03/14/2005, 00.00
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Minister Buttiglione: China's stability and economic development need religious freedom

by Bernardo Cervellera

Italy's minister for European Affairs endorses AsiaNews' campaign for the liberation of jailed bishops and priests.  What is needed vis-à-vis China are not customs duties, but the globalization of rights, without which economic globalization is not viable and the Chinese colossus risks destruction

Rome (AsiaNews) – So far, Europe has been closing "both eyes" on human rights violations in China.  But it is time to make Beijing understand that, without religious freedom, it risks destroying even its economic development.  The Honourable Rocco Buttiglione, Italian Minister for European Affairs, endorses AsiaNews' campaign to free 37 Catholic personalities imprisoned in China.  Minister Buttiglione reminds China, but also Europe and Italy, that there can be no globalization of the marketplace without globalization of rights, no freedom of trade without religious freedom.  He reminds those who are seeking to defend themselves from Chinese imports with customs duties that the competition underway – in which there's no winning – is between free labour and slave labour.  The only avenue is an agreement on globalizing labour rights.  This is Minister Buttiglione's suggestion to the European Parliament and Italy's Government, on the eve of the visit of China's foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, to Europe and Italy.

Here is Minister Buttiglione's full interview with AsiaNews.

What is your assessment of the situation in China and how is Italy and Europe called upon in this situation?

We must go over the history of our foreign policy vis-à-vis China, which is similar to the United States'.  Initially, the idea was to favour the expansion of the free market, liberalization, closing our eyes to the big issues of democracy and human rights.  I think that, overall, it was the right decision: it served to stir things up and gave China the chance to get out of the great depression caused by the Maoist period and the Cultural Revolution.  But now, changes are in place and it's time to take stock: at first, we closed both our eyes to the question of rights; now, to continue the dialogue, we must open at least one.  Because there can be no economic freedom without freedom of religion, culture, association and politics.

Even the problem of Chinese products invading our markets stems from the oppression of human rights, the lack of protection for human and labour rights in China and in other emerging countries.

When the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) was signed in 1986 at Punta del Este, Uruguay, I had said that that round was not complete, as there was no parallel accord on international labour conditions.  Certainly, flexibility was needed as labour costs in emerging countries make for competitiveness in the marketplace.  But, in the end, nothing happened.  There is competition in the world today on labour, but it's an unbalanced competition, between free labour and labour lacking safeguards, between freedom and slavery.  This leads to a distortion of the marketplace.  The Pope's encyclical Centesimus Annus says that the marketplace is an excellent instrument, but care must be taken to ensure that it doesn't trample on rights.  The time has come for this concept to be promoted with China, for the purpose of reaching an agreement on workers' rights.

What about religious freedom?

The issue of labour rights is linked to religious freedom.  Freedom cannot be sectioned into spheres: market, labour, religion.  And we must keep in mind that religious freedom is the source of all rights.  Besides, China is looking for a new soul for its existence: Communism is holding out as a political structure, but the people of China are looking for a sense of fullness at the individual level.  Communism as a secular religion is no longer viable.  What is to be done?  The people of China must be left free to look for truth, just as the missionary presence of churches must enjoy freedom.  The people of China must be left free to believe or not believe, free to convert, to change religion, to enter into associations, into relations with religious communities abroad.  China cannot enter into the globalization of trade without entering into the globalization of human rights, of exchanges.  Beijing cannot look suspiciously at relations with foreign religious communities, with the pope, suspecting that these relations undermine its security.  The relations of American Catholics (about 30% of the United States) with the pope are not a risk to the security of the United States; the relations of Italian Catholics (more than 90% of the population) with the pope are not a risk to Italy's security.  I can't understand how Chinese Catholics (1 percent of the population) could possibly be suspected of undermining the regime's foundation.

AsiaNews published the list of 19 bishops and 18 priests who have disappeared, have been imprisoned or are prevented from exercising their ministry.

To begin with, we must call for the liberation of these bishops and priests, that they may be free to move, free to work with their communities and to visit the pope.  On another note, we are engaged in a war against terrorism and are working with China.  At the same time, Beijing is also the victim of some Islamic terrorist fringes in the country's west.  Thus, China needs our help.  But in order to work together, we need to agree on what terrorism is.  We cannot accept that bishops, priests, religious groups seeking freedom be silenced as terrorists, counterrevolutionaries, enemies of China.  We cannot accept that the battle against terrorism becomes a mantle for suffocating the desire for freedom of Catholics, but also of Islamics as such.  A distinction must be made between Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists.

I want to suggest that all this be discussed when Peter Mandelson, European Commissioner for Foreign Trade, speaks to the Chinese minister.

To what extent are these views shared in Italy and Europe?  Let's not forget that various countries in Europe are pushing for the end to the embargo on arms sales to China…

My impression is that, if a motion were presented, there could be a good basis of support and strong consensus both in Italy and in Europe.  A majority of the European People's Party would definitely support it.  As would the Socialists, ever ready as they are to defend labour rights.

When will this happen?  Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing is arriving in Europe soon…

President Mao used to say that every long march begins with a first step.  I want to make a move immediately.  I already suggested to (Italian) Deputy Prime Minister Fini that he broach the topic when the Chinese minister comes to Italy (Editor's note - March 18).  Such an effort must be made together with the United States.  President Bush continues to stress that today's and tomorrow's issue is freedom.  Moreover, the question of freedom is important at the internal level: we are all concerned about the signs of instability emerging from China.  If a development process does not go hand in hand with policies for freedom and the spread of wealth, the country risks chaos.  If there are 150 million rich people in China, but there are also 900 million poor people living alongside them, then instability is already in the making.

 Is the Italian and Europe world of capital interested in such an effort for freedom in China?  To what extent is it interested in religious freedom and labour rights?

My impression is that we are discovering now what the Americans discovered decades ago: namely, the bond between market and freedom. In our parts, we still do not have the clear perception that there is no future for an economic system that is not based on freedom.  It seems to me more a question of short-sightedness than malice.  The fact is that people are not truly reflecting on the relationship between economic freedom and other forms of freedom.  Human freedom has a role to play in the interests of capital.  The problem is that China is often treated solely as an economic partner, not as a political subject, in which civil liberties have an impact.

There are those in Italy who think that Chinese competition can be curbed with customs duties…

The duties issue is a tricky one.  We cannot think of standing in the way of China's economic development.  Customs duties are morally wrong and economically unfavourable.  We must find a balance between China's growth and ours.  We can't limit ourselves to retaliating.  Basically, the marketplace is nothing other than a structure for global cooperation.  This is why I would refer to rights rather than customs duties.  This is why we can't have the globalization of the marketplace without the globalization of rights.  Posing the question of rights does not mean intruding into the life of another country, but pressing for a shared basis for all peoples.  Without global consideration for rights, social tensions will inevitably arise that will create considerable difficulties for world peace.

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