Friday, December 30, 2005

Trading With the Devil in the Hope of Changing Hell

(originally posted on on November 11, 2005)

Conventional foreign affairs and international trade dogma has long assumed that economic liberalization undermines repressive regimes. For countries like Canada and the United States, this has been the justification for not only continuing but increasing trade with countries such as Vietnam and China. "Economic development and increased trade with and exposure to liberal democracies," it is argued, "inevitably leads to an improvement in freedom and human rights."

In the September/October 2005 edition of Foreign Affairs, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs point out, however, that recent events suggest that "savvy autocrats have learned how to cut the cord between growth and freedom, enjoying the benefits of the former without the risks of the latter." The key, they say, is in how these regimes embrace economic reforms that increase the provision of public goods, thereby improving the lives of the people (and suppressing the desire for democracy as seen as a means to prosperity, such as was one of the driving forces behind the collapse of the Iron Curtain), while at the same time limiting the provision of "coordination goods." Coordination goods are those public goods that critically affect the ability of political opponents to communicate and coordinate but which have relatively little impact on economic growth. They include such things as free speech and the ability to organize and demonstrate peacefully, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to nondiscrimination of the basis of religion, race, ethnicity or sex, freedom from physical abuse and the right to travel domestically and abroad. Communications systems like the Internet, telephone, postal and courier services, a diverse and largely unregulated press and other forms of media are coordination goods that are withheld by repressive regimes who wish to cling to power. Restricting broad access to higher education and graduate training is also often seen as necessary.

Bueno de Mesquita and Downs point out that by adopting the strategy of suppressing coordination goods which are necessary to organize societal reform, while increasing access to public goods, repressive countries have been able to delay revolutionary tendencies, insuring their continued survival. Hence, this has become the strategy of choice by governments in countries like China, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Sadly, political leaders in the West are being fooled by it. Their dogma that improved trade equals improved rights is woefully out-of-date. So how should we respond? The answer is not, I would argue, to be found in boycotting goods manufactured in countries like China or in lobbying our governments to completely eliminate the trade of public goods to repressive regimes. This is unlikely to happen and shoots at the wrong target. Nor should we allow our politicians to point to improved housing, health care, clothing and other basic human needs in such countries and seek to equate these with improved human rights. These can be improved without any progress being made in individual or minority rights.
An appropriate response is to restrict trade with such countries, especially in the areas of coordination goods. Companies should not be allowed to do business in China if their services lead to a continued suppression in these key areas.

A prime example is the recent revelation that Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, Cisco and other major Internet service and equipment providers have been found to be helping Chinese authorities monitor and censor content available to China's 100 million Internet users. Last September, because of information provided to the Chinese government by Yahoo, Shi Tao, a 37-year-old journalist and democracy advocate was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Chinese Internet specialists say Google and Yahoo regularly exclude sensitive political or religious information from searches conducted by users in mainland China. Microsoft's MSN restricts the content of weblogs it hosts in China. These companies say that they must abide by laws and regulations of countries where they operate. That being the case, restrictions should be placed on such companies as to where they are allowed to operate. Additionally, the sale of surveillance equipment and technology that can be used to suppress freedom of speech and religious expression should be curtailed.

Another appropriate response would be to link international aid to such repressive regimes to improvements in higher education, basic civil liberties, human rights and freedom of expression, including religious and press freedom. Even modest reforms would make it easier for citizens in these countries to coordinate and communicate with each other in such a way as to promote the growth of political freedom.

I would recommend that anyone wanting to read more on this subject purchase the article "Development and Democracy" by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs. It is available for $5.95 USD at

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Are We Asking the Persecuted to Feed From the Scraps?

"There are only so many things that we can support."

These are the words that our workers hear not only in Canada and in other Western nations but also in places like Ethiopia.

I originally wrote this in London's Heathrow Airport after returning from a quick trip to east Africa for strategy meetings. While there, I was surprised to hear our Ethiopian project officer share his frustrations in trying to get his countrymen involved in serving the persecuted in their own nation. The excuses that church leaders give there are identical to ones that I hear in Canada.

"How can we add support to persecuted Christians to a budget that is already committed to other things like local expenses and outreach, church planting, and world missions."

The unexpressed perception is that showing our solidarity to those who are being persecuted for their faith is somehow peripheral to the real priorities that Christians should have. We seem to think that is a secondary issue, optional, to be engaged in only when more important things are taken care of. Certainly, we reason, it is not a priority like, say, the Great Commission.

I seem to recall, however, the Great Commission saying something about making disciples in all nations. Where is this being most effectively carried out today's world? Research is showing that it is taking place in regions of the world where men and women are actively involved in laying down their lives to take the Good News into hostile regions. The most rapid church growth is taking place in regions we would consider areas of persecution and religious restriction. Being strategically involved in the Great Commissions means standing together with those who are involved in these regions during this vital time in history. Are we not also responsible to stand together with those who, once they become disciples, are rejected and persecuted? It seems somehow heartless to bring men and women into the kingdom only to abandon them to the wolves afterwards.

I also seem to recall the Great Commission referring to the need to teach these disciples to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable of the final judgment when the nations are divided before Him. To one group, He says, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."

This group will ask Him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?" He will answer, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

The use of the word "brothers" here is noteworthy. While it is praiseworthy to be involved in helping the poor, needy, and those in prisons for committing crimes, these are not the verses to support these kinds of ministries. "Brothers", as used in Matthew, is restricted to either biological family or to members of the household of faith. It is never used to refer to those who are outside of the household of faith or people in general. Jesus is referring to those of His "brothers" who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and in prison. It likely that they are in this plight specifically because they are His brothers. Yes, we are to do good to all men, but Paul reminds us that we are especially responsible to care for those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).

It would seem to me to be fairly obvious, that Jesus is making this a priority in that He condemns those who refuse to aid His "brothers" in need, declaring that this lack of concern demonstrates that He never really knew them. His priorities were not theirs, even though they prophesized and performed miracles in His name (Matt. 7:22).

The persecuted are not, in Jesus' mind, some minority group to which God's people can throw the occasional scrap from what's leftover on the table once everything else has been taken care of (if there is anything left). Why do we assume that our persecuted brothers and sisters should survive from whatever scraps might fall from our tables? Indeed, in the light of Matthew 25, we seem to forget that this is exactly what we are asking Jesus to do when we say that we have other, more important things to take of first.

Think about that the next time you are tempted to say (either individually or congregationally), "There are only so many things I can support."