distort or ignore other freedoms as well. Without an understanding of religious liberty, we don’t really know what freedom is, or what it’s for.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of, among other books, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century.