Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Progress (of all kinds) Through Economic Growth?

James Skillen


November 22, 1999

"The evidence is overwhelming that global prosperity creates new markets, new demand—and more prosperity for all of us" (David Ignatius, Washington Post, 11/17/99).

According to President Clinton, China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) will "advance the rule of law" in China (E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, 11/16/99).

"The government [of China] still seems to expect that economic progress will lift people out of their superstitious ways" (James Harding, The New Republic, 11/22/99).

What is the common faith behind all of these statements? Economic growth is always good. New markets, new demands mean progress for all of us and for everything else we hold dear. Yet among those who confess this faith, contradictions abound.

For China's President Jiang Zemin, economic progress will advance scientific atheism, helping people move beyond the ignorance that leaves them open to outdated religious nonsense. For President Clinton, by contrast, greater economic growth for China by joining the WTO will lead it to accept the rule of law, which in turn will advance religious freedom.

Can economic growth lead both to the end of religion and to the encouragement of religion at the same time? Is that why President Clinton should play down or overlook China's crackdown on Falun Gong, underground Christians and freedom of the press, because eventually economic progress will dissolve all of these injustices? And is that why President Jiang should not worry about America's interest in religious freedom and the rule of law, because, after all, for most of the West economic growth has never significantly interfered with the protection of national interests, and China's national interests just happen to be whatever the Communist Party says they are?

What does economic history tell us? James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, said in a recent Washington speech that economic growth is not the leader but a follower. "Corruption is the largest single inhibitor of equitable economic development," and World Bank studies show that "the higher the level of press freedom in countries, the higher the control of corruption." Moreover, says Wolfensohn, "what sets the poor apart from the rich is lack of voice. They feel they are not represented . . . . Poverty is not just about money: Poor people want to be able to express themselves, to elect their own people and to gain access and representation" (Washington Post, 11/10/99).

Wolfensohn was talking mostly about Africa and the difficulty of generating economic growth in many African countries. Some would say that his remarks are irrelevant for China, because China has already made huge strides economically. Yet what shall we make of the poverty and voicelessness of hundreds of millions of Chinese? And how shall we respond to the charge made by murdered Chinese businessman Hu Dan, who said of the Communist state-owned businesses that "the level of corruption is enough to make your hair stand on end" (Washington Post, 11/16/99)?

The Chinese authorities trust an illusion if they think economic growth will put an end to religious hunger in the souls of real people—created in the image of God. American authorities trust an illusion if they think economic growth will put an end to corruption, dictatorial government and persecution of religious believers. Economic growth may be a good thing and the WTO may represent a step forward in the development of the international economy. But economic growth is a small measure, a dependent follower, not the advance guard, of human progress.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”