Turbulent globe

"Turbulent globe" Continued...

Issue: "Year in Review 1997," Dec. 27, 1997

In the Far East, the forces of finance ruled over a devastating year for Asian markets. The financial crisis began in the summer, when Thailand devalued its currency, the baht. Countries around the Pacific followed, with weakened currencies uncovering weak banking systems and poor financial management. Thailand suspended licenses for 58 finance companies in August. South Korea's currency, the won, lost half its value by year's end. Still in possession of 30 percent of the world's economy, Asian countries were looking to Big Brother-in this case, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank-for a bailout.

Only China and Hong Kong appeared unscathed by the crisis, although leaders are plainly worried that financial mistakes could present political challenges to the ruling Communist Party. Panic selling and sporadic losses in Hong Kong's stock market did not keep a key index, published by The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, from declaring Hong Kong the freest economy in the world.

Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control July 1 after 150 years as a British protectorate. Beijing pledged to keep its hands off Hong Kong's way of doing business, promising "one country, two systems," but quickly moved in to appoint its own legislators to replace a democratically elected assembly and curtail Hong Kong's Bill of Rights.

President Clinton accused Chinese President Jiang Zemin of "being on the wrong side of history" when it came to human rights in China. But the reference from former President Reagan's hawkish "Evil Empire" speech was lost on human-rights advocates dismayed by the pomp accompanying the Chinese leader's October summit with Mr. Clinton. A 21-gun salute greeted the Communist leader on the White House lawn, a ceremony preceded by tours of shrines to democracy like Williamsburg and followed by a state dinner.

Mr. Clinton continued his policy of "constructive engagement" with China even after the U.S. State Department ripped Beijing in a human-rights report issued last January. It concluded that no political dissidents were left free in China; all had been sent to prison or into exile. After the Clinton-Jiang summit, however, China abruptly released Wei Jingsheng, a Beijing Zoo electrician who became the country's leading dissident. Mr. Wei, 48, was in the second year of his second sentence, a 14-year term for "counterrevolutionary activities," and suffering from poor health and beatings, when he was released.

Mr. Jiang maintained that the principles behind human rights are "relative," but it was clear China and the United States wanted to agree on trade issues. Vice President Al Gore presided over the signing of a $2 billion business deal between American and Chinese companies and toasted Premier Li Peng during a March visit to China. Mr. Li is known as the "Butcher of Beijing" for ordering tanks to roll over unarmed civilians during the Tiananmen Square confrontation in 1989.

The Chinese government continued its crackdown on Christian house churches, sentencing in October the leader of one of the largest, Xu Yongze, to 10 years in a labor camp for "disrupting public order." Internal documents obtained by Compass Direct "show conclusively," the Christian news service said, that the central Chinese government is pressing a drive to register all unofficial places of worship and to shut down those that don't comply.

The freedom to worship came under attack in Russia also. Holdover Communists and ultra-nationalists joined forces with an entrenched Orthodox hierarchy to curtail religious activity for any organizations that had been active in the country less than 15 years. The "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations," passed Sept. 27, subjects all recent missionary activity and emerging evangelical churches to strict monitoring and registration requirements. Authorities quickly moved to cancel registration for a Lutheran church in Siberia and to deny places of worship to Orthodox groups that had split from the Moscow Patriarchate. While the law will limit the work of missions, Western observers also acknowledged that it may have a silver lining if it propels Russians into leadership in recently established churches.

In Africa, a revolution proved that even tyrants are never safe from surprises. One year ago Laurent Kabila launched a David-versus-Goliath rebellion against Zaire's longtime ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko. By May his campaign had moved from the jungle outposts along Zaire's eastern border to the capital city, Kinshasa. Backed by neighboring powers, Mr. Kabila ousted Mr. Mobutu and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The sea-change did not bring an immediate end to ethnic fighting between Hutus and Tutsis that has swept the region, nor did it signal a more democratic regime than the despotic Mobutu rule. Mr. Kabila promised presidential and legislative elections by 1999 but said, "We're not in a hurry."


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