Much is being made of a potential breakthrough on U.S-China trade issues when President Trump meets Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the annual G-20 Summit that begins Nov. 30 in Argentina. But a recent double-cross of Christians is the latest reminder of why any agreement with Beijing would likely be a fool’s errand.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis threw in the towel on the Catholic Church’s decades-long fight for the rights of persecuted Catholics in China. An agreement, the text of which remains hidden from the public, gives the Chinese government effective control over who chooses church leaders in the country.
Without being able to describe any concrete benefits, the Vatican instead welcomed the agreement as “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement” with China’s atheist government.
In 2016, Xi declared he wanted to “Sinicize” religion in China, by which he meant that Christians should only do what was approved by the state.
In China, the country’s Catholics have been split between an underground church loyal to the Vatican, and a state-supervised “Catholic Patriotic Association.” A friend who has spent much time with Christians in China recently described the difference to me: “When I am with the underground church, I feel holiness around me; when I am with the aboveground church, it feels like meeting a government official.”
Now the pope has broken ranks with those who risked their livelihoods and freedom to worship in the underground church. Cardinal Joseph Zen, a lonely voice in church’s hierarchy against the Chinese government’s repression and duplicity, summed up the Vatican’s move: “They’re (sending) the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.”
Meanwhile, our own U.S. State Department, despite having an office devoted to religious freedom and an embassy in the Vatican, didn’t even make a peep.
One would think that Beijing would want to appear conciliatory to China’s Catholics, at least at first, to reward the pope for his major concession. But that just isn’t the style of the Chinese Communist Party.
Earlier this month, four Catholic priests were rounded up or placed under house arrest and reportedly subjected to indoctrination and pressure to join the government’s religious body.
The move comes amid a broader crackdown on religion that has seen crosses on churches burned, and pictures of Xi and former Chinese dictator Mao Zedong installed near altars. Churches are closely monitored and some have been forced to install Orwellian facial-recognition technology.
In 2016, Xi declared he wanted to “Sinicize” religion in China, by which he meant that Christians should only do what was approved by the state. Persecution of the estimated 40 million Protestants in China has increased radically. Beijing also recently has thrown more than 1 million mostly peaceful Muslims into prison camps, which reportedly subject internees to forced re-education and renouncement of faith.
This is the government with which our Wall Street and foreign policy elite would like President Trump to cut a fast deal to get back to business as usual. Those soft-on-China voices long for the status quo that existed before 2016, when Beijing was allowed to steal without consequence American intellectual property, manufacturing capability and defense technology.
And they are becoming desperate. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, a China skeptic, was lambasted when he said that any deal with China would only be on President Trump’s terms, rather than Wall Street’s terms. Larry Kudlow, the White House economic adviser, said Navarro’s remarks were “way off base” and did a disservice to the president.
But Navarro’s controversial remarks laid out in clear and incontrovertible detail China’s many betrayals and broken promises on trade and security issues, as well as how Beijing has harmed the U.S. economy.
Navarro reminded people of a solemn promise Xi made to then-President Obama in 2015 not to “militarize” the South China Sea. Now, just three years later, the sea brims with heavily fortified artificial islands made and manned by the Chinese military. Navarro has the facts on his side; his opponents do not.
Kudlow and his ally in the administration, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, also previously overpromised and underdelivered on China, suggesting a breakthrough was imminent last May. Judging from subsequent events, President Trump was unimpressed. Mnuchin was rebuked by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and eventually lost a fight over imposing tariffs on Beijing.
The idea that Xi Jinping will suddenly give in during a quickie meeting on the sidelines of the ever-irrelevant G-20 is fanciful. Beijing must not only agree to lower its tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade, it must fundamentally change an economic model that is based on stealing from more advanced economies. Xi might try to pull a fast one with what looks like a deal, but politically he is in no position to make or execute the radical reform that would be necessary.
And as Christians in China have known for a long time, China’s current government cannot be trusted. No deal is better than a bad deal, and America and our economic partners should look elsewhere in the world for trade.