For all the talk of corporate America's lobbying power muscling down the congressional effort to revoke China's most-favored nation trading status, in the end it was the support of an outwardly apolitical North Carolina preacher that was cited most often by those doing the bidding of big business.
The late-June debate spotlighted China's record of persecuting Christians and other religious believers, even as it revealed a rift among major Christian personalities in the United States about how to deal with Beijing. The House debate put revered evangelist Billy Graham and his son Ned, who heads the China outreach ministry East Gates International, against Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family president Jim Dobson and the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed. Many pro-MFN lawmakers used the Grahams' position-to maintain trade as a means to open doors for evangelism-as a cover for corporate interests; similarly, the Bauer position was used-but with less frequency-as a cover for labor union interests opposed to free trade of any kind. The Grahams won handily: the anti-MFN resolution went down 259-173.
Going into the vote, the Graham father and son team tried to maintain a low profile, seeking to press for MFN while appearing to remain above a political fight. Ned Graham's corporate director, Bryan Henninger, told WORLD, "East Gates doesn't want to get wrapped around the political wheel," the same day Billy Graham wrote a letter on behalf of his son to Rep. David Dreier, a leading proponent of MFN, expressing implicit support for open trade.
"I am in favor of doing all we can to strengthen our relationship with China and its people," Mr. Graham wrote. "China is rapidly becoming one of the dominant economic and political powers in the world, and I believe it is far better for us to keep China as a friend than to treat it as an adversary."
In addition, the elder Mr. Graham spoke by telephone with Mr. Dreier, as did Ned Graham, who also met with his own representative, Jennifer Dunn, a Republican from Washington State. Mr. Dreier inserted the June 19 letter in the Congressional Record, and it was quickly adopted by pro-MFN forces who used the Graham name as a counterweight to the television, radio, and print ads Mr. Bauer's Family Research Council sponsored to publicize Chinese persecution in the days leading up to the vote.
The Graham name held sway in the human-rights debate, and Mr. Bauer told WORLD after the vote that the campaign by both Grahams was "extremely damaging, in all due respect to both."
Mr. Bauer said, "Our coalition is strong and in sync with the American public. We are not going to back off on the China issue. We believe every headline over the next year will make a vote in favor of MFN look silly."
Frank Wolf, a leading opponent to MFN, told the gathering on religious persecution the day before, "I did not write the foreword for Paul Marshall's book [Their Blood Cries Out] because it was critical of Billy Graham. Now they are taking shots at us."
What more members of the House understood better than the debate among Christians was the bottom line. Karen McCarthy of Missouri mentioned her "grave concerns" about China's human-rights record only after pointing out that companies in her state alone last year exported over $80 million in goods to China, an increase of over 64 percent from the previous year. For Gerald Kleczka of Wisconsin, it was a 29 percent increase in exports from his state to China over the last year. For Ike Skelton of Missouri, $3 billion in overall agricultural exports to China spoke loudest.
With the MFN debate now a failed weapon of mass destruction, activists who still want to tackle China's human-rights policy will turn to measures with limited-strike capabilities.
A pre-vote meeting comprised almost entirely of anti-MFN activists hosted by William Bennett included an array of scholars, human-rights experts, and clergy who have drawn attention to worldwide persecution. It was co-hosted by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who is Jewish. The group talked about ways to promote a season of national prayer that begins in September and ends in November, sandwiching a planned visit to the United States by Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.
Legislative efforts will continue center stage. A bill introduced by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) would deny U.S. visas to human-rights violators, end U.S. subsidies to violators like China through loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and sanction companies that do business with the Chinese military. Wider sanctions would be imposed by the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, which has been introduced in both houses. It would impose immediate sanction against Sudan, ban foreign aid to countries whose governments participate in persecution, and create an office of religious persecution in the White House.
Those measures will be voted on in the fall, when lawmakers from both parties, now on record as caring deeply about human rights, may find more ways to say how much.