Cover Story

More than just a grain of truth

It is not right, it is not necessary, and it is unconscionable not to exert our influence

Issue: "Hong Kong," June 28, 1997

Those at the State Department who live in constant fear that they might offend someone brand as zealots those of us who think MFN should be denied China because of its merciless persecution of Christians.

They don't deny the outrages. They can't. A unanimous House/Senate resolution described this as "the worst persecution since the 1970s": wide-scale jailing and torture, pastors beaten to death, churches burned.

No matter. They counsel restraint, that we must help China grow into a great economic power and social enlightenment will result (sounds like economic determinism to me). They tell us sanctions won't work anyway. So let the blood run in the streets, let the Chinese buy our politicians, we will still treat them as a "most-favored nation" trading partner of the United States. Sadly, this see-no-evil policy is carrying the day on Capitol Hill, and, of course, wins applause from the Fortune 500 who are devoted to a cash-register foreign policy.

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Sanctions won't work? I can tell you they do. I have seen them work against a regime even more truculent than the regime running China. Because of an historical anomaly, I was the one who put the squeeze on.

In February 1973, President Nixon sent me to Moscow to drive home one point: The Soviet government was in danger of losing its newly negotiated trade relations with the United States-including access to rich American grain supplies, which the Soviets wanted so badly, they were willing to give up strategic missile emplacements to get them-unless they lifted restrictions on Jewish emigration.

I was chosen not because of diplomatic expertise but because my portfolio was politics. Mr. Nixon figured I was the one person who could convince Moscow of the facts of American political life: that Rep. Vanick and Sen. Jackson had the votes to cut off all trade unless the Soviets let the Jews go.

Remember that was in 1973, the Cold War in full fury. The Soviet Union bristled with ballistic missiles at American cities-and vice versa. The first volume of Gulag Archipelago was published in Paris. And Jews were suffering age-old persecution with restrictions on the teaching of Hebrew, job and education discrimination, and a clamp-down on the right to escape their miserable circumstances.

We were dealing with an authentic Evil Empire, one operated by cold and calculating individuals like Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Kuznetsov, chief troubleshooter and hard-liner who was my stern-faced host for the week-long mission.

The moment of truth came the last day when the minister and I squared off in a spacious conference room at the Foreign Ministry. Mr. Kuznetsov, gaunt as a scarecrow but with eyes that could penetrate lead, launched into a tirade about America's unconscionable attempt to interfere in his nation's internal affairs. How dare we criticize the treatment of Jews, he said; it was none of our business.

This harangue played well with the minister's sizable army of nodding minions. But he was not finished: Should we in the United States cut off the grain market, we would feel it in missiles and in the other sensitive negotiations then underway in Helsinki.

"Mr. Minister," I replied, "you don't understand the American people. We are a nation of immigrants. One of my grandfathers came from Sweden, the other from England. You see, to us the right of a person, Jew or Gentile, white or black, to emigrate is a fundamental human right. We can't bargain it away." And though not a Christian at the time, I added, "It's God-given to everyone." We call it "inalienable."

Mr. Kuznetsov was not impressed by my civics lesson. In fact, it inspired him to launch more rhetorical missiles. When he finished, I assured him Jackson-Vanick would pass. If he wanted to play his hand out, so be it. No grain. That was it. Nada.

As he rose from the table, he slammed down his papers and announced, "Mr. Colson, we will do our part. You can tell your president." Two weeks later, then-Treasury Secretary George Schultz made it official: 35,000 Jews would be released that year. They were, and the grain was shipped.

I would like to take some credit, but I can't. It was Jackson-Vanick and a determined Congress that freed those captives.

Mr. Kuznetsov's tirades, of course, were no different than those of contemporary officials in China and, if anything, the treatment of contemporary Christians is worse than the conditions faced by Jews in 1973. Yet the Clinton Administration, which must be the lead player, has been unwilling to get tough. A modern version of Jackson-Vanick is what is needed. Nothing less.


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