Volume 1, Number 1
12 March 2001


Shall we admit China to the world of economic powers?

(And... who are we to decide?)

Dear Friends,

Classic Liberalism carries the Inner Light into economics. It holds that there is that of God in every worker, trader, investor and CEO of a multinational corporation. It would tilt public policy toward seeking the good more than controlling the bad (though both are necessary).

There is that of God in every Chinese. Let us see if we can find it.

Trade and Economic Prosperity

The Government of China wants desperately to have Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) with the rest of the world. Member nations of the World Trade Organization grant PNTR automatically to each other, but China is not yet a member. PNTR means no discrimination among members. If a member of the WTO grants a trade concession to another member, such as a lower tariff, it is required to grant the same concession to all members. If China joins the WTO, its exports would gain access to all member countries on the same basis as those of any other member.

The objectors argue that China has an atrocious human rights record — which we will describe later in this letter — and that by withholding membership we can pressure China to improve. Something similar is happening with Turkey, whose membership in the European Union is being postponed until it complies with European standards on human rights. (We will come to that in a subsequent letter). In both cases, the nations say, "We don't want to admit to our club a country whose behavior is below the minimum standards of civilized peoples in the twenty-first century."

The proponents say that only as China joins the rest of the world will it gradually adopt the human rights found in other countries. Only as its government and businesspeople travel abroad and make close contact with others will the Chinese copy these traits. As a classic liberal I must join this camp, despite the risk that it may be wrong. My belief in that of God in every Chinese helps me also believe that trading with them will help build trust.

Still others say the United States wants China as a business partner: to buy our goods, as we buy theirs. We all trade the products of our specialties for those of others. I earn money by teaching my students; I spend it at the grocery store. All three of us benefit. China has a long history of trading, from ancient times until the fifteenth century. With shipping that extended East to Africa and West across the Pacific, China came to possess the most advanced economy in the world by 1100 AD. It also pioneered in agriculture and industry, constructing canals, and building great cities.

In 1433, however, the Chinese Emperor canceled the voyages of one of the world's greatest sailors, Zheng He, and from that point on China languished economically, and its people sank into poverty. Historians have often taken the fifteenth century as the dividing line for China, in two ways: (1) It stopped trading with the rest of the world, and (2) It lost its ascendancy among the world of nations. Although far from conclusive, this correlation supports my belief — a classic liberal one — that trade may be a major force for conquering poverty all over the world. In subsequent letters, I hope to show that the correlation between trade and economic advancement is widespread. For now, we see only that it probably applies to the history of China.

Abuse of human rights

"Soon after his arrest on trumped-up charges. Li Kuisheng was beaten to a bloody mess ... he was forced to jog naked in the snow, handcuffed and shackled. Then one arm was forced back to his shoulder, the other arm was forced up from behind and his thumbs were tied together, an agonizing position that he says left him wishing to die. He was deprived of sleep for days on end, had rifle butts repeatedly slammed into his back and served as a target dummy for flying kung fu kicks. Last month, after 26 months in custody, Mr. Li was cleared of all charges and released." (New York Times, 2/13/01).

Stories such as this one appear with alarming frequency. Nor is the torture confined to the central government. Police in villages throughout the country regularly kick and beat their charges. Also, "Human Rights Watch [has] charged that thousands of children have died in China's state-run orphanages from deliberate starvation, medical malpractice, and staff abuse. Pictures of starving children were smuggled out by a former doctor. . . Countless abandoned children, most of them girls [who are less valued than boys]. (New York Times, 1/06/96).

Ever since prehistoric days, China has been hierarchical, with laws designed to preserve state power, not to protect the rights of individuals. Inequality has been legalized, with different rules applying to persons of different ranks. For centuries the upper classes consisted of rich farmers whose tenants were virtual slaves, or the military, or the emperor and his bureaucracy. With the advent of the People's Republic in 1949, many Friends hoped that Chinese society would become more egalitarian. But it did not. Instead, classes of privileged persons emerged on both national and local levels, who believed they had rights to treat their "subjects" in unspeakable ways. This has happened in industry, agriculture, education, and urban and national politics.

Why would the Chinese do this? Here we can only speculate. My guess is that the idea of power has become so ingrained in Chinese society that even a revolution "in the name of the people" adopts it. Though the national economy has improved since the mid-seventies, much of the old power structure remains, with inefficient state enterprises sopping up the bulk of national resources while private effort to earn a living is repressed.

"On the tiny plots that are leased to each family [in the villages], farming is inefficient and costly, and the returns are not enough to pay local taxes. And yet, under China's controls over land and residency, these families cannot sell their land, or even give it away, nor can they move permanently to the cities to take up new jobs. Now the farms do not pay, and young people have no choice but to seek menial jobs in the cities, in part to help meet the farm taxes at home, where villages are dispirited and often populated by women, children and the aged. Under China's rigid system of residence controls, most cannot move permanently and must work illegally, at the bottom of the ladder." (New York Times, 12/24/00).

The repression of the Falun Gong has puzzled Westerners. Here is a spiritual/exercise group with no political pretensions, being jailed, tortured, and sometimes forced into suicide. Most recently, "the official press here has openly suggested that believers are mentally disturbed and need treatment. Hundreds of defiant followers have been forcibly hospitalized and medicated, ..." (New York Times, 2/18/01.)


Quakers can hark back to the seventeenth century, when our own spiritual ancestors were incarcerated. At that time, it was widely believed in both England and the Continent that unity in religious belief was essential to the integrity of the nation, and deviance could lead to common disaster. The Chinese government feels the same threat today. Many times in their history social rebellions (such as Red Eyebrows, 9-23 CE, White Lotus, 1775-1804, and Taiping, 1850-64) did indeed threaten the power of the overlords, and they may well assume the same from the Falun Gong today.

Abuses of human rights were common in the Western World in centuries past. Some continue today, but they are enormously decreased. How did they diminish? No one knows for sure, but I would agree with the usual explanation of the Enlightenment of the seventeenth through eighteenth centuries (the time that Quakerism was born).

But why did the Enlightenment occur? Though we are on more speculative ground, I am intrigued by the correlation between increased trade and the rights of individuals. Traders learned that if they did not fulfill contracts and treat other traders with respect, they themselves would lose out. This movement led the English and the Europeans into classic liberal societies, in which power became increasingly diffuse. If that is right, then the same may be so for the Chinese, if they are admitted into the trading societies of the world.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

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The parallel of early Quakers to the Falun Gong is very interesting and seems germane to the current world situation. I feel your economic justification is not as intuitive of the current situation because it does not address the inherent ecological aspects of current societies. Curiously, it seems that early Quakers and Falun Gong both address(ed) the spirit of God within as reflective of a fundamental state of the planet; and both attempt to allow that spirit to manifest by waiting for the light or spirit to declare itself.

— Bernard Macdonald, Mendocino Monthly Meeting, Albion, CA.

Long ago I adopted a personal notion that if a culture, group, or country has to choose between order and chaos [or words to that effect] it will [should?] choose order and pay the price. Without necessarily defending autocratic government, I reluctantly try to understand/accept that in a vast country of over a billion population the requirements of political and economic order must be enormous — and at times brutally arbitrary. And I have to think about alternative consequences such as I believe we're seeing in Russia. This of course is easy for me to say, being as I'm so comfortably insulated here in the middle of Iowa!

— Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.

If China should draw close to the western world, there is the fear that without a hostile power, the U.S. could not longer justify its huge military establishment, its military industries, its power bases everywhere in the world (Taiwan), its financial and economic domination of the world. Indeed, there are those who believe that no great power can long exist without an offsetting enemy, insuring thereby a unity among its people. The historical record is replete with illustrations.

— Clarence Boonstra, Gainesville FL.

Not to trade [with China] is not an option — we must compete and try to stay ahead of the innovation and technology curve. In my opinion, we can do this if we speed up the immigration of Asians to North America. Ideally, WTO membership will lead to new standards in China and a rise in the labor regulations and treatment — no prison labor etc. We should not take the rather insulated approach which has slowed European activity and influence in the world economy.

— David Hopkins, Hanoi, Vietnam and Jakarta, Indonesia (upon returning from a 2-3 month assignment in China).

If Taiwan has substantial business and economic ties to China, why shouldn't we? And just who is the enemy of whom?

I had a hard time digesting this seeming dichotomy of circumstances, but came away with this personal conclusion: despite Tibetian Buddism, communism, or whatever, the Chinese (at least the Eastern Chinese) are still more than anything else Confucian in their attitude and outlook, and as a result, strongly family oriented, practical, pragmatic, and very industrious. China bashing and exclusion of China from the world trade community would be very counterproductive in the long run.

— Frank Galloney, Episcopalian Church, Montrose (AL), (upon returning from a trip to China).


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Bob Schutz, Santa Rosa (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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